Happy New Year: The cargo cults of science.

A belated Happy New Year to scientists and those who are interested in science everywhere from us. I am afraid I still don’t get why the greeting is Happy New Years on this side of the Atlantic. Am I missing more than one of them? Anyhow, we apologize for not getting round to our usual fun post this holiday, but we have both been swamped by work and other commitments so the blog has had to take a back seat. Believe it or not this stuff takes quite a bit of work!

Nevertheless, there was lots of good humour abound at the end of 2014 and I was pleased to note another bumper crop of Ignoble awards for 2014. My favourite has to be  the Arctic Science Prize for Eigil Reimers and Sindre Eftestøl, for heir ground-breaking study testing how reindeer react to seeing humans who are disguised as polar bears. Absolutely brilliant, and I definitely want some advice on writing my next grant proposal from them.

After my last posting (and reaction) I was discussing with some colleagues how a good understanding of the philosophy of science and scientific practice still seems so elusive for many people, and how organizations spring-up everywhere that mimic the real thing to take advantage of this. I would characterize this as a failure of education, and sadly the results in modern society are actually quite profound. We see examples in extremist behaviour and positions (often resulting in violence), the search for overly simple solutions to complex problems, the adoption of magical practices by intelligent individuals, and of course, the usual mischaracterization of science as the antithesis to religion. You only have to look around the news or the web for examples everyday, with Oprah and Dr. Oz championing the latest magical nutritional fads, or homeopath’s claiming they can cure ebola.

I find one of the most fascinating aspect of all this the alternatives to scientific inquiry and dissemination that masquerade as science. Years ago as an undergraduate student I studied social anthropology, and was fascinated by the phenomenon of cargo-cults, which represents a useful metaphor here. The term cargo cult encompasses a diverse range of practices that occur in the wake of contact with the commercial networks of technologically superior colonizing societies. The name derives from the belief that various ritualistic acts will lead to a bestowing of material wealth of some sort (cargo).

The best known example is from World War II where contact with the Japanese and late Americans military in the pacific  brought about a considerable transformation of the indigenous peoples of Melanesia (Ton, 2009). At the end of the war, the military abandoned the airbases and stopped dropping cargo by parachute to their units. Those technological products that had been seen or been available to the Melanesian islanders through the colonizing armies, disappeared or became in sort supply. In response, charismatic leaders arose amongst remote Melanesian populations and developed cults that promised to restore on their followers deliveries of these goods (such as food, arms, radios, vehicles etc.) The leaders explained that the cargo was really gifts from the gods or ancestors, and in attempts to get cargo to fall by parachute or land in planes or ships again, islanders imitated the same practices they had seen the military personnel use. They mimicked the day-to-day activities and dress styles of US soldiers, such as performing parade ground drills with wooden or salvaged rifles, and in a form of sympathetic magic, many built life-size replicas of aeroplanes out of straw and built mock airstrips complete with wooden control towers to encourage aircraft to land (as shown in the picture below).










Even though the cargo never arrived the leaders maintained their cults for years as the social benefits of belonging to the group persisted, and they provided hope for the elusive products in the future. Today the original cults have almost disappeared but some cargo cults are reportedly still active today (Raffaele, 2006).

The term “cargo cult” represents a useful metaphor to describe an attempt to recreate successful outcomes by replicating circumstances associated with those outcomes. However, the circumstances mimicked are either unrelated to the causes of outcomes or insufficient to produce them by themselves (in the former case, this is an instance of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy). The metaphorical use of the term was popularized by physicist Richard Feynman at a 1974 Caltech commencement speech, which later became a chapter in his book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, where he coined the phrase “cargo cult science” to describe activity that had some of the trappings of real science (such as publication in scientific journals) but lacked a basis in honest experimentation.

The term seems to have fallen out of common use today, but I would suggest we are seeing boom times for cargo-cult science today and its time to resurrect it. Recent examples include journals that purport to be scientific but are not (see our recent post of predatory publishing), many CAM therapies, naturopaths, and the growth of the Integrative science movement.

Times are tough for real scientists, and I sometimes think it would be easier to join the masses of new-age practitioners rather than keep up the struggle for good quality scientific health care, and be characterized as the allopathic dinosaur (soon to be extinct) in the face of the new age of integrative healthcare. The trouble is, I just can’t bring myself to nod sagely next time someone suggests that “sciencing the art sheds light on the meaning of universal living experiences…” Nor can I sign-on for this sort of nonsense for an easy academic life, as I fear it’s patients who actually loose out here. What the heck, maybe I’ll just go and build an effigies of Dr. Oz and Dora Kunz on the roof and see what happens…

Onwards and upwards



Feynman R. (1974) Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! Adventures of a Curious Character, Richard Feynman, Ralph Leighton (contributor), Edward Hutchings (editor), 1985, W W Norton, ISBN 0-393-01921-7

Raffaele, P. (2006). “In John They Trust”. Smithsonian (Smithsonian). Retrieved Nov 26, 2009.

