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From Brendan Foht at Big Questions Online: Does science have a “cargo cult” crisis?

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It’s a good thing people are talking about this.

What cargo cult scientists are missing is “a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty.” Having this virtue of scientific integrity means following the scientific method: conducting rigorously controlled experiments and following the data wherever they lead. Thus while some of Feynman’s examples of cargo cult scientists may have the trappings of good scientists — e.g., they are professors of psychology at major universities — they lack the true spirit of science. In particular, they are too beholden to their theories to follow the observational evidence wherever it leads.

The cargo cult story offers what philosophers of science call a “demarcation criterion” for science, a feature of genuine science that sets it apart from mere pseudoscience. However, it’s worth looking back at the cargo cults themselves to see precisely what they were missing. These groups apparently did their best to imitate the methodology of the Westerners who imported goods using airstrips. But even if we suppose the cargo cultists had done a better job — and built workable airfields with actual lights and radios, rather than imitations using fires and pieces of bamboo — would that have allowed them to acquire the cargo they sought?More from Big Questions Online.

But wait: “follow the observational evidence wherever it leads”? That’s still okay?

Haven’t we reached the point where “Western math” (= the figures add up, like they did for thousands of years, no matter who did it) is a dehumanizing tool.

See also: How naturalism rots science from the head down

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18 Replies to “From Brendan Foht at Big Questions Online: Does science have a “cargo cult” crisis?

  1. 1
    Seversky says:

    This is what makes science fascinating, It’s just full of headline-making crises and paradigm shifts.

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    rvb8 says:

    Cargo Cults appeared in the Pacific ocean islands following US marine and Navy visits.

    The natives saw the construction of harbours and airstrips and saw that these harbours and airstrips attracted goods, people, and all manner of useful things.

    They extrapolated. After the US servicemen had left they touchingly built their own strips and harbours in inaccessible locations and waited for the non existant gods to reappear bringing mana.

    How NEWS, does this story relate to modern science, of which this ningkompoop author Mr Foht seems to be an enemy?

    I’ve long known of your own antipathy towards good science, but why the cargo cult metaphor?

    Are scientists the natives? Are they waiting for the results at a fake landing site they have created? Sounds like ID.

    Basically NEWS, who are the scientists and who are the natives, and what are the airstrips, and harbours, in this hopelessly confusing metaphor?

    You know NEWS, meataphors are employed in English to make a difficult idea more accessible to people in general.

    You have succeeded in something I thought almost impossible; you have employed a metaphor in the service of confusion!

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  4. 4
    Dionisio says:

    Certain comments remind us that sadly some folks don’t see things clearly. Here in the following link we see the reaction of some politely dissenting interlocutors to an OP they apparently misinterpreted:

  5. 5
    Bob O'H says:

    rvb8 – you should click through & read the article. It’s not negative in the way News implies. Foht argues that the institutions of science are important (the way he links it to cargo cults is a bit weak, but it works at the end), and it’s at that level we need to work to ensure good science.

  6. 6
    Dionisio says:

    Bob O’H

    […] it’s at that level we need to work to ensure good science.


    Check this out:


  7. 7
    Bob O'H says:

    Dionisio – sorry, I missed them. But you don’t answer my question, so there’s little to add on that thread.

  8. 8
    Dionisio says:

    Bob O’H,

    What question?

  9. 9
    Bob O'H says:

    My question @ 1 in that thread – does Denyse have any evidence for her claims that the facts about the big bang are wrong.

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    rvb8 says:

    Bob O’H,

    thank you for your always level headed input.

    No! I did not read the article. Denyse quoting it was enough for me to show antipathy towards it.

    Dionisio now appears to be the standard barerer for ID on this site, and true to form he will cloud, muddy, and confuse any simple thread with word salad, and cross connections to dead arguments; kind of like ID.

    The idea that an invigorating theory might lead to new avenues of study (fossils, homologies, DNA, biogeography, redundent features, junk DNA, vestiges, embryonic similarities, BAD Design)has not hit our Bible toting friend.


    I will not revisit old ideas, or arguments, that is in the nature of ID. I will let Bob O’H answer for me, because I simply can’t be arsed.

    Take your world altering, ground breaking, and humanity changing insights to the Nobel commity, and see what they think of the idea that a supernatural tinkerer is responsible; heaven forfend, they might say, ‘Do you mean God?’

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    jstanley01 says:

    Christian brothers and sisters, let us all fall on our knees and pray to the Great Creative Universalism for the irony impaired.

  12. 12
    rvb8 says:

    The irony of a scientific idea, ‘Intelligent Design’, with no experimentation?

    The irony of a scientific idea, ‘Intelligent Design’, with no predictive qualities?

    The irony of a scientific idea, Intelligent Design’, that refuses to identify, or even look for, the Designer?

    My scietifc idea has no irony, it does what it sets out to do; prove origins, prove life is one system linked by evolution, and prove life can be understood without holding God’s hand.

