In addition to being a Nobel Laureate (1965), great story teller, and perhaps the most passionate and unrelenting student of physics in the 20th century, Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was also one of the greatest contemporary teachers of physics. His Feynman Lectures are no less than a gold standard in science education and still inspire and inform students more than 40 years after they were first given. Many professional physicists I have known (perhaps secretly) refer to his Lectures on Physics whenever they need a quick “refresher” on a topic or a summary of a long-forgotten area well beyond their specialty. Feynman was quirky, unique, eccentric, out-spoken, always informative, and always in command of his subject. He did not respect self aggrandizing appearances or mimetic behavior and showed this in an address he gave in 1974 at a commencement ceremony at CalTech, now recorded in essay form here and here.
In Cargo Cult Science Feynman lights on several pseudo-scientific pursuits that cause him concern: ESP, metal bending, mystical states, reflexology, and yes, education. An acknowledged master at both physics research and education, he says:
“A teacher who has some good idea of how to teach her children to read is forced by the school system to do it some other way—or is even fooled by the school system into thinking that her method is not necessarily a good one. …So we really ought to look into theories that don’t work, and science that isn’t science.”
Feynman had a clear view of what was scientific, that is, what followed the scientific method and produced testable laws. Education did not, in Feynman’s mind, qualify as Science but was relegated to Cargo Cult Science – a mimetic form that played at being scientific but didn’t deliver the goods.
From the talk:
“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 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 this 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—a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.”
Feynman was not antagonistic towards the arts, he just didn’t think that a theory in a social science, for example, was equivalent to that in a physical science:
“But then I began to think, what else is there that we believe? (And I thought then about the witch doctors, and how easy it would have been to check on them by noticing that nothing really worked.) So I found things that even more people believe, such as that we have some knowledge of how to educate. There are big schools of reading methods and mathematics methods, and so forth, but if you notice, you’ll see the reading scores keep going down—or hardly going up in spite of the fact that we continually use these same people to improve the methods. There’s a witch doctor remedy that doesn’t work. It ought to be looked into; how do they know that their method should work?”
More to the point, these “theories” can intimidate and confuse, and often don’t go much farther than advertisements in their ability to inform:
“The easiest way to explain this idea is to contrast it, for example, with advertising. Last night I heard that Wesson oil doesn’t soak through food. Well, that’s true. It’s not dishonest; but the thing I’m talking about is not just a matter of not being dishonest, it’s a matter of scientific integrity, which is another level. The fact that should be added to that advertising statement is that no oils soak through food, if operated at a certain temperature. If operated at another temperature, they all will— including Wesson oil. So it’s the implication which has been conveyed, not the fact, which is true, and the difference is what we have to deal with.”
The bottom line is honesty, integrity and awareness. Education, technical training, instructional design, and plain old teaching are complex fusions of art and science. They are complicated endeavors for which we have yet to figure out the laws. As Feynman would say, it’s like we are learning the laws of chess by watching games being played, and gradually deduce that certain pieces remain on the same color square and that certain odd behaviors between pieces (like castling) can occur in a corner of the board. Being unscientific doesn’t necessarily make an endeavor worthless, undesirable or even ineffective, but it does behoove us to be clear about its character. It’s important to be honest about the level of our understanding and know the limits of the technologies we employ, be they educational theories, pet approaches in the classroom, or PowerPoint.