Cargo Cult Science


by Richard P. Feynman Click to see one of his favorite pictures

taken from

Surely your joking Mr. Feynman: Adventures of a curious character

Norton, 1985.


So we really ought to look into theories that don't work, and science that isn't science.


I think the educational and psychological studies that I mentioned are examples of what I would 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 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 planes 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.



Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they're missing. But it would be just about as difficult to explain to the South Sea Islanders how they have to arrange things so that they get some wealth in their system. It is not something simple like telling them how to improve the shapes of the earphones. But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school -- we never explicitly say what it is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty…



Richard Feynman (1918-1988), was a physicist born in the State of New York, attended MIT and Princeton, served on the Manhatten project, and was a professor at Cornell and then at the California Institute of Technology. He developed the path integral approach to quantum mechanics, one of the main founders of QED or quantum electrodynamics, for which he won the Nobel Prize in Physics.