(2016-12-31) Chapman Upgrade Your Cargo Cult For The Win

David Chapman: Upgrade your cargo cult for the win. What does it take for an individual to do innovative intellectual work, such as scientific discovery? Mere mastery of methods is not good enough. What does it take for a community or institution to address a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA) world effectively? Mission statements, structures, principles, and procedures are not good enough.

Richard Feynman—the foremost physicist of the mid-20th century—gave a famous commencement address on “cargo cult science.”

“Cargo cult science” performs rituals that imitate science, but are not science

“Cargo cult” describes not just science, but much of what everyone does in sophisticated rich countries. I’m not speaking of our religions; I mean our jobs and governments and schools and medical systems, which frequently fail to deliver.

So how do you go beyond cargo cultism? How do you do actual science? Or economics or policy; education or medicine?

Much education assumes the wrong idea that learning consists of ingesting bits of knowledge (facts, concepts, procedures), and storing them, and when you have enough, you can make useful deductions using innate human reasoning.

You can’t learn how to do science from classes or books

you can only learn doing by doing.

Knowing-how is not reducible to knowing-that. Riding a bicycle is the classic example: no amount of classroom instruction, or rational reflection, could enable a novice to stay upright.

How do you learn know-how?

Imitation is one powerful and common way

you start doing science—or any serious intellectual work—by imitation, by going through the motions, not seeing the point of the rituals. Gradually you come to understand something of how and why they work. (If you are smart and lucky; many people never do.)

almost all scientists get stuck at the cargo cult stage; and almost all supposed science is cargo culting.

Why don’t the literal cargo cults work? The answer is not quite as obvious as it may seem at first!

Proper technology is neither necessary nor sufficient for a functional airport

Better understanding, like better technology, would be a significant upgrade for a cargo cult. The same is true in cargo cult science

Feynman found the question awkward

He goes on to suggest that “utter honesty” is the key. He also describes this as “scientific integrity.” And, he points out ruefully, this is rarely taught

I vaguely remember being taught something like this in high school, or even grade school. At that point, it’s irrelevant because you can’t understand what scientific honesty even means until you do your own research. Until then, there’s only what Feynman calls “conventional honesty,” meaning you don’t make things up

promising direction, however: toward epistemic virtue.

Honesty is a moral virtue. It is also an epistemic virtue. Epistemic virtues are cognitive traits that tend to lead to accurate knowledge and understanding

Utter honesty, I suspect, means not just telling the truth, but caring about the truth. Feynman uses the phrase “bending over backward” to suggest a higher standard. You will go to extreme lengths to avoid fooling yourself

Cargo cultism is the bureaucratic rationality of blindly following established procedures and respecting authority. In the moral domain, that can lead ordinary people into committing genocide without reflection; in science, it leads to nutritional recommendations that may also have killed millions of people.

Important as honesty is, I might rate even higher curiosity, courage, and desire.

Exhortations to epistemic virtue, and lists of virtues, are not helpful by themselves


Feynman’s best case study is the rat-running one

Honesty comes out of curiosity, mostly, I think. If you really do want to know, there’s much less motivation to promote a wrong answer

A reliable recipe for “how to be curious” is impossible (and probably undesirable—you need to choose skillfully what to be curious about). However, we can and should give descriptions of what curiosity is like, so you can recognize when you are curious—and when you are not


Curiosity is not just caring about which facts are true versus false. It is lust for understanding.


Every scientist (probably—me for sure) sometimes screws up and promotes an attractive idea that isn’t actually right. That’s unavoidable, probably. Courage and honesty means recognizing and admitting this when it happens, and being as transparent as possible so other people can detect it.

Earlier, I asked: why isn’t learning know-how through imitation (plus learning facts through classroom instruction) good enough? Part of the answer is: you need feedback, not just a passive source of emulation.

Situated learning theory explains apprenticeship as legitimate peripheral participation in a community of practice.

Participation means doing with other people who know what they are doing. Typically, we learn from collaboration, not from observing and then accurately duplicating the action by ourselves.

The problem with the cargo cults is not that they are imitating. It’s that their members are not legitimate participants in airport operation.

A community of practice develops informally and automatically among any group of people who engage in an activity that requires specialized know-how

Informal contact naturally develops into a feeling of community. That typically becomes increasingly structured

A community of practice develops its own culture, worldview, and way of being. That includes its own ethical norms, and its own epistemic norms

Tacit knowledge often contradicts explicit standards—and therefore could not, even in principle, be learned from manuals

Epistemic virtue and vice are not just learned from a community of practice, they inhere in it.

The problem with nutrition “science” is not that individual nutritionists are stupid, ill-informed, or malicious. It is that the collective epistemic practices of the community are self-serving, wicked, wanton, paranoid, and deranged. (nutritionism)

The current replication crisis is driven largely by broad moral outrage.

Leaders of cargo cults—in science as well as religion—usually fight to keep their status, power, and income, by opposing attempts at epistemic reform. “

The current reform movement in academic psychology is led mainly by junior members of the epistemic community, and instigated partly by outsider skeptics

Reformers—in psychology and other fields such as medical research—advocate better explicit research practice standards.

If adopted, these will be significant upgrades in epistemic communities that have been practicing mainly cargo cult science

Unfortunately… it also embodies the essential epistemological failure of cargo culting. That is the belief that there must be some definite method that will reliably bring the desired results.

But Campbell’s Law says that if you set up any explicit evaluation criteria, people will find ways to game the system

John Ioannidis, who has done more than anyone to improve medical research standards, details exactly how and why this happens in his searing “Evidence-based medicine has been hijacked.”

There is no method: only methods

There is no “The Scientific Method,” and science offers no path to truth.

That may seem paradoxical at first, because science offers innumerable, excellent methods, and is the most reliable path to truth.

“The Scientific Method” is the central myth of rationalist eternalism. It is scientism’s eternal ordering principle—the magical entity that guarantees truth, understanding, and control. But no one can say what it is—because it does not exist

We can say a lot about how and why specific methods work—and that is critical.

Science—and any intellectual work involving innovation—addresses the unknown, and therefore must not be routinized, ritualized, or merely rationalized. Conforming to the ritual norms of a practice community does not produce discovery.

You need meta-rational competence to recognize when a method is appropriate, and when it is not. There is no explicit method for that—but, like riding a bicycle, it can be cultivated as tacit know-how. “Reflection-in-action” describes that meta-level learning process. (meta-cognition)

Despite heroic mythology, lone geniuses do not drive most scientific, cultural, business, or policy advances. Breakthroughs typically emerge from a scene: an exceptionally productive community of practice that develops novel epistemic norms. Major innovation may indeed take a genius—but the genius is created in part by a scenius.

*There is no systematic method for creating a scene, for improving epistemic norms, for conjuring scenius, or for upgrading a community of practice. These are “human-complete” meta-systematic tasks.

There is no method—but there are methods. There are activities, attitudes, and approaches that encourage scenius.*

Kevin Kelly describes some scene features that individuals can contribute to:

  • Mutual appreciation
  • Rapid exchange of tools and techniques
  • Network effects of success

Management theorists describe “learning organizations” that don’t base themselves on fixed structures, principles, and procedures.

Too much of life is wasted going through the motions, playing it by the book, acting according to systems no one really believes in and that fail to reflect a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world. This is deadening for individuals, and for society a vast loss of opportunities for prosperity and innovation.

As individuals, we acquire basic competence through legitimate peripheral participation in communities of practice. In becoming a member, we absorb the community’s explicit and tacit norms—including ethical, epistemological, and process norms. Some communities of practice have mainly functional norms; some are highly dysfunctional.

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