Thursday, March 28, 2013

Even "real" scientists do cargo science: Rationalizing Animal #5

From "Cargo Cult Science" - by Richard Feynman:
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.

...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 an electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bit 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 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 close 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.
Millikan's measurement illustrates at least three manifestations of human irrationality:

1. Millikan was an authority, so he wasn't questioned.

2. When other scientists had results like his, confirmation bias stopped them from testing further.

3. When other scientists had results that weren't like his—i.e., more accurate results—they kept testing until they found a way to rationalize what they were sure were their mistakes.

Feynman offers a solution to cargo cult science:
...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.
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you've not fooled yourself, it's easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.
But Feynman's too optimistic about his first principle. How can any of us know we haven't fooled ourselves?



  1. Will wrote:
    The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool.

    It's interesting to contrast Feynman's cautionary statement with our "first source":

    Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life

    We hold direct experiences up as our first source even though we might be very susceptible to self-deception.

    1. Yup, yet if the choice is between trusting ourselves and trusting others, we're usually stuck. I suppose that's why appeals to authority so often work--we don't always want to trust ourselves.

  2. The "Overton Window" is an incredibly widely applicable idea, and the Millikan experiment illustrates that perfectly.