Tag Archives: scientific methodology

Richard Feynman

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.

Richard Feynman, ‘Cargo Cult Science’, Engineering and Science, vol. 37, no. 7 (June, 1974), p. 11

Richard Muller

This is how scientists do things. We can’t always claim that our methods are better than what came before, but we can do things differently and see if we come to the same answer. If we come to a different answer, then that raises the issue of why. And then we can address the issue.

Richard Muller, ‘I Stick to the Science’, Scientific American, vol. 304, no. 6 (June, 2011), p. 68

Seth Roberts

For a few years, I attended a meeting called Animal Behavior Lunch where we discussed new animal behavior articles. All of the meetings consisted of graduate students talking at great length about the flaws of that week’s paper. The professors in attendance knew better but somehow we did not manage to teach this. The students seemed to have a strong bias to criticize. Perhaps they had been told that “critical thinking” is good. They may have never been told that appreciation should come first. I suspect failure to teach graduate students to see clearly the virtues of flawed research is the beginning of the problem I discuss here: Mature researchers who don’t do this or that because they have been told not to do it (it has obvious flaws) and as a result do nothing.

Seth Roberts, ‘Something is better than nothing’, Nutrition, vol. 23, no. 11 (November, 2007), p. 912

John Barrow

Science is predicated upon the belief that the Universe is algorithmically compressible and the modern search for a Theory of Everything is the ultimate expression of that belief, a belief that there is an abbreviated representation of the logic behind the Universe’s properties that can be written down in finite form by human beings.

John Barrow, Theories of Everything: The Quest for Ultimate Explanation, Oxford, 1991, p. 11

John Barrow and Frank Tipler

Whereas many philosophers and theologians appear to possess an emotional attachment to their theories and ideas which requires them to believe them, most scientists tend to regard their ideas differently. They are interested in formulating many logically consistent possibilities, leaving any judgment regarding their truth to observation. Scientists feel no qualms about suggesting different but mutually exclusive explanations for the same phenomenon.

John Barrow and Frank Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Oxford, 1986, p. 15

Karl Popper

Every test of a theory, whether resulting in its corroboration or falsification, must stop at some basic statement or other which we decide to accept. If we do not come to any decision, and do not accept some basic statement or other, then the test will have led nowhere. But considered from a logical point of view, the situation is never such that it compels us to stop at this particular basic statement rather than at that, or else give up the test altogether. For any basic statement can again in its turn be subjected to test, using as a touchstone any of the basic statements which can be deduced from it with the help of some theory, either the one under test, or another. This procedure has no natural end. Thus if the test is to lead us anywhere, nothing remains but to stop at some point or other and say that we are satisfied, for the time being.

It is fairly easy to see that we arrive in this way at a procedure according to which we stop only at a kind of statement that is especially easy to test. For it means that we are stopping at statements about whose acceptance or rejection the various investigators are likely to reach agreement. And if they do not agree, they will simply continue with the tests, or else start them all over again. If this too lead to no result, then we might say that the statements in question were not inter-subjectively testable, or that we were not, after all dealing with observable events. If some day it should no longer be possible for scientific observers to reach agreement about basic statements this would amount to a failure of language as a means of universal communication. It would amount to a new ‘Babel of Tongues’: scientific discovery would be reduced to absurdity. In this new Babel, the soaring edifice of science would soon lie in ruins.

Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, London, 1959, p. 104