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    Dionisio says:

    Bob O’H @9:

    Didn’t my comments @5, 6 & 7 in that thread answer your question?

    Apparently they did clarify the confusion for another commenters in that same thread.

  14. 14
    Bob O'H says:

    Dionosio – no they didn’t. They didn’t provide any facts to say that facts about the Big Bang are wrong, or that the theory is being discarded.

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    Dionisio says:

    Bob O’H

    Ok, let me try a different approach:

    Could it be that the headline in the OP to that thread has something to do with the following descriptions taken from the Merriam Webster dictionary?

    a pretense of ignorance and of willingness to learn from another assumed in order to make the other’s false conceptions conspicuous by adroit questioning —called also Socratic irony

    the use of words to express something other than and especially the opposite of the literal meaning

    a usually humorous or sardonic literary style or form characterized by irony

  16. 16
    kairosfocus says:


    More failed talking points:

    >>The irony of a scientific idea, ‘Intelligent Design’, with no experimentation?>>

    1 –> False. Cf Axe et al, cf Scott Minnich et al, cf Durston et al, cf work by others that impinges on the same, cf the work of the astronomers on the cosmology side, cf others. Starved of resources and so less than otherwise, yes; absence of experiments is a claim in defiance of duties of care to truth before commenting.

    >>The irony of a scientific idea, ‘Intelligent Design’, with no predictive qualities?>>

    2 –> Doubly false.

    3 –> Many scientific ideas work by unifying rather than being predictive, and

    4 –> The design inference carries the implication that FSCO/I will continue to be caused by intelligently directed configuration [and indeed RVB8’s objecting remarks as a case in point add to the observational base of trillions], also that in the fossils, there will be a clear marker of gaps at body plan level.

    5 –> The breakdown of the notion that junk was what up to 95 – 98% of DNA was predicted by ID supporting workers on order of a decade ago and more, and is coming to pass as we speak.

    >>The irony of a scientific idea, Intelligent Design’, that refuses to identify, or even look for, the Designer?>>

    6 –> The irony of a strawman caricature that refuses to acknowledge that there is a difference between a design and its designer, and that given that many things must be studied from traces, we are often forced to examine and account for traces on causal factors seen to do the like effects in the here and now.

    7 –> The further irony that recognising presence of design on empirically grounded reliable signs is then a basis to seek the patterns of design, the styles of design, the technological evolution of designs [per TRIZ etc] and so to characterise the type of designer candidates that may be relevant.

    8 –> The still further irony of refusing to accept that there is a difference between what is accessible on empirical evidence and what is not, but may be discussed in light of well grounded empirical findings.

    >>My scientifc idea has no irony,>>

    9 –> Evolutionary materialistic scientism is worse than merely ironic, it is self-refuting by undermining scientists themselves, as say J B S Haldane long since pointed out:

    “It seems to me immensely unlikely that mind is a mere by-product of matter. For if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms. In order to escape from this necessity of sawing away the branch on which I am sitting, so to speak, I am compelled to believe that mind is not wholly conditioned by matter.” [“When I am dead,” in Possible Worlds: And Other Essays [1927], Chatto and Windus: London, 1932, reprint, p.209. (NB: DI Fellow, Nancy Pearcey brings this right up to date (HT: ENV) in a current book, Finding Truth.)]

    >> it does what it sets out to do; prove origins,>>

    10 –> OoL on evolutionary materialism is in utter chaos and puzzlement, precisely because absent intelligently directed configuration, neither an FSCO/I-rich metabolic entity nor its von Neumann kinematic self-replicating facility are explainable.

    11 –> Which is precisely a prediction of ID. (And, the long running offer to host at UD a summary essay on the empirically warranted case for evolutionary materialistic origin of life and body plans up to our own is still open after several years, with no serious takers.)

    >> prove>>

    12 –> Proof, BTW, is not in the remit of science, not when it comes to theories which are inherently abductive explanatory frameworks that infer a best current, empirically anchored explanation.

    13 –> At best, scientific theories can achieve empirical reliability and credibility that leads us to trust them in say engineering or medicine.

    >>prove life is one system linked by evolution,>>

    14 –> The tree of life icon, pivoting on incremental changes has long since fallen on hard times, due to the abrupt discontinuities in the body plans of life, starting with the first, the living cell.

    15 –> As Walker and Davies point out with particular reference to the very first body plan, islands of funciton are a hard fact of life, per the underlying physics that would have to drive a Darwin’s warm pond or the like pre-life environment:

    In physics, particularly in statistical mechanics, we base many of our calculations on the assumption of metric transitivity, which asserts that a system’s trajectory will eventually [–> given “enough time and search resources”] explore the entirety of its state space – thus everything that is phys-ically possible will eventually happen. It should then be trivially true that one could choose an arbitrary “final state” (e.g., a living organism) and “explain” it by evolving the system backwards in time choosing an appropriate state at some ’start’ time t_0 (fine-tuning the initial state). In the case of a chaotic system the initial state must be specified to arbitrarily high precision. But this account amounts to no more than saying that the world is as it is because it was as it was, and our current narrative therefore scarcely constitutes an explanation in the true scientific sense.

