Cargo Cult Climate Science

Back in 1974, the late Richard Feynman wrote an essay based on the address he gave at Caltech's commencement that year. He titled the essay “Cargo Cult Science,” a reference to the practice of sympathetic magic by South Sea Islanders following World War II. The central point of his lecture was how science should and should not be practiced. His thoughts are well worth reviewing in light of the string of troubling revelations that have surfaced regarding climate science. In the face of what Gallup calls a sharp decline in the public's belief in global warming, it looks like many of the IPCC's scientists are practicing Cargo Cult Climate Science.

The term “cargo cult” describes a strange phenomenon among natives from the islands of Melanesia in the South Pacific. During World War II, the islands of Melanesia served as a staging area for the allied military. Supply bases and air strips were built to stockpile the massive amount of materiel required to keep the allied armies supplied. The local natives observed everything that the military forces were doing, taking particular notice of the cargo that arrived with each incoming flight. The natives had little or no knowledge of the civilized world from which this cargo originated, so they incorrectly associated the actions of the foreigners—men marching, flags flying, ground crews operating the airfield and control tower—with obtaining the cargo.

After the war ended the allied troops left the islands. Naturally, the cargo also disappeared along with them. There were no more shipments of cargo and the incredible riches it represented, and the natives desperately wanted to bring the cargo back. In the natives’ eyes, the cargo had divine origins just like everything else in the world. What then, was the secret of how to obtain it?

The natives assumed that to make the cargo return they needed to duplicate the actions of the foreigners. After all, the soldiers were very successful in obtaining cargo. In the mistaken belief that the foreigners' actions were a kind of religious ritual, the island natives built dirt runways, bamboo control towers, offices and planes, sewed crude uniforms, and even crafted wooden headsets. Then they set about imitating the activities they had observed the allied military personnel performing, all in an effort to entice the cargo deliveries to return.

To this day, South Pacific villagers worship a mysterious American they call John Frum—believing that he'll return one day and shower their remote island with riches. February 15 is John Frum Day on the remote island of Tanna in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu. On this holiest of days, cargo cult devotees descend on the village of Lamakara from all over the island to honor a ghostly American messiah, John Frum.

Reportedly, clan leaders first saw their Yankee Messiah in the late 1930s. He later appeared to them during WWII, dressed in white like a navy seaman. “John promised he’ll bring planeloads and shiploads of cargo to us from America if we pray to him,” a village elder told Paul Raffaele of the Smithsonian. “Radios, TVs, trucks, boats, watches, iceboxes, medicine, Coca-Cola and many other wonderful things.” So each February 15, villagers on the island of Tanna dance in John Frum's honor, they raise Old Glory and native men march about like the long vanished G.I.s.

Barefoot "G.I.'s" tote bamboo "rifles" with scarlet tipped "bayonets." Photo Paul Raffaele.

Anthropologist Kirk Huffman, who spent 17 years in Vanuatu, explains: “You get cargo cults when the outside world, with all its material wealth, suddenly descends on remote, indigenous tribes.” But the islanders logic is flawed, mistaking a necessary condition for cargo to come flying in (e.g. building airstrips, control towers, etc.) for a sufficient condition for cargo to appear. Effectively they have reversed cause and effect—the cargo planes were the reason for building the air fields, not the other way around.

According to Wikipedia, the term “cargo cult” is used as an English language idiom for referring to any group of people who imitate the superficial exterior of a process or system without having any understanding of the underlying substance. Dr. Richard Feynman extended the analogy to certain inappropriate behavior by scientists.

Feynman's Cargo Cult Science

Richard Feynman was born in New York City on May 11, 1918. He studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he earned his B.Sc. in 1939 and at Princeton University where he earned his Ph.D. in 1942. He was a Research Assistant at Princeton (1940-1941), Professor of Theoretical Physics at Cornell University (1945-1950), Visiting Professor and thereafter appointed Professor of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology until his death on February 15, 1988. During his life he helped develop the atomic bomb, expanded the understanding of quantum electrodynamics, translated Mayan hieroglyphics, set the stage for nanotechnology (in 1959!) and identified the root cause of the Challenger disaster.

Feynman was a winner of the Albert Einstein Award, the Niels Bohr International Gold Medal, and the Nobel prize. Famous for his unusual life style, his books and lectures on mathematics and physics remain popular to this day. His entertaining book, Surely you're joking Mr Feynman, painted a picture of a brilliant, complex yet charmingly mischievous man. He was a prankster, juggler, safe-cracker and bongo player. With an almost compulsive need to solve puzzles it seems logical that he became one of the leading Physicists of the 20th century.

Dr. Julian Schwinger described him as “an honest man, the outstanding intuitionist of our age, and a prime example of what may lie in store for anyone who dares to follow the beat of a different drum.” Often the drum was played by Feynman himself.