Ton, O. (2009). “What happened to Cargo Cults? Material Religions in Melanesia and the West”. Social Analysis 53 (1): 93–4.

Creativity and Science: An overlooked relationship?

Hello again!

After a long break here is another blog. If you are our reader, you may have noticed something of a hiatus in regularity of the blog when it’s my turn. Bernie is obviously not working hard enough and seems to have bags of time. In the UK October/November tends to mark the deadline for all research bids, so I have been terrifically busy – begging.

Anyway, I have a book out this month on Creative Science so thought I might write about just that. Strange really that the two are often seen as being so distinct, for curiosity is a key scientific attitude as is a willingness to change ideas in light of evidence. Therefore, science is, by its very nature, twinned with creative thinking. Furthermore, Murphy (2005) suggests that learning science enhances the development of creative thinking skills, such as fluency, flexibility, originality of ideas and imagination.

It is interesting that Torrance (1965), an eminent creativity researcher, nearly 50 years ago put forward the following definition of creativity ‘As the process of becoming sensitive to problems, deficiencies, gaps in knowledge, missing elements, disharmonies, and so on; identifying the difficulty; searching for solutions, making guesses, or formulating hypotheses about the deficiencies; testing and retesting these hypotheses and possibly modifying and retesting them; and finally communicating the results.’ (p. 663-664) This definition, a scientific definition of creativity, met resistance, with objections that he had no right to use the term ‘creative’ outside such fields as art, music, and writing. He argued that his definition seemed to fit the creativity of both artists and writers as well as it did that of the creative scientist. p. 665 Fortunately, things have moved on from then and the notion that science and creativity may not be mutually exclusive is certainly plausible.

In his highly regarded TED talk (Robinson 2006), Sir Ken Robinson made a robust case for creativity in formal education stating that it should have equal status with literacy. He argued that all children have tremendous talent and have an extraordinary capacity for innovation. However, he declared unequivocally that children are ‘being educated out of creativity.’ To be creative, he asserted, you have to be prepared to be wrong, and that the current model of formal education leaves children frightened of being wrong. Unfortunately, this is particularly pertinent in science where there is often a perceived ‘right’ answer and this notion drives down creativity and divergent thinking. Scotland have rooted creativity firmly in their Curriculum for Excellence and it is seen as fundamental to the definition of what it means to be a ‘successful learner’ in the Scottish education system (Education Scotland 2013).  Unfortunately, the recent National Curriculum for England (2013) does not seem to be embracing creativity as much.

Why creativity is important

Science is exciting and engaging in many of the ways in which it is already explained and taught. Some teachers, or trainee graduates, particularly with science backgrounds will already hold a clear and functional view of what science is and what is important in terms of teaching it. You may have very clear ideas of what constitutes a scientific approach and quite strongly held views on what is really important for children to understand about ‘science methods.’ However, such interpretations can framework and even confine your approach to teaching.  The issue here of course is not everyone, even within the scientific community may share your view. We may be very different in terms of the subject we studied (such as physics, chemistry, biology) and the different skills and approaches that this imparts. Indeed, it is not uncommon for those with science degrees, training to be science specialists on initial teacher training courses, to express concerns about teaching areas of science that they “know nothing about!”

In teaching we can utilise all sorts of creative and imaginative methods and apply these to topics not normally associated with science curricular. Of course the obvious question is why should we bother to change? Well, the answer to this is twofold. Firstly, we want to reassure those who are new to science that they have a whole range of valuable skills that can really promote and encourage children to see science as a creative and relevant subject and secondly, to address a wider issue; that something is going wrong in science education for across many of the ‘high-income countries’ (including the UK) a distinctive downward trend in the numbers studying science has been recognised (Fensham, 2004). Yet, for those of us who work around children, it is plainly obvious that they are natural scientists in that they have an almost universal curiosity about the world around them. Young children are always asking the question “why?” Yet, somewhere along the line they appear to lose this curiosity and fascination.

Of course paradoxically in the last 20 years the advances in science and technology have bordered on the revolutionary, particularly in areas such as biomedicine and electronic communications. The technological tools that we have developed now allow us to explore not only adjacent planets but to view horizons that span from the edge of the known universe to sub-atomic space. Never before in our history have we understood so much about ourselves, or the physical world around us and never before have we had the means of communicating this understanding (as well as intriguing questions concerning that which we still do not understand) to such a wide and literate audience. The advances that we have made and the pace of such developments have been little less than spectacular.

