Feynman on Cargo Cult Science

by adam on June 11, 2012

On Twitter, Phil Venables said “More new school thinking from the Feynman archives. Listen to this while thinking of InfoSec.”

During the Middle Ages there were all kinds of crazy ideas, such
as that a piece of rhinoceros horn would increase potency. Then a
method was discovered for separating the ideas–which was to try
one to see if it worked, and if it didn’t work, to eliminate it.
This method became organized, of course, into science. And it
developed very well, so that we are now in the scientific age. It
is such a scientific age, in fact that we have difficulty in
understanding how witch doctors could ever have existed, when
nothing that they proposed ever really worked–or very little of
it did.

But even today I meet lots of people who sooner or later get me
into a conversation about UFOS, or astrology, or some form of
mysticism, expanded consciousness, new types of awareness, ESP, and
so forth. And I’ve concluded that it’s not a scientific world.

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.

It’s excellent advice. Take a listen, and think how it applies to infosec.

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