Feynman on Climategate

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.


By | 2017-06-01T14:05:18+00:00 December 17th, 2009|Complexity, Nanodot, Opinion|7 Comments

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  1. Tim Tyler December 17, 2009 at 2:36 pm - Reply

    Climate change is an important sociological phenomenon. It is a bad cause. It represents an enormous waste of human resources. If people were not so obsessed with climate change, they could – potentially – be doing something useful.

  2. Dave McK December 18, 2009 at 1:37 am - Reply

    I think it’s much worse than ‘bad’ – it’s intentional and premeditated.
    If you can imagine trillions of dollars in a carbon derivative bubble, 2% tax on the world GDP paid to people you don’t elect and can’t depose who make laws that supersede national sovereignty – it’s that kind of bad.
    There is a loss of liberty entailed in that on the personal level that should be considered. There’s no backing up once you’ve got a bureaucracy started.


    A confluence of interest.

    [That’s as may be, but at this particular blog we discourage political argument (even though I’d be personally inclined to agree with your point of view). Our position is: importing a worry about political outcomes into a scientific question is just as likely to create bias one way as the other. I can say with confidence that the climatologists are probably wrong, especially in their estimates of the certainty of their theories, because they have a flawed process. But I cannot come close to saying what the truth is instead — I’d have to redo billions of dollars worth of research without the bias (and still be nowhere as certain as the current Team claim to be). Lacking that, the best guess is what the reigning orthodoxy in climate science was before it became politicized. -jsh]

  3. LK Tucker December 18, 2009 at 11:30 am - Reply

    I like the term “Cargo Cult Science.” It points to the problem with Global Warming Science. BYW GWS is not science. True, they use scientific methods to gather data but then in a subtle shift they introduce individual opinion on the meaning of that data. In plane geometry it is called sliding the straight edge. (One of the “proofs” for trisecting an angle, impossible, used that method.)

    When either Global Warming or Evolution is examined using the ‘scientific method’ neither will stand up.

    The same flaw is present. That is using human beliefs as a substitute for testable outcomes.

    What were they thinking? How do responsible scientists arrive at this point? They may have experienced a subtle shift in thinking ability caused by Sublimianl Distraction exposure.

    Can you explain it any other way? How did they believe they could cover up their methods as their predictions fall short of measured outcomes. Didn’t they think someone would miss Medieval warming and the Mini Ice Age? Greenland is colder now than then. That means there should be a large spike in the “hockey stick” graph, higher than the current measured temperature or predictions.


    [Actually, evolution works fine in laboratory experiments and is observed in the field, so I’d recommend you give up on that one 🙂 –jsh]

  4. Hervé Musseau December 21, 2009 at 3:39 am - Reply

    Climate change does further green energy tech research & adoption, so @Tim I wouldn’t call it a waste.
    Nonetheless, although it will bring many problems along the way (population displacements, etc), the world can (and has before) adapt to a different equilibrium, so climate change is not the most important thing going on. I’d rather see effort, money, and PR directed at BRINC research.
    As climate change became a political process, it had the potential to help bring along global governance. The failure of COP15, and especially the way that the Accord was drafted by the US and China, is thus also a failure in that matter.

  5. TheRadicalModerate December 21, 2009 at 3:42 pm - Reply

    Somebody who has read their Popper and/or knows more about scientific epistemology than I can probably help me out with the right terms here, but we’re dealing with two different kinds of science.

    In the first, you fumble toward the truth by measurement and observation, up until the time you can build a theoretical framework that is testable and predicts previously unobserved behavior correctly. Most physical sciences fall into to this category, and some biological sciences do, too.

    However, there is another form of science that studies things that are hard to observe quantitatively, or where the predictions of theory require waiting a long time before theoretical predictions are possible. In this case, the usual observe-hypothesize-measure-theorize-repeat cycle simply isn’t possible. We used to call these kinds of sciences “fuzzy studies” back when we were less politically correct.

    Both forms of science are valid, and sciences of the second type also occasionally morph into those of the first type through some theoretical breakthrough, or through some breakthrough in measurement technology. However, the predictive power of the second form is almost nil.

    There is another, more immediate difference between the first form and the second form: You can sometimes do engineering with the first, but you can never do engineering with the second.

    Climate science seems to fall firmly into the second form. It’s not that it may not be telling us important things; it’s just that we won’t really know if they’re important for fifty years or so. However, much more immediately, it’s clear that climate engineering is simply impossible. There are simply no predictive tools for assessing the outcome of a particular engineering intervention. NB: Reducing carbon emissions is an engineering intervention. It may be a relatively harmless one (although there’s really no way even to ensure that it’s harmless), but it’s impossible to tell whether it will be effective.

    Fuzzy studies.

  6. Dan Shipley December 23, 2009 at 11:48 am - Reply

    Since scientists no longer fit generally into the category of gentlemen-of-means with substantial, independent resources to pursue pure, scientific enquiries, is Feynman’s utopian model even possible?

  7. ciccio December 25, 2009 at 12:56 am - Reply

    I know nothing about science let alone climate science, I do however have a pretty good memory and I know that last couple of winters have been colder that usual.
    The Canadian weather service has a site where they give the hourly and daily temperatures at the same location and it goes back for 50 years. I checked for the last 40, averages every 10 years, the figures are 20.5, 19.7, 20.1 and 19.4. Not that this has any scientific validity but it is interesting. The one thing I noticed and that I wish somebody could answer for me was that most of the weather stations in the country are at airports, which I would have thought were a bit of a heat sink. They are away from lakes and rivers which always have an effect on the weather. Although I could not check the rest
    of the worlds station where all these readings come from, most of the ones I found are at airports. Does that screw things up?

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