Feynman on Climategate

We here at Foresight are not particularly interested in climate change — the effects, even if you take the IPCC projections as gospel, are dwarfed by the capability of nanotech (for good or ill).  But we are considerably more concerned about the way science is done, and whether it can reliably find the truth.   So we live in interesting times:  is it really possible for established science to go off the rails and promulgate scholarship that has the “look and feel” of science, but which is substantially flawed?  Feynman thought so: in his now-famous 1974 Caltech commencement address, he talked about his notion of “cargo cult science”.  Now there seems to be some kind of “Godwin’s Law” of internet scientific debate that the arguers will inevitably start throwing Feynman quotes at each other and calling each other cargo-cult scientists. Indeed, Foresight was the target of an early and high-profile attack of just that kind by Gary Styx of Scientific American. We were defended in print by none other than Feynman’s son, Carl, in this letter.

Anyway, here’s what Feynman had to say about how to recognize cargo cult science:

There is one feature I notice that is generally missing in “cargo cult science.” 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 try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

Sounds pretty tame, doesn’t it?  Nothing about trickery, deceit, or other malfeasance. Nothing about whether the cargo cult scientist does or doesn’t earnestly believe the results. The thing that makes science different, and in my opinion better, than all other forms of human inquiry to date, is that bending-over-backwards honesty. Because in the end, without it, the results are not to be trusted.


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