Cargo cults are fun.
You don’t get to say that about many types of cult, but this is really fascinating.
The best known (though not the earliest) examples of cargo cults seem to come from around the Second World War. The Allied forces would often set up military bases on remote Pacific islands, where the native inhabitants had had little or no previous contact with the Western world. The Allies would establish airstrips on these islands, so that equipment and supplies could be flown in, and would often share the incoming food and medicine with the natives who were helping them out.
The islanders clearly saw the benefit in having all this stuff delivered, but didn’t have any context into which to place the idea of airdrops, so they often attributed a great deal of mystique and supernatural wonder to the process. When the war ended, the Allies packed up and left, and there was no need for any more deliveries to be flown out to these islands – but the islanders themselves were still keen to bring in the goods, and looked for any way they might be able to make it happen.
They’d seen how the Westerners had made it happen, of course. Whenever they’d summoned the vessels bearing goods, there were people out there on the airstrips, waving signals to the incoming aircraft and lighting up the runway, and sitting in the control towers wearing strange-looking headgear. If the islanders could just emulate this behaviour with sufficient fidelity, then surely they too could earn similar gifts from whatever forces the Allies had previously evoked.
So, they tried to summon back the planes full of food and medicine and clothing. They went out and lit signal fires. They built big aircraft-shaped straw models. They made up little control towers to sit in, and held headphones carved from wood to their ears, and did everything they’d seen the Westerners doing which had made aeroplanes come and unload their stuff. They set up their own little cult, based around the cargo.
Sadly, they’re yet to succeed.
Putting together mock planes, constructed of whatever materials were available and entirely non-functioning, was clearly never going to achieve the same goals as, y’know, an actual plane being flown in. And we know that sitting in a thrown-together control tower with some wood and bamboo on your head doesn’t adequately serve any of the purposes of a military headset – the islanders’ carved equipment had none of the electronic components needed to communicate with the pilots, who weren’t there anyway. That’s just not how things work.
But the people who lived isolated lives on these islands couldn’t possibly have had any conception of the massive international infrastructure behind the Allies’ missions and the airdrops they involved. There was no possible way they could infer all the chains of reasoning that led to all this food turning up in flying metal containers, knowing as little as they did about this distant civilisation. They just read what they could into events they couldn’t fully understand, and tried to work with it in a way that made sense to them. They knew that the rituals the Westerners performed with the landing strips and control towers were important somehow, but not their ultimate significance, when it came to looking at the big picture.
And this kind of erroneous thinking can be seen in other circumstances, such as in what Nobel prize-winning king of awesome Richard Feynman dubbed “cargo cult science“. It describes a more general way of getting things wrong: an attempt to work with a particular set of facts and to make scientific progress in a particular area, while missing a fundamental understanding of some deeper principles at work. Particularly, cases where the outer form of some phenomenon is replicated, and it is assumed that whatever underlying principles made it work in the first place will also be copied.
One example springs to mind, relating this idea to the kinds of things I’m usually actively skeptical of on this blog: ghost hunters. Scientists often do use lots of technical electronic measuring equipment when investigating things, but the sole fact that you’re waving around a spookyometer as you wander about an old creaky house in the dark isn’t enough to imply that you’re doing science now. They mean well, and they’re often sincerely trying to replicate the authentic scientific processes they’ve seen other people using. But the fundamental principles of objectively gathering data, testing hypotheses, and building up strong and resilient theories over time still escapes them.