On this Saturday I will be joining with thousands of people around the world in the March for Science. While many will be in Washington DC, I’ll be at the one in Albany, NY.
There are many people today who believe – erroneously – that science is just a matter of opinion. As a result, we see popular arguments against scientifically-based matters like evolution, vaccinations and climate change. Thankfully, there are groups pushing back against false science. An example is Climate Feedback’s reviews on news and opinion pieces about climate change, like this dubious Wall Street Journal opinion piece.
The trouble many have is they don’t understand the essential feature of science that differentiates it from run-of-the-mill opinions. Fortunately, Nobel physicist Richard Feynman offered an excellent explanation of this feature in his 1974 commencement address at Caltech, drawing on the experience of cargo cults in the South Pacific:
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 is not something simple like telling them how to improve the shapes of the earphones. But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in Cargo Cult Science. … 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.
As usual for Feynman – he was a very interesting guy – his whole speech is entertaining and I highly recommend it. Early on in it he says
…even today I meet lots of people who sooner or later get me into a conversation about UFO’s, or astrology, or some form of mysticism, expanded consciousness, new types of awareness, ESP, and so forth. And I’ve concluded that it’s not a scientific world.
I wonder what he would think of today’s world of “alternative facts!”