Impatient with pretension and hypocrisy, he had a talent for one-upsmanship and loved to be the center of attention—particularly if the attention was from a beautiful woman. Though lighthearted by nature his criticism could be devastating. During the investigation of the 1986 Challenger disaster, when interviews of high-ranking NASA managers revealed startling misunderstandings of elementary concepts, he bluntly pronounced their safety assessments unrealistic.

In 1974 Feynman gave the commencement address at Caltech, a speech that was later captured in an essay entitled “Cargo Cult Science.” In it, Feynman expressed his concern that, even though we live in an age of scientific wonders, people still believe in all sorts of irrational, mystical gibberish. More than that, he worried about falling standards among those who work in the sciences. The heart of the talk centered on what Feynman termed “Cargo Cult Science.” Feynman explains:

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 imitate 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.

Feynman goes on to cite numerous examples of bad science and illogical thinking, and in doing so explains what it means to be an ethical, honest scientist. In this age where climate scientists are embroiled in public scandal, it is instructive to compare the actions of the CRU crew and others so recently in the news with Feynman's ethical standards. For those not following the Climategate scandal, a number of prominent climate change alarmists were caught out withholding and ultimately destroying climate data rather than letting critics review the data themselves. Here is what Feynman said about such shenanigans:

[T]here is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school—we never explicitly say what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. 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.

It is sad to think that this lesson, which Feynman hoped young scientists would learn in school or by example, has been forgotten by climate scientists whose research could potentially impact the well-being and livelihood of every person on Earth. Feynman continued his explanation of a scientist's responsibility:

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.

Feynman summarized it this way: “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.” Yet, the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit breached Britain's Freedom of Information Act by refusing to comply with requests for data concerning claims by its scientists that man-made emissions were causing global warming. In one email, Dr. Phil Jones, the Climate Research Unit's director, asked a colleague to delete emails relating to the 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Professor Feynman addressing Caltech's 1974 commencement.

Were Professor Jones and his associates not in class the day scientific integrity was discussed? In America the track record is no better. Michael Mann, one of the recipients of the scandal causing emails, was already notorious for refusing to release data and details regarding his work on the infamous “hockey stick” climate graph. But climate science's problems do not end with failure to disclose data, methods and correspondence.

Cargo Cult Climate Science

The most insidious part of what I have labeled Cargo Cult Climate Science is the willingness of global warming extremists to accept as true statements that can be proven false with even cursory investigation. Witness the uncritical acceptance of the claim that Himalayan glaciers would vanish by 2035, a claim based on unsubstantiated reports in a news magazine that was folded into the IPCC's own report without verification. Not only was this claim false, when it was challenged by Vijay Kumar Raina and a number of glaciologists from around the world, the IPCC, led by the highly excitable Rajendra Pachauri, vociferously defended the indefensible while hurling personal attacks at their critics.

The extended series of faux pas from climate scientists and IPCC officials have finally caused enough damage that public trust in science is wavering. According to a new Gallup poll, 48% of Americans now believe that the seriousness of global warming is generally exaggerated, up from 41% in 2009 and 31% in 1997. The percentage of Americans who believe that global warming is going to affect them or their way of life during their lifetimes has dropped to 32% from a high point of 40% in 2008. Two-thirds of Americans now say global warming will not affect them in their lifetimes.

Gallup noted that the public opinion tide turned in 2009, when several measures showed a slight retreat in public concern about global warming. This year, the downturn is even more pronounced. In 2003, 61% of Americans said increases in the Earth's temperature over the last century were due to human activities while 33% said they were due to natural changes in the environment. Now, a significantly diminished 50% say temperature increases are due to human activities, and 46% say they are not.

The rapid decline of public confidence in global warming has sent a chill through scientific circles. In an editorial in the February 19, 2010, issue of Science, Peter Agre, president of AAAS, and Alan Leshner, the chief executive officer of AAAS and Science's executive publisher, attempted to calm the nervous scientific community. Here are Agre and Leshner trying to tame the tempest:

Inappropriate behavior by scientists also weakens the bridge between science and society, at times to a degree out of proportion to the incidents. Widely publicized examples of scientific misconduct, or even mere accusations of misconduct, can tarnish the image and diminish the credibility of the entire scientific enterprise. Likewise, undisclosed conflicts of interest, whether real or apparent, can call into question the integrity of the whole scientific community. Scientists also jeopardize the credibility of science by overinterpreting or misstating scientific facts. Recent examples include misinformation on the prospects of Himalayan glaciers and the effects of climate change there, and newly discovered problems with a 1998 report linking vaccines to autism.

This lame apology is as close as the scientific establishment can come to admitting that climate science has been playing fast and loose with the facts and that a number of its investigators are ethically challenged. Things have been blown “out of proportion” and some are even “mere accusations” of misconduct. They also tacked on the admonition that “scientists should not tolerate threats to the integrity of science, whether they come from outside the scientific community or from within it.” I guess those threatening the integrity of science from the outside are all those despicable deniers.