It is also undoubtedly true that the planet is facing a seemingly worsening environmental decline and that there needs to be a profound change in the way we live that is based on sustainability. Science also has a profound role in providing the knowledge and skills that young people will need to face the problems that the future will certainly pose.

Given this, how can it be that young people are being put off science apparently by even as early as 7 – 8 years old? The only possible answer is somewhat worrying. Children do not tend to ‘do’ science at home and only rarely in ‘out of school’ settings. They come across it predominantly at school and therefore something is quite clearly going wrong at this point. Put plainly, children appear to be put off science at school.

How can we halt this decline? One way in which this may be achieved is to remove the artificial barriers that lead to the compartmentalization of science in teaching. We suggest a more holistic approach to science teaching; one that both blurs the distinction between approaches in arts and science and also one that sees science as an integral part of social, emotional and personal development. In a way we would like children not to be able to necessarily distinguish science from any other area of the curriculum. Going even further, sometimes barriers are not just theoretical, but made from bricks and mortar and in the same way we would wish to see artificial divides removed, we’d extend that wish to the classroom walls. Teaching in the environment, for the environment may be a well-worn phrase now, but it is still a valuable sentiment.

We would like to move science away from being a distinct subject to having a more integral role across the wider curriculum. A potential problem with this lies in the way in that science is sometimes perceived. How would you describe science? Logical? Precise? Analytical? Or creative, imaginative and inspiring? Most people would probably draw up a list close to the sentiments at least to the first set of words


Calls for new approaches to teaching science are of course not new, the famous Nuffield Science Teaching Project was developed in the 1960s and the Schools Council Integrated Science Project in the early 1970s.

We have over 50 years of pedagogic and curriculum development as a backdrop to the decline in numbers studying science. Given the amount of time, money and enthusiasm put into these projects to re-contextualize science and to change the approach to science teaching one wonders about the real impact of any suggested change in teaching approaches. Perhaps the difference here is that we only want to utilize the skills and develop the confidence of teachers in primary settings not to see science as something daunting and separate from everything else that goes on. In fact to see ways of teaching science that don’t necessarily depend on designing and carrying out experiments, that maybe are creative and artistic in the way that data are presented, that can lead to discussions about ‘bigger’ ideas and concepts, not being afraid to engage in potentially controversial areas. In reality of course, all the characteristics of good science!

What we are not suggesting here is a ‘new science’ but rather different ways of teaching and seeing the old one. Whenever there is an attempt to change the way we approach teaching science, we have to be very wary of slipping into what could be called pseudo-science. Pseudo-science is perhaps best described as something that purports to be scientific, looks scientific, even sounds scientific (in terms of the language it uses) but on close inspection it is not. It is a bit like a science ‘tribute band’ – it looks a bit similar from a distance, but doesn’t stand any degree of closer inspection. It normally lacks supporting evidence, employs non-scientific methods and cannot be reliably tested or verified. In this sense it is different from something that has come to be called ‘Bad Science’. Bad Science is just that, poorly designed, erroneous results, it is generally just poor practice. Any endeavor, however noble and well intentioned can be carried out badly, it sometimes happens and can be understood. Pseudo-science cannot.



Fundamental Flaws: The aftermath of the Ham vs. Nye debate

Hello all,

As many people may have noticed by now the Bill Nye (the science guy) vs. Ken Ham (creationist) debate that was webcast last week has gone somewhat viral (note, you have to fast forward through the 13 mins of pre-feed to get to the debate – can’t their web guys edit?), and many pundits have pitched in with blogs, commentary etc. Click here to see one such example of the responses.

However, virtually all of them have focused on the substantive content of the arguments rather than the nature of the argument itself. Clearly, many of the arguments made by Ham were untenable, such as refuting the huge body of scientific work that demonstrates the likely age of the earth, engineering science that notes the improbability of building a wooden ship the size of the ark that was actually seaworthy, and most significantly life-science that notes for Ham’s arguments to work in the 4000 years required we would need 11 new species being created a day to explain the diversity of life we now see on Earth.

There were many logical fallacies presented too, the ones made by Ham I noted were:

  • Appeal to Authority
  • Ad-hoc Reasoning
  • Appeal to Conviction
  • Circular Reasoning
  • Exception (special pleading)
  • Non-sequitur
  • False Dichotomy
  • Straw Man
  • Tautology

…for a good explanation of all these see our Good Science Guide in the resources section.

I also suspect many Christians were embarrassed by Ham’s attempts to present ill-conceived arguments as “science” to support Christian creationist beliefs. In my experience the majority of religious leaders and believers today do not support a literal analysis of scripture. They hold beliefs that are informed by these ancient texts but acknowledge they were written by humans well before the discovery of much of everyday established knowledge (e.g. electricity) and are therefore products of their time, and contain many errors. Attempting to present them as “the word of god” and factually accurate (as Ham did in several slides) is rather a minority and fundamentalist view. Sadly this represents the sort of thinking that is adopted by groups such as the Taliban, The National Liberation Front of Tripura, the Klu Klux Clan, and many other extremist groups.