    We are left in a bit of a conundrum with respect to the problem of specifying the initial conditions necessary to explain our world. A key point is that if we require specialness in our initial state (such that we observe the current state of the world and not any other state) metric transitivity cannot hold true, as it blurs any dependency on initial conditions – that is, it makes little sense for us to single out any particular state as special by calling it the ’initial’ state. If we instead relax the assumption of metric transitivity (which seems more realistic for many real world physical systems – including life), then our phase space will consist of isolated pocket regions and it is not necessarily possible to get to any other physically possible state (see e.g. Fig. 1 for a cellular automata example).

    [–> or, there may not be “enough” time and/or resources for the relevant exploration, i.e. we see the 500 – 1,000 bit complexity threshold at work vs 10^57 – 10^80 atoms with fast rxn rates at about 10^-13 to 10^-15 s leading to inability to explore more than a vanishingly small fraction on the gamut of Sol system or observed cosmos . . . the only actually, credibly observed cosmos]

    Thus the initial state must be tuned to be in the region of phase space in which we find ourselves [–> notice, fine tuning], and there are regions of the configuration space our physical universe would be excluded from accessing, even if those states may be equally consistent and permissible under the microscopic laws of physics (starting from a different initial state). Thus according to the standard picture, we require special initial conditions to explain the complexity of the world, but also have a sense that we should not be on a particularly special trajectory to get here (or anywhere else) as it would be a sign of fine–tuning of the initial conditions. [ –> notice, the “loading”] Stated most simply, a potential problem with the way we currently formulate physics is that you can’t necessarily get everywhere from anywhere (see Walker [31] for discussion). [“The “Hard Problem” of Life,” June 23, 2016, a discussion by Sara Imari Walker and Paul C.W. Davies at Arxiv.]

    16 –> Then, too, we face the landscape of AA sequence space, in which protein domains fall in deeply isolated islands.

    >> and prove life can be understood without holding God’s hand.>>

    17 –> This actually puts the cart before the horse, as Philip Johnson pointed out nigh on 20 years back in his reply to Lewontin’s infamous NYRB piece reviewing Sagan’s last book:

    For scientific materialists the materialism comes first; the science comes thereafter. [Emphasis original] We might more accurately term them “materialists employing science.” And if materialism is true, then some materialistic theory of evolution has to be true simply as a matter of logical deduction, regardless of the evidence.

    [–> notice, the power of an undisclosed, question-begging, controlling assumption . . . often put up as if it were a mere reasonable methodological constraint; emphasis added. Let us note how Rational Wiki, so-called, presents it:

    “Methodological naturalism is the label for the required assumption of philosophical naturalism when working with the scientific method. Methodological naturalists limit their scientific research to the study of natural causes, because any attempts to define causal relationships with the supernatural are never fruitful, and result in the creation of scientific “dead ends” and God of the gaps-type hypotheses.”

    Of course, this ideological imposition on science that subverts it from freely seeking the empirically, observationally anchored truth about our world pivots on the deception of side-stepping the obvious fact since Plato in The Laws Bk X, that there is a second, readily empirically testable and observable alternative to “natural vs [the suspect] supernatural.” Namely, blind chance and/or mechanical necessity [= the natural] vs the ART-ificial, the latter acting by evident intelligently directed configuration. [Cf Plantinga’s reply here and here.]

    And as for the god of the gaps canard, the issue is, inference to best explanation across competing live option candidates. If chance and necessity is a candidate, so is intelligence acting by art through design. And it is not an appeal to ever- diminishing- ignorance to point out that design, rooted in intelligent action, routinely configures systems exhibiting functionally specific, often fine tuned complex organisation and associated information. Nor, that it is the only observed cause of such, nor that the search challenge of our observed cosmos makes it maximally implausible that blind chance and/or mechanical necessity can account for such.]

    That theory will necessarily be at least roughly like neo-Darwinism, in that it will have to involve some combination of random changes and law-like processes capable of producing complicated organisms that (in Dawkins’ words) “give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.”

    . . . . The debate about creation and evolution is not deadlocked . . . Biblical literalism is not the issue. The issue is whether materialism and rationality are the same thing. Darwinism is based on an a priori commitment to materialism, not on a philosophically neutral assessment of the evidence. Separate the philosophy from the science, and the proud tower collapses. [Emphasis added.] [The Unraveling of Scientific Materialism, First Things, 77 (Nov. 1997), pp. 22 – 25.]


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    kairosfocus says:

    News, in fact there is no ONE ‘the” scientific method marking a sharp border between science and non-science (only and all science works by XYZABC . . . the XYZABC cannot be successfully filled in in any significant detail), there are scientific methods. Hence Feyerabend’s remarks. KF

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