Article recommendation: Cargo Cult Science by Richard Feynman

13 07 2010

http://calteches.library.caltech.edu/51/2/CargoCult.pdf

Caltech’s 1974 commencement address.  It’s a shortish, easy to read transcript, highly recommended.  Feynman manages to cover a broad range of ideas on scientific method using examples. 

Richard Feynman notes “I’ve concluded that it’s not a scientific world” and he expresses his alarm at the popularity and volume of pseudo-science and ignorance of good scientific method.  Feynman notes that even scientists are not formally trained in scientific method: 

“But this long history of learning how to not fool ourselves – of having utter scientific integrity – is, I’m sorry to say, something that we haven’t specifically included in any particular course that I know of.  We just hope you’ve caught on by osmosis” 

I also wish scientific method was taught explicitly at university.  Personally, I wish scientists generally had more of an interest in epistemology.  I have worked in the biopharma field for some time and have thought this for quite a while now.  I have seen many a case of what I consider poor scientific practise and ignorance.  When I was at university (studying chemistry for 5 years) the topic of epistemology rarely entered my mind, I didn’t even know what the word meant and I have often lamented this fact. 

Feynman’s number one rule for good scientific practise is “scientific integrity”. 

“a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty – a kind of leaning over backwards” 

I agree.  Integrity and honesty are fundamental.  Feynman points out a good scientist should never pick out good data and ignore bad.  There are many examples of this problem in modern science often originating from scientists who have accepted a pre-conceived hypothesis or theory and refuse to “check their premises” to quote Ayn Rand.  Feynman also notes the importance of confirming all the implied facts upon which a theory rests. 

Feynman’s picks out a Wesson Oil advertisement, a story about the scientific community’s reaction to Millikan’s determination for the charge of an electron and the research on rats performed by Young as examples to illustrate his insightful points on scientific integrity.   

If you are a young research scientist you will undoubtedly over the course of your career meet other scientists or be under the instruction of other scientists who from time to time, for various reasons do not practice good scientific method.  If you are like me this will be frustrating, upsetting and de-motivating to you especially if it originates from your superiors.  For example, managers may be desperate for good data on new company products, co-workers may operate more like autonomous robots than thinking investigators keen to understand the scientific theories upon which their work is based. 

However in the end, it is far better for you and everyone else to maintain your scientific integrity. 

Maintaining scientific integrity will give you a sense of pride and confidence in your work.  It will also make you aware of your premises and the limits (context) of your findings. 

If you think something needs more investigation, don’t be afraid to say so even when your superiors may be dismissive.  If you’re uncertain about your results because of unexamined variables X, Y and Z then acknowledge this.  It’s your research afterall.   
The alternative to practising integrity is to put your hands over your ears and yell “La la la la la la la la” so you can escape to warm fuzzy delusional-land.  The problem with this approach is that warm-fuzzy delusional land has a habit of turning into cold lonely bite-you-in-the-ass land.  Your colleagues may want to behave like this at times, a good scientist never does.  A good scientist lives by a code of integrity and honesty.  And so should you.  🙂

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