Despite their non-sequitur, the main problem with these sort of arguments is really that you cannot refute metaphysical arguments with scientific rationale. As Karl Popper, and Bertrand Russell and many other have considered you can’t prove the unprovable and presenting unfalsifiable claims (such as a miracles occurred, or that god exists and is the creator of the universe) as scientific hypotheses is a fruitless pursuit. There can never be sufficient scientific evidence to demonstrate god does not exist (it can always be argued god exists outside our current abilities to perceive or detect him/her) and absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. All we can do is look at the arguments and take a position. The believer will adopt faith, whilst the atheist or agnostic generally adopts scientific rationale. This could not have been clearer when a viewer asked “What would make you change your mind?” Nye responded that evidence would make him a believer, whilst Ham responded that nothing would as he had unconditional faith.

So, we should consider why Ham and his followers would wish to try and promote a scientific rationale to support their position. Basically, this is an attempt to manipulate educational policy in the USA to incorporate a very specific religious ideology instead of a broad and secular curriculum, and to target the science curriculum. This I believe the main reason why Nye accepted the challenge to appear in this debate at all. Creationism is not science in any shape or form, so suggesting it should be taught in the science curriculum is very problematic, let alone supplant scientific theories such as evolution. Teaching it as a part of religious studies might make sense, but not as a viable alternative theory in the science curriculum.

Ham’s position to get creationism into the science curriculum is as good an example of new sophistry as you are likely to find, and actually seems the ultimate example of “bait and switch,” a practice that Ham actually accused the scientific community of making in his presentation. Bait and switch is a selling method in which a customer is attracted by the advertisement of a low-priced product but then is encouraged to buy a more expensive one (as the original is now unavailable). In this case Ham presents the bait by arguing that science actually supports the creationists view of the old testament account of the existence of the world, but then as the argument proceeds to switch science out for completely unscientific dogma based on scripture: the word of god, the bible explains our existence, no carnivorous animals existed before original sin, languages developed after the Tower of Babel etc. etc.

This sort of expansion of the term “science” to incorporate all forms of inquiry and explanation, and a poor public understanding of what science is (conflating science, pseudoscience and non-science) is an increasing trend, and one of the main reasons Roger and I originally set up this blog; in order to counter such anti-science agendas.

The creationists view that you can somehow separate “observational/experimental science” from “historical science” makes absolutely no sense at all, and is an invention purely designed to support the creationist position. It represents a good example of the logical fallacy of special pleading. Science deals with the present, past and future, and directly observable and unobservable entities in order to test theories, explain and predict events. If we accept Ham’s position on this, then anything that occurred before humans existed, or anything we can’t directly observe or test by experiment today cannot be explained by scientific inquiry. However, as most scientific theories assume some form of continuity of phenomena or universality (at least in our universe) science does not generally differentiate between what can be demonstrated now and what was true 6000 years ago (apart from in terms of age of the phenomenon or environmental conditions a the time). If we follow Ham’s rationale then any conclusions drawn from what Ham calls “historical science” become meaningless. This conveniently cuts off much of current scientific knowledge. including most astrophysics, paleontology, genetics, and  evolutionary biology. The solution Ham presents is to defer to scripture, but the argument as to why scripture is more accurate that the “flawed” historical science is not made. I.e. exactly why is a nearly 2000 year old text more believeable than “historical” science? Does it not suffer from exactly the same issues with verifiability as “historical” science?

Lastly I found Ham’s characterization of science as a western Christian tradition rather offensive and patronizing. He completely ignores the great Asian, Arabic and Indian historical traditions in the development of modern science. In India, Brahmagupta (ca. 598-668) a mathematician and astronomer developed the Hindu-Arabic numerical system pioneering the use of zero as a number circa 628. This is now used as the scientific standard throughout the world. The great Islamic thinker Alhazan, Ibn al-Haytham was a prime exponent of scientific thinking, making great contributions in the development of the scientific method and in the fields of physics, astronomy, mathematics and particularly optics.

In all its rather a depressing situation that the very simplistic creationist curriculum should be taught as science at all in US public schools, but sadly it still seems very widespread there. I do wish Bill Nye had tackled the fundamental philosophical problems with Ham’s presentation, but believe he probably focused on the substantive content more as he thought this would probably make more impact. On the bright side I thought Bill Nye gave an excellent, intelligent, passionate and very respectful response. He clearly won the debate in those terms, and is an inspiration to us all as a role model for science education. Cool bow-tie too!

Onwards and upwards!