Cargo Cult Science

It’s not hard to prove: Drama sells.

One of the most interesting and critical investigations in the world of physics right now is doubtless the world of the Higgs Boson. According to Wikipedia:

The Higgs boson is a hypothetical massive scalar elementary particle predicted to exist by the Standard Model of particle physics. It is the only Standard Model particle not yet observed, but plays a key role in explaining the origins of the mass of other elementary particles, in particular the difference between the massless photon and the very heavy W and Z bosons.

Simply put, it’s the missing link in our chain of understanding of fundamental particles. Think of something small, like a flea. Now think of something smaller – a cell. Carry on – an atom, a proton, quarks and *onomatopoeic whooshing sound* we’re well into the weird world of fundamental particles.

But that’s it. It doesn’t explode. It doesn’t fuel cars. It doesn’t win wars. It doesn’t give hideous symptoms. Eventually, some derivative of the experimental theory will be applicable in practice, perhaps in the world of ballistics and weaponry, whatever. My point is that the immediate shock value of it, as far as Citizen Joe is concerned, is very close to 0.

The man on the moon was something tangible, something you could experience from your own home, a historic moment on national television.

The search for the Higgs boson, however is a little less ‘shock and awe’. It’s prestigious. It’s intellectual. It’s mind blowing. But it doesn’t plant a flag on Man’s last frontier live on TV.

Perhaps I chose a wrong example. Perhaps I should have used the Millenium Math problems. But I hope you can catch my (unfortunately widely true) point.

Now, global warming? It sells mucho money. Second hand smoke? I can hear the ca-ching from here. Hideous diseases, paranormal effects, UFOs, the list is long.

I’m going to gloss well over the well established evidence in the field of climatology. I’m not discussing the science behind it. It could be sound or fraud, it wouldn’t make a difference. The same thing goes for second-hand smoke.

Seeing that people lapped up the dangers of second-hand smoke, the new frontier is, drum roll, third hand smoke! Or drift smoke, whereby smoke particles in one apartment cause terminal lung cancer in the adjacent one. I do not want to imagine what flatulent gases might do under the parameters of this wacky theory.

But it’s scary. It’s dangerous. You could be inhaling tar right this instant as your neighbour smokes his cigar! It’s a blood curling prospect. It’s front page material.

As Nigel Calder, former editor of New Scientist, pointed out, “If you wanted to, say, investigate feeding habits of squirrels in Sussex today, you wouldn’t present your research application as ‘Feeding habits of squirrels in Sussex’. You wouldn’t get the grant. If you, however, presented it as ‘Feeding habits of squirrels in Sussex under the effects of global warming’, money would flow”.

Richard Feynman, one of the greatest modern physicists of the 20th century, wrote about what he called Cargo Cult Science. Cargo Cults are a phenomenon in the South Pacific which sprung up after World War II. The islanders would see a plane land bearing bountiful supplies, and so the islanders performed everything in perfect imitation – bamboo headphones, wooden antennae, fires for landing lights. Just no planes would land.

Feynman extends the analogy to pseudoscience, which works for an agenda, with no scientific principles and an agenda to push.

For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid–not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked–to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

It takes a true, honest scientist to look at controversial results and play the disclaiming game.

Notice this does not extend to evolution. Evolution deals with the gaps in the evidence with elegance and attribution. Besides, Creationism (or variations thereof) has had 10,000 years to make its case. Good science will, simply, always win in a head on argument.

In the arguments I used before, pertaining to global warming or second-hand smoke, I’d like to make the distinction that I was not slamming those theories per se (that could be for another better thought out post). I slam, or try to at any rate:

  • The absence of scientific principle
  • The forfeit of rigorous experimental technique in exchange for results
  • Outright manipulation of model parameters in order to get a satisfying result
  • The sale and marketing of drama science in exchange for research grants

The world of science is competitive. People compete for grants to continue their work. But the taxpayer money, the layperson’s money, the contributor’s money will tend to go to a project with more shock value, and it’s often that shock value projects aren’t real science at all. A carcass of a planet left for our kids – shock value. Dying of lung cancer just by having a smoking neighbour – shock value. Million dollar investments in Creation Museums – shock value. Not much meat around these bones, however.

Back to Feynman:

So I have just one wish for you–the good luck to be somewhere […] where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.

The entire text.


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