Even science writers can fall victim to Cargo Cult Science

flugtagby Bengt Nyman

In praise of the big old mess
[Via The Loom]

In June, a writer named Jonah Lehrer got busted for recycling material on a blog at the New Yorker. Lehrer, who specialized in writing about the brain, had been writing a blog called The Frontal Cortex for six years at that point; having just been appointed a staff writer at the New Yorker, he moved it to their web site, where he promptly cut and pasted material from old posts, as well as from magazine and newspaper pieces.

At the time, I just thought he was squandering a marvelous opportunity. When I was asked to comment on the situation, I wrote that some of the things Lehrer had done were uncool, while some were fairly harmless. But Lehrer himself acknowledged that what he was done was stupid, lazy, and wrong. So I figured he’d gotten the sort of school detention that wakes you up and keeps you from getting expelled.

Four months later, I’m struck by how wrong I was.


In 1974, Richard Feynman gave a commencement speech (Here is an easier to read transcript) that should be read by every scientist, everyone who writes about science, and everyone interested in science. I’ve written about it many times because it tells us much about science.

It is a story that reveals great truth.

He discusses how easy it is to fool ourselves. He discusses why scientists need to fall over backwards to be skeptical and do the right experiments, not just the ones that prove your point.

Here is what every scientist and science journalaist must remember and follow:

We’ve learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature’s phenomena will agree or they’ll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven’t tried to be very careful in this kind of work. And it’s this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself, that is missing to a large extent in much of the research in cargo cult science.

The truth will come out. Do not fool yourself.

The danger is that we love stories and live by metaphor. Often a simple story can reveal tremendous truth. So people fall into the logical trap – if it’s a good story, it must be true.

The story leads us rather than the truth. We follow where the story goes, not where real data leads.

Cargo Cults develop when people try to simplify things, creating a model to explain the natural world. A model based on good data is the goal of good science. It has explanatory and predictive power.

But, if they fall into Cargo Cult science, they create a simulacrum of the world that does not really work. Like a bad flugtag entry, if it may look like an airplane, but it will not be  able to fly. No  matter how hard the researcher or journalist tries.

I wrote a piece a couple of years ago called When the narrative is more important than facts we get a Cargo Cult World, which I am expanding into book length. People ignore data that does not agree with the story they wish to tell. They simplify in ways to make a good narrative, even if the real data is not as clean.

And even if the narrative is not actully correct.

Feynman gave one example, using Nobel Prize winner Robert Millikan’s work on the fundamental charge of an electron. Turns out that Millikan’s experiment gave the wrong number. It was off by quite a bit. Feynman describes exactly what happened next:

Millikan measured the charge on an electron by an experiment with falling oil drops, and got an answer which we now know not to be quite right. It’s a little bit off, because he had the incorrect value for the viscosity of air. It’s interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of the electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bigger than Millikan’s, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher.

Why didn’t they discover that the new number was higher right away? It’s a thing that scientists are ashamed of–this history–because it’s apparent that people did things like this: When they got a number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something must be wrong–and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number closer to Millikan’s value they didn’t look so hard. And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that. We’ve learned those tricks nowadays, and now we don’t have that kind of a disease.

Cargo Cult Science did not go away simply because Feynman described it almost 40 years ago. In fact Cargo Cult Worlds are even more prevalent today. Increasing complexity has driven many people to create simplifying narratives that are demonstrably wrong.

We keep seeing this behavior. Scientists get enamored of a pet narrative and fool themselves trying to prove it. Journalists get enamored of a pet narrative and fool themselves. Heck, it looks like many Republicans may have fallen into such a Cargo Cult World this election cycle.

Without careful training and work, it is easy to create a devastatingly wrong Cargo Cult World, And, it can be very hard to break it open, as evidenced by our fable of the Emperor’s New Clothes.

ff the story is too strong, researchers and journalists with conflicting data figure their data must be incorrect, instead of an incorrect theory or a garbled narrative. They ignore the data that conflicts with the narrative. All types of people – researchers and journalists, alike – respond to  questioning by protecting their narrative using rhetorical tricks such as strawman arguments, argument from authority, cherry picking and ad hominems. 

In fact, it often become easy to tell when someone is in the thrall of a Cargo Cult World – they simply lack the ability to deal with conflicting data and deny it has any relevance. In may cases, the only way out of a Cargo Cult World is to have it come crashing down. Because Nature cannot be fooled.

Jonah Lehrer was not the first to create a Cargo Cult World because the narrative mattered more than truth. He won’t be the last.

Feynmen’s words are an ever present reminder to actively work not to fall into a Cargo Cult World. Because, as Lehrer found out, Nature always wins.

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