Update And Repost-Is Psychology A Science? From Richard Feynman’s ‘Cargo Cult Science’

Lecture here.

Feynman (wikipedia) wonders what makes science science.  He manages to argue quite well why he doesn’t think psychology meets a certain standard.

At least, he says the following:

I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call cargo cult science. 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 imitate 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 theapparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but  they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.’

What is the bar as to when the social sciences become a science?

One place I find myself often retreating (knowledgably, and sometimes not) is a place of skepticism when it comes to such knowledge being used in institutional settings.

What if the latest research on a certain psychological disorder, early-educational practice, or thinking about certain mental-states and their treatment, because of this potential ambiguity, simply doesn’t hold up well over time and under greater scrutiny?

Aside from the actual quality of research, then, this research can fill a role much greater than clinical application and abstract appreciation in the society at large (political, personal, monetary, ideological, professional).

It can become the thing that people talk about, and know, which makes them feel connected.

One need merely observe how many rather higher-quality journalistic publications rely on a steady stream of popular social science interpretation to maintain their audiences and keep certain groups of people chattering.

Brain-scans, pop neuro-science and various other examples come to mind.


What if the latest treatment/practice that flows from such research becomes not only fashionable, but standardized, conventional wisdom attached to institutional authority?

A whole new set of issues can arise here, including issues of freedom of association, political liberty, and freedom of speech.

After all, some teachers and some students can be dull, unambitious people.

Some educrats’ ambitions far outstrip their abilities, motivated as they are to engage in the petty, political scrambling going on behind the scenes the bureaucratic labyrinth.

Some, but clearly not all, anyways.

We live with a lot of freedoms and the responsibilities these freedoms require, including thinking for ourselves and responding to new information, especially when our interests are at stake.

This, unlike the system highlighted in the below quote from the late Robert Conquest, steadfast chronicler of Soviet authority and leadership in practice:

But, he does point out certain dangers and makes me laugh at the same time:

Those teach who can’t do” runs the dictum,

But for some even that’s out of reach:

They can’t even teach—so they’ve picked ’em

To teach other people to teach.

Then alas for the next generation,

For the pots fairly crackle with thorn.

Where psychology meets education

A terrible bullshit is born.’


I should also note that Feynman bristled at philosophers endlessly philosophizing about the nature of scientific knowledge, and who often are looking to borrow what they can from it to bolster their own metaphysical theories about the world.

Here’s a quote from Roger Scruton’s book (pg 50) on Immanuel Kant, one of the deeper philosophers:

“Scientific explanation depends upon principles of method:  being presupposed in scientific enquiry, these principles cannot be proved through it.  Kant believed that such principles would be reflected in basic scientific laws; and it is one of the tasks of metaphysics to provide grounds for their acceptance.

Metaphysics will love you not…but at least philosophy can potentially recognize some of its shortcomings against such measure.

Addition: And is that really a primary aim of metaphysics?  Why must it be so?

See Also: Karl Popper’s metaphysical theory on much the same subject: Falsifiability

Also On This SiteFrom 3 Quarks Daily: Richard Feynman Talks About A Pool And A Not-So-Pretty Girl.

Clearly math can bring people together, but what is it being asked to do, exactly? Elizabeth Spelke On Bloggingheads: Towards A Coalitional Mathematics?

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