Free Science, no more cargo-cult

Mr. Feynman

To link to / expand on the line in the previous post: Reflecting on the fact that people are able (and prone?) to worship “form” (in the sense of increasingly meaningless rituals) over function (in the sense of true understanding) I’d like to touch on Feynman’s famous term “cargo cult science“. From his speech at CalTech the text can be found here, and a .pdf is here. It’s also in his (highly recommended) book “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character)”. (more on Cargo Cults on Wikipedia)

Not only the music and film-industry, newspapers but also scientific journals have to re-invent themselves in the face of technological advances in the digital domain. And as so much weight is put on evaluating scientists in terms of one-dimensional and ill-suited metrics (born out of a lack of time, a great deal of ignorance and a creepy tendency towards defensive decision processes) for grants and posts based on their publication record, it’s kind of hard to see a way to replace the underlying structure without crashing the entire edifice.

The analogy to cargo cult is fairly obvious: in the olden days, writing papers was the best way of communicating science over large distances. Journals and proceedings served to gather the information and make them available to a wider audience. As Darwin so aptly wrote: “If any man wants to gain a good opinion of his fellow-men, he ought to do what I am doing, pester them with letters.“. That’s why it’s called “letters to nature” and they always start with “Dear Sir,…“. Sending letters is not the best way to communicate these days anymore – translating Darwin into modern speak might look like “communicate your science effectively” – contributing to open databases, sharing code & reagents, giving talks, creating podcasts, writing books, twitter/blog … whatever is suitable and appropriate. These days data, results and methods are relayed more effectively over the internet/web. We (as scientific communities) are still in the process of finding better ways to get good science out there. Some of these ways are open source, open access and open data. Let’s leave the empty rituals in publishing behind – because it worked in the past there will always be some guys left with coconut-halves dangling over their ears who mistake that for real (radio-communication). They might still get some cargo funding (accidentally) – but for how long? And do you want to be one of them? There is a related brilliant article on wired science by David Dobbs – he also refers to mendeley in this context.

Finally, as an addendum to “scientific crowdsourcing“, mendeley also hosts a competition: The $10001 Binary Battle API contest. Anyone up for merging mendeleys API with something like Tianamo? Would be great to see that!

See the guy on the lower right? cocoNUTS!

P.S.: After all, we (as a species) learned a great deal from each other by copying / imitating the ways of others. That explains our tendency for copying empty rites, but we should have enough brains to distinguish which procedures actually work and which have become meaningless routine. Any attempt to repair or replace these procedures with something else should be guided by careful consideration of its purpose and meaning, which in this special case is fostering scientific insight and supporting its dissemination.

I find it sometimes humbling and amusing to check for “cargo-cult” in all kinds of activities around – administrative, political and managerial processes are full of them, not to mention organized religion, but you might be able to observe it also in programming and software engineering. Which leads to the conclusion that there is no real difference between many of the guys running around here in suits and some of the islanders in the pacific parading with wooden guns on improvised airfields.


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  1. #1 by cistronic on 2011/05/27 - 11:24

    connotea has a list of openaccesss related posts at
    with topics like
    Why scholarship should never be a commodity! or
    What Rights do Scholars and Scientists have?

  2. #2 by cistronic on 2011/06/24 - 14:28

    from the satire “Scientific peer review, 1945” :
    “Or maybe I should just submit it to one of those new “open access” journals … ”
    @3’14” on

  3. #3 by network simulation software on 2011/07/12 - 06:08

    I’m extremely impressed with your writing talents and also with the layout for your weblog. Is that this a paid topic or did you modify it your self? Anyway keep up the excellent quality writing, it is rare to look a great weblog like this one these days..

  4. #4 by cistronic on 2011/07/15 - 17:27

    Thanks! This is build using the WordPress-Theme “Fusion” by digitalnature. (see the very bottom of the page for links)

  5. #5 by cistronic on 2011/07/20 - 21:23

    On the topic of peer review see also: Do we need an alternative to peer-reviewed journals?
    By Jonathan M. Gitlin

  6. #6 by cistronic on 2011/07/21 - 12:51

    Avoiding the hype-cycle: “Curing Pharma: (1) Avoiding Hype-based Science” by Anthony Nicholls

  7. #7 by cistronic on 2012/03/09 - 13:12

    “… I mean those kinds of things which we perceive are significant things. Relativity, if you want, Shannon’s information theory, any number of outstanding theories – that’s the kind of thing I’m talking about.” – A transcript of Richard Hamming’s talk (at the
    Bell Communications Research Colloquium Seminar, 7 March 1986) with many insights on what doing really good science is anbout:

  8. #9 by cistronic on 2012/07/11 - 17:14

    “I am in a cargo-cult, what do I do if the plane actually lands: Do entrepreneurs really learn?” – nice post on cargo-cult entrepreneurship

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