Modern Cargo Cult Science: Evidence-Based Medicine, Science Fiction in China

In a graduation speech, Richard Feynman called certain intellectual endeavors “cargo cult science,” meaning they had the trappings of science but not the substance. One thing he criticized was rat psychology. He was wrong about that. Sure, as Feynman complained, lots of rat psychology experiments have led nowhere, just as lots of books aren’t good. But you need to publish lots of bad books to support the infrastructure necessary to publish a few good ones. The same is true of rat psychology experiments. A few are very good. The bad make possible the good. Rat psychology experiments, especially those by Israel Ramirez and Anthony Sclafani, led me to a new theory of weight control, which led me to the Shangri-La Diet.

Cargo cult science does exist.  The most important modern example is evidence-based medicine. Notice how ritualistic it is and how little progress medicine has made since it became popular. An evidence-based medicine review of tonsillectomies failed to realize they were worse than voodoo. Voodoo, unlike a tonsillectomy, does not damage your immune system. The evidence-based medicine reviewers appeared not to know that tonsils are part of the immune system. Year after year, the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology tells the world, between the lines of the press release, that once again medical researchers have failed to make progress on any major disease, as the prize is always given for work with little or no practical value. In the 1950s, the polio vaccine was progress; so was figuring out that smoking causes lung cancer (which didn’t get a Nobel Prize). There have been no comparable advances since then. Researchers at top medical schools remain profoundly unaware of what causes heart disease, most cancers, depression, bipolar disorder, obesity, diabetes and so on.

I came across cargo-cult thinking recently in a talk by Neil Gaiman:

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

I know about Chinese engineers at Microsoft and Google in Beijing. They want to leave the country. An American friend, who worked at Microsoft, was surprised by the unanimity of their desire to leave. I wasn’t surprised. Why innovate or invent if the government might seize your company? Which is the main point of Why Nations Fail. Allowing science fiction in China doesn’t change that.

Thanks to Claire Hsu.

9 Replies to “Modern Cargo Cult Science: Evidence-Based Medicine, Science Fiction in China”

  1. Long term follower of your blog. First time commenter.

    My interpretation of Feynman’s criticism rat experiments as cargo cult science is a little different.

    I remember the story he told about the rat experiments. The one he praised was a scientist who tested every possible variable and documented them all.

    What he wasn’t a fan of was scientists who don’t document every possible variable and just publish their positive results. Which means others can’t accurately replicate the experiment because they didn’t know what wasn’t documented.

    This is just what I got from it.

    1. Here’s what Feynman said about rat experiments in psychology:

      When I was at Cornell, I often talked to the people in the psychology department. One of the students told me she wanted to do an experiment that went something like this–it had been found by others that under certain circumstances, X, rats did something, A. She was curious as to whether, if she changed the circumstances to Y, they would still do A. So her proposal was to do the experiment under circumstances Y and see if they still did A.

      I explained to her that it was necessary first to repeat in her laboratory the experiment of the other person–to do it under condition X to see if she could also get result A, and then change to Y and see if A changed. Then she would know the the real difference was the thing she thought she had under control.

      She was very delighted with this new idea, and went to her professor. And his reply was, no, you cannot do that, because the experiment has already been done and you would be wasting time. This was in about 1947 or so, and it seems to have been the general policy then to not try to repeat psychological experiments, but only to change the conditions and see what happened.

      I take that to be criticism of the whole field of rat experiments in psychology. I have done a lot of rat research and I spent very little time (none) repeating earlier results from other labs. Likewise for the other rat researchers I know about. Of course, some people do that, but very rarely. As Feynman and the Cornell professor said, it is uncommon.

      I agree with Feynman’s general point and would put it like this: go as slowly as possible consistent with progress. Everything is more uncertain than you think. But I have yet to hear another researcher agree with me or say the same thing. So I assume they don’t follow this advice.

  2. I believe that some of my colleagues didn’t really see the point of my having my students sometimes repeat experiments – both our own and others’. Of course, if their purpose was not to advance science but to get promotion, they were right.

  3. “South Koreans studying Talmud…”

    Nancy, I follow a few links on this. All South Korean elementary school children are exposed to a book of stories taken from the Talmud, it seems. This is hardly an attempt to “match Jewish intellectual achievements.” It’s no different than reading a book of Bible stories.

  4. Nancy you’re welcome. While googling thru I fell into a world of Hasidic and Torah-Observant websites, and I was quite fearful of causing a shanda!

  5. Similarly, a small “free trade zone” near Shanghai won’t change China into a vibrant, freewheeling free market any time soon, if at all.

    The cargo cult doesn’t understand systems thinking. Cargo Cultists implement only one small, visible part of a system hoping the whole end result will spring forth. That never happens.

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