why scientists always need to stay skeptical
You’ve probably heard the term cargo cult science, the idea of seeing pioneering researchers or an advanced society as almost supernatural bringers of new and important things, then mimicking what they do, expecting that just going through the same motions will net them new innovations or insights. Coined in 1974, during a commencement address given by Richard Feynman, it’s been applied countless times to cranks who seek to establish their legitimacy by throwing out technobabble and scientific buzzwords to sell their wares, usually failing at explaining the basic concepts involved. But while it’s true that there are endless examples of cargo cult science among today’s most popular pseudoscientists, that wasn’t really the point of Feynman’s speech. Rather than lashing out at cranks and quacks, he was cautioning scientists against neglecting the basics.
One of the most important facts to accept and expect in every scientific field, be it applied or theoretical, is that you will be wrong when you venture out and put your ideas to the test. And not only will you be wrong, you’ll be wrong far more than you’ll be right. Unfortunately, in today’s scientific culture, you have to either be right, or just barrel ahead with an idea that seems right on its face to get funding and keep experimenting. Very rarely does a research project start from scratch, very rarely do failures ever get reported unless they’re intended to prove the researchers’ points, and all too often are scientists eager to disregard a slight, but potentially important tweak to a long established figure not to be seen as making a gross error by those who believe the debates about something are long settled. Now, of course, there are quite a few fields where the general concept was settled long ago and it’s the small nitty gritty details that become the focus of discussion simply because the weight of evidence for these fields has been established. And it’s in those nitty gritty details that scientists will need to accept that those who came before them may be wrong and that they might also be incorrect.
But here’s the important point, one that Feynman so explicitly wanted to make. It’s fine to be wrong. It’s ok for a scientist to say he or she failed and publish the attempt anyway, trying to explain why. I had this lesson taught to me when finishing my undergrad, as I was working on a meta-analysis project studying attitudes towards a politically charged topic (sex-ed) in selected urbal and rural areas. Unfortunately, I got nowehere, and found a lot of articles and studies filled with nothing more than editorializing and personal opinions, often coming up with outright fradulent and grossly manipulative papers, many of them sponosred by someone in a religious right think tank. I thought I was going to get a zero for the paper, but instead, my professor asked me to write a study about the problems I encountered and what I recommend to be done about making more objective data available to those who want to study this topic. For a while, I thought the professor just gave me a lucky pass. And then it finally sunk in that his point was to make us look criticially at how to write scientific papers. While I might have failed in my original mission, I still learned something and should share it with others.
Today, it’s awfully hard to make a grand discovery in the same caliber as gravity or evolution simply because we know so much more about the world today, we really need to dig deep for that one world-chagning gem of scientific insight. But we can still do it, and for that, we need to share the knowledge we aquire and be willing to challenge established work underlying our sub-specialties by running yet another experiment, or trying just one more control, and be candid about all our failures and mistakes. After all, as a wise person once said, it simply takes too long to learn from our own mistakes so we should try to learn from the mistakes of others. It’s especially true in science, where your published mistake might actually become someone’s building block to a profound discovery or a world-changing invention. And after all, isn’t that the goal of science? To deepen our knowledge and understanding of the world around us through trial, error, and thorough documentation?