Coconut Sandwiches & Cargo Cult Science

After the recent Psychology of Science conference in Pittsburgh, my partner and I traveled a little further east to visit friends in Lawrence, NJ, which is a few miles from Princeton. On the way, we stopped off at the Memphis Taproom in Philadelphia for an excellent smoked coconut club sandwich. This is a clever vegan take on the bacon sandwich, consisting of grilled lemon garlic tofu, smoked coconut, and tomato herb mayo on toasted bread. The smoked flakes of coconut actually taste like bacon! The Memphis taproom and the smoked coconut sandwich were featured on Diners, Drive-Ins, & Dives (click to see the relevant segment; the bit with the coconut club starts at 4:54). We also had the suicide onion rings and beer-battered kosher pickles with horseradish buttermilk dip. Mmmmm……

The next day, after arriving in New Jersey, our friends took us into Princeton to see the campus and the town. One of our stops on this mini-tour was to look at the art museum, which was rather impressive. Another stop was the science library. Whilst there, I had a browse through the recent issues of periodicals on display. I was looking for psychology journals, out of idle interest. They did not appear to have Cognitive Science, Cognition, or Applied Cognitive Psychology (although they may have been (a) elsewhere, or (b) subscribed to in electronic format only), but I did find recent issues of Creation Matters on the shelves. Creation Matters is a newsletter-style publication produced by the Creation Research Society. I picked up one of the recent issues and found an article explaining how mutation and natural selection do not adequately explain finches’ beaks. Maybe this is a hot topic among creationists. Fearing for my brain cells, and because the parking meter was running out, I left the library. Later, I googled Creation Matters and found the Creation Research website , where all but the most recent issues are available as pdfs.

(At this point, I feel I should issue a warning. Spending any amount of time reading the material on this site may reduce you to a gibbering wreck.)

Out of idle curiosity, I picked the most recent available issue, Sept/Oct 2011, and started flicking through it. Towards the back of the publication there is an advert for the Seventh International Conference on Creationism, to be held in Pittsburgh (where we had just attended the fabulous Psychology of Science conference). What I found very interesting about the conference website is the very specific guidance given to those reviewing submissions. In principle, specific guidance to both authors and reviewers is good practice. However, the nature of these guidelines struck me as something unlike anything I’ve seen for any of the conferences I’ve submitted to and/or reviewed for:

(a) Does the Author provide a complete classification of this Summary (Area)? If the Summary is not properly classified, the Area-Editor is to classify it within another area, then the initial Area-Editor is to contact the appropriate Area-Editor for its inclusion. If unable to classify a Summary, then the EB Chairman is to be consulted for the final decision. (If a Summary is impossible to classify then it ought to be rejected or returned to the Author for resubmission).
(b) Is the Summary’s topic important to the development of the creation model?
(c) Does the Summary’s topic provide an original contribution to the creation model?
(d) Is this Summary formulated within a young-earth, young-universe framework?
(e) If (d) above is not satisfied, does this Summary offer a very constructively-positive criticism and provide a possible young-earth, young-universe alternative?
(f) If the Summary is polemical in nature, does it deal with a topic rarely discussed within the origins debate?
(g) Does this Summary provide evidence of faithfulness to the grammatico-historical/normative interpretation of Scripture? (if necessary refer to Walsh, R.E., Biblical Hermeneutics and Creation, Proceedings First International Conference on Creationism, Creation Science Fellowship, Inc., Pittsburgh, PA, 1986, Vol. 1, pp. 121-127).

Note items d, e, and g in particular. No dissenters allowed! Now, to be fair, one could argue that this is an event by creationists, for creationists, and they can choose to exclude non-creationists from the conference. Fine. But this is one of many indicators that “creation science” is a term that is only half accurate. I have never seen instructions for submission to a scientific conference or journal that require submitters to hold to a particular theory or theoretical perspective, or require allegiance to a religious doctrine. If creationists want to do all these things, they should feel free, but not try to pass themselves off as scientists; this is a religious publication and a religious conference. However, there are good reasons for some creationists to wear a mantle of scientific respectability, including attempts to get a specific religious belief taught in science classes. The superficial trappings of science, laid over a set of practices that are not scientific, is evidence that creation science and its offspring, intelligent design, are examples of cargo cult science.

Cargo cult science is a term introduced by Richard Feynman in 1974 to describe a variety of pseudoscientific practices and disciples that “follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential”. In cases of pseudoscience and cargo cult science, what is missing is the actual science: a willingness to be open to the falsity of hypotheses, to conduct carefully controlled experiments, to not inadvertently fool ourselves, and not deliberately attempt to fool others.

The original notion of a cargo cult refers to pre-industrial civilisations (typcially pacific islanders) who are exposed to advanced technology, and mimic the superficial aspects of that technology in an attempt to recreate it. The classic example is that of

the Melanesian islanders in the years during and after World War II. A small population of unsophisticated peoples observed, often right in front of their dwellings, the largest war ever fought between technologically advanced countries. First, the Japanese arrived with a great deal of supplies and later the Allied forces did likewise.

The vast amounts of materiel that both sides airdropped (or airlifted to airstrips) to troops on these islands meant drastic changes to the lifestyle of the islanders, many of whom had never seen outsiders before. Manufactured clothing, medicine, canned food, tents, weapons and other goods arrived in vast quantities for the soldiers, who often shared some of it with the islanders who were their guides and hosts.

After the war, when the troops and associated personnel had left,

charismatic individuals developed cults among remote Melanesian populations that promised to bestow on their followers deliveries of food, arms, Jeeps, etc. The cult leaders explained that the cargo would be gifts from their own ancestors, or other sources, as had occurred with the outsider armies. In attempts to get cargo to fall by parachute or land in planes or ships again, islanders imitated the same practices they had seen the soldiers, sailors, and airmen use. Cult behaviors usually involved mimicking the day to day activities and dress styles of US soldiers, such as performing parade ground drills with wooden or salvaged rifles. The islanders carved headphones from wood and wore them while sitting in fabricated control towers. They waved the landing signals while standing on the runways. They lit signal fires and torches to light up runways and lighthouses

In a form of sympathetic magic, many built life-size replicas of aeroplanes out of straw and cut new military-style landing strips out of the jungle, hoping to attract more aeroplanes.

Just as the islanders built control towers, signal fires, and headphones in the hope of attracting Western goods, the creationists hold peer-reviewed conferences, publish papers in journals, publicize the academic credentials of any who are sympathetic to their cause, and try to engage in debates with scientists in the hope of attracting the aura of respectability, wisdom, and influence that they imagine real scientists to have.