Grow up gentlemen, science has fouled its own nest. Climate science by doing shoddy work and science in general by providing the miscreants with unconditional support until the public outcry grew too loud to ignore. And if conflict of interest was the yardstick the IPCC's Pachauri would be long gone by now. But Pachauri is only a side show.

At the center of the IPCC's problem is that they choose to believe a scientific theory that is based on incomplete understanding—that human generated CO2 is responsible for global warming. Not only has it become clear that CO2 is not the primary driver of climate change but claim after claim, prediction after prediction made by the warmists has failed to come true—the planes don't land.

AGW cultists waiting for some global warming to arrive.

Like the cargo cultists, the AGW cult has confused cause and effect. Higher atmospheric CO2 levels do occur naturally as climate warms, but it has always been a result of the warming, a contributing factor, not the principal cause of the warming. There is no demonstrable reason for thinking that the human induced rise in atmospheric CO2 levels will cause a large, damaging rise in global temperatures. Still, much as the South Seas Islanders continue to build ersatz airfields and march about mimicking the actions of long departed solders and sailors, the anthropogenic global warming true believers continue to place all their faith in CO2, never stopping to think that they might have it wrong. They are not only misleading the public, they are misleading themselves.

Feynman identified the cure for this problem: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you've not fooled yourself, it's easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.” It would seem that even conventional honesty is in short supply among the ranks of global warming's most vocal promoters. They also seem to have forgotten something else Feynman said: “Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.

The were successfull..

Finally, from their point of view, the indigenous were successfull. Airplanes came after years of calling with coconut radios :O) I'm sure they KNOW that The Cargo they were believing it will come, it came because of their spiritual calling.
So scientists KNOW either...

The essay, "Cargo Cult Science" was written strictly about Psych

Or so I've been told on several occasions.

I read and reread Cargo Cult Science and it seems very clear it is about scientific integrity required by any scientific endeavor.

But on many occasions, otherwise reasonable people, including Ph.Ds in the physical sciences, have told me that Feynman was addressing only the soft sciences.

I don't know how anyone can believe this, but I've heard it enough times, it is an issue you may wish to address. (Who his target audience was, what their interests were, his many examples from physics, his desire for them to find a career in which they could practice that scientific integrity...)

When I hear people tell me Cargo Cult was only about Psychology -- that's when I know one of us is from a completely different planet. Is it me?


Just became aware of this article. I wrote about this recently too (

The Original Underlying Problem

Doug another great article as always. If I might be so bold to address the original sin of Cargo Cult Science and a “why” this type of problem exists in fields of science. In academia one MUST worship the dogmas handed down by Professors or should I say High Priests of higher learning. The catechisms must be recited by rote and with enthusiasm or the young neophyte (student ) will not pass. The chant with a few minor variations is this; Socialism is good, capitalism is very bad. Evolution must NOT be questioned, all who do are evil or genetically deviant and must be silenced and/or humiliated. Eugenics….. I mean Abortion must have its offerings of human sacrifice or the god’s will punish for a lack of devotion. All Conservatives and AGW deniers and inherently evil and must be eliminated. Whatever Government does is for the greater good and whatever is produced by a man’s labor belongs to the state. Nature must be worshipped as a goddess and mankind exists only to serve the whims of this jealous god.

Given the extent of indoctrination inherent in Academia, it is easy to see “why” Cargo Cult Science is practiced as SOP by the last two or three generations of scientist. Heretics will be punished.

Mark in Durango

ha - the natives were right!

phil jones collected over $25 million in research grants and al gore was worth almost $1 billion last year - why on earth would you take off the coconut headphones with cargo like that coming in every day?

Do not insult the natives

Your use of the term “retarded” is unwarranted. The South Seas natives are capable, intelligent members of a primitive society, without our built up cache of scientific and technological knowledge. They live under conditions that very few “smart scientific thinkers” would survive, if stripped of the accoutrements of modern technology. Much like any scientist, they made the best interpretation of the cargo phenomenon that they could, given their observations and world view. This is analogous to the situation in climate science—the AGW theory was formulated when scientific understanding of how climate is regulated was very immature (not that it is mature today) and they got it wrong. This type of thing has been going on in science since the beginning and is a normal part of the process. What is needed now it for science to drop the CO2 based theory and move on to a more correct one (in Popper's terms a less false one). If you wish to call climate science retarded I might agree, but you owe the natives an apology.

post normal science

It is more like post normal science. It is so complex that new rules have to be made. Normal science is out dated for such complexity. Sort of like post modernism for science I think. Wattsupwiththat blog and buythetruth have posts on it. It's feel good science. Maybe they sing cum ba ya too.
If it is consensus then they should really consent to hear skeptics too. This is very scary.