I recently read Richard Feynman’s Caltech commencement address given in 1974. In that address Feynman mentioned Cargo Cult Science.[Here is a short video describing Cargo Cults which sprang up in the South Pacific after WWII.]
Feynman told his audience that there are institutions and individuals who belong to a Cargo Cult of Science. I was struck by how I had the same thoughts but my analogy was The Beverly Hillbillies (more on that in a minute).
Feynman said scientists [he was speaking of physicists] often go through the motions of doing science by conducting studies in areas about which they already know the answers, writing papers saying what they know the reviewers will want to hear, making promises about the application of their findings that are not based upon their actual results, and educating students to know many things but understand very little.
I see these same Cargo Cult characteristics in nursing science. Nursing programs use criteria for advancement which include counting papers published and dollars obtained from funding agencies, laud faculty with numerous citations( even when those lauded are frequently citing themselves), verbalize support for research while exponentially increasing enrollment, and hire administrators whose job it is to “stimulate” research.
Like aboriginal people trying to “trap” cargo by building artifacts resembling the real thing, nursing programs often try to secure outside funding by adopting behaviors that only appear to be scholarly.
Now, for the Beverly Hillbillies. Do you remember the episode in which Ellie Mae and Jed Clampitt went to Mr. Dreyfus’ bank where he gave them each a desk and a telephone? They sat for a while and then Ellie Mae rose and shouted “Pa, is we banking yet?” I have often imagined nurse faculty looking at one another and asking, “Is we scholaring yet?” In some settings our scholarship is treated more as “widget production” than true discovery with all its accompanying messiness, setbacks, uncertainty, and slow progress.
In his address Feynman extolled students to adopt behaviors that are seldom taught, but hopefully demonstrated, saying
Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they’re missing [those who follow a Cargo Cult]. 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 [wooden] 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 say explicitly 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.
Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can–if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong–to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.
Nursing science could graduate from Cargo Cult Science to “Authentic Science” by adopting the behaviors Feynman pointed out to graduating students at Caltech in the 1974. I hope that we are not so focused on “quality” measures that can be counted that we overlook what actually counts. What counts is the utter honesty that Feynman described. As faculty members, journal reviewers, and nurse researchers we need to make room for utter honesty in our work. Otherwise, we will find ourselves wondering why the knowledge artifacts we are creating are not significantly improving the health of our patients and communities.