Posted by: Ed Darrell | April 8, 2008

Superstitions: Cargo cults

Physicist Richard Feynman gave a commencement address at the California Institute of Technology in 1974 in which he spoke about “cargo cult” science, science practiced by doing what looks like science, but is devoid of real substance.  The story tells a lot about how scientists can be misled, how people who fail to understand what is going on in natural processes can be misled, and about superstition.

It’s a good read.  You’ll find it here.  And here’s a short excerpt:

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.

Most people believe so many wonderful things that I decided to investigate why they did. And what has been referred to as my curiosity for investigation has landed me in a difficulty where I found so much junk that I’m overwhelmed. First I started out by investigating various ideas of mysticism, and mystic experiences.  I went into isolation tanks and got many hours of hallucinations, so I know something about that. Then I went to Esalen, which is a hotbed of this kind of thought (it’s a wonderful place; you should go visit there). Then I became overwhelmed. I didn’t realize how much there was.

Read the rest of the speech; it’s worth it.

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