Saturday, July 30, 2022

The cargo cult of climate change

I mentioned Cargo Cult Science in a post yesterday and reader response was encouraging. The term comes from Richard Feynman's commencement speech at Caltech in 1974. Most commencement speeches bore. 48 years later, the speech rings even truer than before.

Feynman's IQ may have been 125 but he was the smartest American not named Benjamin Franklin. His career began in the Manhattan Project and ended with the investigation of the Challenger disaster.

While he won a Nobel in physics, it was teaching he liked best. His series of lectures on physics filmed in the 1960 resonate today. In 1985, he published a best-seller, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

Which brings us to his commencement speech, Cargo Cult Science, subtitled "Some remarks on science, pseudoscience, and learning how to not fool yourself."

Feynman began, "During the Middle Ages there were all kinds of crazy ideas, such as that a piece of rhinoceros horn would increase potency. (Another crazy idea of the Middle Ages is these hats we have on today—which is too loose in my case.) Then a method was discovered for separating the ideas—which was to try one to see if it worked, and if it didn’t work, to eliminate it. This method became organized, of course, into science. And it developed very well, so that we are now in the scientific age. It is such a scientific age, in fact, that we have difficulty in understanding how­ witch doctors could ever have existed, when nothing that they proposed ever really worked—or very little of it did.

"But even today I meet lots of people who sooner or later get me into a conversation about UFO’s, or astrology, or some form of mysticism, expanded consciousness, new types of awareness, ESP, and so forth.  And I’ve concluded that it’s not a scientific world."

As Stevie Wonder sang at the time:

When you believe in things

That you don't understand

Then you suffer

Superstition ain't the way, yeah

Feynman called out scholars who believe in things they don't understand. 

He said, "In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land 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 like 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."

He called out the pseudoscience of the day: ESP, psychotherapy and parapsychology.

He also called out liberal programs.

Feynman said, "I began to think, what else is there that we believe?  (And I thought then about the witch doctors, and how easy it would have been to check on them by noticing that nothing really worked.)  So I found things that even more people believe, such as that we have some knowledge of how to educate.  There are big schools of reading methods and mathematics methods, and so forth, but if you notice, you’ll see the reading scores keep going down—or hardly going up—in spite of the fact that we continually use these same people to improve the methods.  There’s a witch doctor remedy that doesn’t work.  It ought to be looked into: how do they know that their method should work?  Another example is how to treat criminals.  We obviously have made no progress—lots of theory, but no progress—in decreasing the amount of crime by the method that we use to handle criminals."

He even called out a TV commercial.

He said, "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.

"The easiest way to explain this idea is to contrast it, for example, with advertising. Last night I heard that Wesson Oil doesn’t soak through food. Well, that’s true. It’s not dishonest; but the thing I’m talking about is not just a matter of not being dishonest, it’s a matter of scientific integrity, which is another level. The fact that should be added to that advertising statement is that no oils soak through food, if operated at a certain temperature. If operated at another temperature, they all will—including Wesson Oil. So it’s the implication which has been conveyed, not the fact, which is true, and the difference is what we have to deal with."

All the information.

You know who else doesn't give us all the information? The climate change people.

They did not exist in his time so we don't know 100% where he would stand on the subject. He had to deal with parapsychology.

He said, "Another example is the ESP experiments of Mr. Rhine, and other people.  As various people have made criticisms—and they themselves have made criticisms of their own experiments—they improve the techniques so that the effects are smaller, and smaller, and smaller until they gradually disappear.  All the parapsychologists are looking for some experiment that can be repeated—that you can do again and get the same effect—statistically, even.  They run a million rats—no, it’s people this time—they do a lot of things and get a certain statistical effect.  Next time they try it they don’t get it any more.  And now you find a man saying that it is an irrelevant demand to expect a repeatable experiment.  This is science?

"This man also speaks about a new institution, in a talk in which he was resigning as Director of the Institute of Parapsychology.  And, in telling people what to do next, he says that one of the things they have to do is be sure they only train students who have shown their ability to get PSI results to an acceptable extent—not to waste their time on those ambitious and interested students who get only chance results.  It is very dangerous to have such a policy in teaching—to teach students only how to get certain results, rather than how to do an experiment with scientific integrity."

What does that remind you of?

In one of his lectures, he said, "It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong."

I may not be 100% sure of where he would stand on climate change, but I am 99% sure.


  1. I wouldn't include psychotherapy in those things he mentions. I read he had some mental problems and, presumably, therapy didn't work for him. A lot depends on the doctor, etc.

    What he really wants is honesty. The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. That would drive anybody nuts.

  2. Big D, those who believe in climate change don’t believe in God. Period. End of sentence. End of paragraph. If a puny FOOL believes he or she has the power to alter the Creation of the KING Of The Universe…they will sow what they have reaped. Which is to say, nothing. What I’m praying about these days is how soon it is before Jesus Christ returns and DEFINITIVELY shows these fools what’s what.

  3. Hey, Don, did you get some bad dope this morning? No climate change back in the 60-70’s? What about the Ice Age that was going to wipe us all out? Different name, same crapola.

  4. Let's reiterate "the facts."
    You foolish peasants have angered the weather gods. Luckily, I have their home phone number. And they are waiting for me to straighten them out and make them fly right. When enough human sacrifices have been collected from you peasants, I'll get them back in line and you can continue giving it up, in perpetuity.
    The high priests in white coats with their mumble jumble will be monitoring you closely. Slackers will be punished.
    It worked on the mayas, and they were way smarter than today's general population.
    Now straighten up!

  5. "I'd rather have questions that can't be answered than answers that can't be questioned."

    Richard Feynman

    1. "answers that can't be questioned" Too me, it looks like Dr. FooFoo's "Trust the science"

  6. I remember the first Earth Day, when they told us we had ten years to save the Earth. Fifty-two years later, they're still telling us we have ten years to save the Earth. Either their eestimate was wrong, or they've been lying to us. I'll go with the latter.

  7. exponents for Cargo Cult persist in Economics especially = even Milton Friedman

  8. Ask most people what percent of air is CO2 and they will say about 20%.
    The answer is less than .1%.

    1. But what percentage of the breath exhaled by liberals is CO2?
      0% everything that comes out of their mouth is BS.

  9. Fenyman was one of my science heroes. My old physics prof worked with him at los Alamos.

  10. I’d heard of Cargo Cults that began when WWII supplies were ati dropped into New Guinea. Then I started thinking about the National Geographic’s on New Guinea that we’d look at in Junior High.

    Reading Feynman’s speech is excellent in putting Cargo Cults in greater context. Liberalism is a disease. Liberalism is a cult.

  11. recall what Ronaldus Magnus said, ""Well, the trouble with our liberal friends is not that they're ignorant; it's just that they know so much that isn't so.”

  12. Freeman Dyson on Climate Change

  13. Keep your religion out of my gas tank!

  14. As someone who had just left a job that funded climate science research told me when I challenged that they wouldn't fun experiments for those who theorized that global warming was not significant told me, "That's just not true". The implication being that why fund what you know is wrong. He was a boss, so I held my tongue, but shook my head.

  15. Actually I suspect the climate change cultists can effect a long term change of the climate, if they succeed in removing the carbon that is you, me and them from the environment which is apparently their aim.


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