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Modern Cargo Cult Science: Evidence-Based Medicine, Science Fiction in China

Posted Nov 19 2013 12:00am

In a graduation speech , Richard Feynman called certain intellectual endeavors “cargo cult science,” meaning they had the trappings of science but not the substance. One thing he criticized was rat psychology. He was wrong about that. Sure, as Feynman complained, lots of rat psychology experiments have led nowhere, just as lots of books aren’t good. But you need to publish lots of bad books to support the infrastructure necessary to publish a few good ones. The same is true of rat psychology experiments. A few are very good. The bad make possible the good. Rat psychology experiments, especially those by Israel Ramirez and Anthony Sclafani, led me to a new theory of weight control, which led me to the Shangri-La Diet.

Cargo cult science does exist.  The most important modern example is evidence-based medicine. Notice how ritualistic it is and how little progress medicine has made since it became popular. An evidence-based medicine review of tonsillectomies  failed to realize they were worse than voodoo . Voodoo, unlike a tonsillectomy, does not damage your immune system. The evidence-based medicine reviewers appeared not to know that tonsils are part of the immune system. Year after year, the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology tells the world, between the lines of the press release, that once again medical researchers have failed to make progress on any major disease, as the prize is always given for work with little or no practical value. In the 1950s, the polio vaccine was progress; so was figuring out that smoking causes lung cancer (which didn’t get a Nobel Prize). There have been no comparable advances since then. Researchers at top medical schools remain profoundly unaware of what causes heart disease, most cancers, depression, bipolar disorder, obesity, diabetes and so on.

I came across cargo-cult thinking recently in a talk by Neil Gaiman :

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

I know about Chinese engineers at Microsoft and Google in Beijing. They want to leave the country. An American friend, who worked at Microsoft, was surprised by the unanimity of their desire to leave. I wasn’t surprised. Why innovate or invent if the government might seize your company? Which is the main point of Why Nations Fail. Allowing science fiction in China doesn’t change that.

Thanks to Claire Hsu.

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