Sunday, 15 January 2012

Cargo Cult Science

The title for this blog is from a quote from Nobel prize winning physicist  Richard Feynman: "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool." He was referring to what he considered the right way to do science, but as you'll see as I continue on here, I think this can be applied pretty successfully as an approach to life, as well.

Here's a link to the speech that quote comes from: Cargo Cult Science. It was given as a commencement address at Caltech. What Feyman was talking about was pseudoscience, when he called "cargo cult science" in reference to the Pacific Islanders who, after the Americans left at the end of World War II, built simulated airstrips, hoping to entice the planes full of "cargo" to come back again. Didn't work, of course, any more than the trappings of science adopted by many groups these days turns their bizarre beliefs into scientific "truth". But those trappings are enough to fool a great many people.

Feynman closed his speech by wishing the graduating class at Caltech the good luck to work somewhere where they can do real science and "not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on,to lose your integrity."

My purpose here is to share with you what I have figured out about what's going on in the world today. I hope to maintain the integrity Feynman was talking about and not fool myself (the easiest person to fool) along with the rest of you.

We've all got brains, but unfortunately they don't come with an owner's manual. People have been doing something that could be called "thinking" for two or three million years now. Amazingly it's only been in the last few hundred years, since the Enlightenment, that we have figured out the scientific method, critical thinking and skepticism as tools for really using our brains.

The good news is that there is nothing to stop an individual from using those tools to evaluate the ideas we are bombarded with every day, to see if they really stand up to a skeptical, critical examination.

Wikipedia has a good article on pseudoscience. They also have a list of topics characterized as pseudoscience that is well worth scanning through just to see if any of your deeply cherished beliefs made the list. There's nothing much sadder than believing in something that has already been proven wrong.

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