Cargo Cult Science

Many conservatives these days appear to view science in ideological terms. When science conflicts with their own beliefs, they feel it’s totally appropriate to disregard the science and stick with their beliefs.

When it comes to science, it appears these people haven’t got a clue.

I started thinking about this recently when I came across an item about relativity in Conservapedia. Apparently, Conservapedia was created under the assumption that Wikipedia had some sort of liberal bias. This isn’t my interpretation; they actually claim it.

Anyway, it appears Conservapedia – “The Trustworthy Encyclopedia” – doesn’t care much for the Theory of Relativity. According to them, “Relativity has been met with much resistance in the scientific world.” One proof of this is that “To date, a Nobel Prize has never been awarded for relativity.” Except, that is, for – “Professors Joseph Taylor and Russell Hulse, who …were awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize for Physics, which is the only award ever given by the Nobel committee for the Theory of Relativity.”

Apparently, in Conservapedian Math, “never” and “once” are equivalent.

Conservapedia dislikes relativity so much that if you land on their page for Theory of Relativity, you’re redirected to their page Theory of relativity. How dare someone capitalize that R!

They claim that the reason we haven’t heard about this resistance is because of academic bias: “Despite censorship of dissent about relativity, evidence contrary to the theory is discussed outside of liberal universities.”

I looked for some examples of this resistance in various scientific web sites. When I learned New Scientist had a cover story titled “Why Einstein Was Wrong About Relativity,” I thought this might be an example. But this article was basically about how the speed of light is irrelevant to the Theory of Relativity, which continues to be valid:

“Einstein, the ultimate physics revolutionary, probably would have afforded himself a wry smile at the picture that is now emerging. The startling edifice of the new physics he built remains undisturbed, even as its logical foundations are being greatly strengthened.”

With no luck there, I tried the Christian Science Monitor. Given the name, I figured they’d be able to give me the Christian perspective on Science. However, it turns out they recently ran an article about the confirmation of one part of Einstein’s theory that even he thought he’d gotten wrong.

One place I did find a discussion about this so-called controversy was The American Catholic. However, the discussion was in an article titled “Are the GOP and/or Conservatives Anti-Science?” The author’s conclusions didn’t sound very supportive of the Conservapedia point of view:

The common thread behind each of the above would seem to be the view that experts aren’t to be trusted combined with the idea that the best way to determine the validity of a scientific theory is by reading a couple of articles about it in conservative magazines. I’m sure you could find examples of scientific literacy or anti-science sentiment among progressives too, but as someone with conservative sympathies I find the right-wing examples more disheartening.

The problem with conservative arguments against so-called “liberal” science is that they don’t reflect an understanding of science. Instead, they engage in what the great physicist Richard P. Feynman called “cargo cult science”:

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas — he’s the controller — and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they’re missing. … It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty — a kind of leaning over backwards. 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.

… In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.   —  Richard P. Feynman, 1974 Caltech commencement address

There are many things in this world that are uncertain. Instead of talking about certainties, it’s wiser to talk about things in terms of probability. For example, while it’s currently winter in upstate New York, it’s not certain that we will have cold weather. (In fact, it got up to 55 degrees today around here.) But we can say it is very likely that we will have wintry weather on any given day in January.

From that perspective, I’d suggest that any “scientific” argument that starts from the premise that science is or can be liberal or conservative is highly likely to be a prime example of cargo cult science.

And anyone who believes in such science should be prepared for the high likelihood that he or she will look as ridiculous as a guy sitting in a hut with two wooden pieces on his head for headphones, expecting a planeload of cargo to miraculously arrive out of the sky.


About Dave Higgins

I've been interested in current events since at least the mid 1960's, and in ideas from modern science since the early 1990's. My website Quantum Age, which has been online since 1996, presents a basic framework for applying ideas from modern science to today's world. In this blog I discuss current events in the context of that framework.
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