Cargo Cult Science


‘In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes 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 to 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 behoves me, of course, to tell you what they’re missing. But it would be just about as difficult to explain to the South Sea islanders how they have to arrange things so that they get some wealth in their system. 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. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school–we never say explicitly what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. 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.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can–if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong–to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

In summary, the idea is to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgement in one particular direction or another.’

– Feynman. R. (1974) Cargo Cult Science (a Caltech commencement address; also featured in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!)

Everything is Interesting


You just have to look at it the right way. Set yourself the challenge to see if you could turn up anything that was intrinsically and completely dull. You will fail. Allow yourself the luxury of looking closely and patiently at anything – a turnip, the history of Chelmsford, a letter from an insurance company – and new layers of detail come into focus.

“I don’t know anything, but I do know that everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough.” – Richard Feynman

See other: Philosophy of Interestingness

Uncertainty‏


When contemplating the property uncertainty‏, as with knowledge, it turns out to be very difficult to provide an uncontentious analysis. Because of its many different conceptions and dimensions, the full value of uncertainty‏ is surprisingly hard to capture. To that end, below is a list of quotations to help sketch a definition of the property uncertainty‏.

“We demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!”
– Douglas Adams

“Il n’est pas certain que tout soit incertain.”
(It is not certain that everything is uncertain.)
– Blaise Pascal

“The mistake is thinking that there can be an antidote to the uncertainty.”
– David Levithan

“As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”
– Albert Einstein

“Maturity, one discovers, has everything to do with the acceptance of not knowing.”
– Mark Z. Danielewski

“In these times I don’t, in a manner of speaking, know what I want; perhaps I don’t want what I know and want what I don’t know.”
– Marsilio Ficino

“When in doubt, be ridiculous.”
– Sherwood Smith

“We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end.”
– Blaise Pascal

“I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”
– Richard Feynman

See more: Approximations