Cargo Cult Science

There have been attempts in the U.S. to convince people to stop presenting only the good aspects of products and instead present both the good and bad. In 1974, Richard Feynman, a renowned physicist, gave the Caltech commencement address. In his speech, he spoke primarily about something which he called “cargo cult science“, which is something that looks like science, but is lacking scientific integrity. Feynman denounced this form of “science” wholeheartedly.

One of the examples he used to illustrate the point was an advertisement for Wesson cooking oil, which claimed that it doesn’t soak through food. Feynman said that although this was true, the advertisement failed to mention that no oil soaks through food at certain temperatures, and that any cooking oil, including Wesson’s, will soak food at other temperatures.

Another example Feynman used was one of his colleagues, a cosmologist/astronomer, who tried to explain the “everyday” applications of his work. When Feynman heard this, he told his colleague that there weren’t any everyday applications. Although the colleague readily agreed with Feynman, he said that he still had to make it look like there were applications, otherwise he wouldn’t get any more funding. Feynman was very angry and said “If you’re representing yourself as a scientist, then you should explain to the layman what you’re doing – and if they don’t want to support you under those circumstances, then that’s their decision.”

Despite Feynman’s warning in 1974 (and similar warnings from other scientists), cargo cult science has continued in the U.S. One of the more prominent examples of this was the cold fusion debacle. In 1989, at the University of Utah, chemists Stanley Pons (American) and Martin Fleishmann (British) made headlines when they called a press conference proclaiming that they had produced fusion at room temperature – much colder than the high temperatures that were thought to be required for this process. At the conference, the chemists glossed over most of the details of how they had achieved cold fusion, and stated that their paper would not be available for several weeks.

Because of their conference the two chemists were granted a high amount of extra funding. However, even before their paper became available, several scientists managed to find unauthorized copies of their work. Most of these scientists quickly denounced it as full of errors, and both Pons’ and Fleishmann’s reputations were ruined.