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March 8, 2005 7:15 PM   Subscribe

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make 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 to 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. Excerpt from Cargo Cult Science by Richard Feynman
posted by pieoverdone (49 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Huh. I guess my sincerity detector is out of whack — I was expecting a bunch of snarky links about Creationism or something. These were more interesting, though. Thanks.
posted by nebulawindphone at 7:26 PM on March 8, 2005


Interesting links. Bear in mind, though, that we (USians,anyway) are a cargo cult. Go to TGI Fridays/Applebees/Cracker Barrel and look up.
posted by mmahaffie at 7:31 PM on March 8, 2005


Great post!
posted by dhoyt at 7:39 PM on March 8, 2005


Richard Feynman?

THE Richard Feynman?

My god it IS!

Amazing ... the more I learn about that guy, the more impressed I am.

Great bongo player too!
posted by Relay at 8:06 PM on March 8, 2005


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.

Makes sense, but I didn't learn why this is important until I took a stats class and covered analysis of variance, to see the numbers for myself. Funny how Feynman knew how to boil down an idea to its simple expression of truth.
posted by AlexReynolds at 8:11 PM on March 8, 2005


Christopher Moore has a great book with a plot based around cargo cults, Island of the Sequined Love Nun.
posted by greatgefilte at 8:17 PM on March 8, 2005


Go to TGI Fridays/Applebees/Cracker Barrel and look up.

For this to apply, we must take the accumulation of folksy stuff to be a ritualistic tool used by the restaurant to evoke an ambience (the "we're middle-class white folks partying" feeling of these casual chains) and thus sidestep actually creating something to party about.

I think that might work, but I feel like this could go further.
posted by NickDouglas at 8:27 PM on March 8, 2005


If you want a real creep-out, read the second link ("cargo cult") while listening to the Aria from Philip Glass's "Einstein on the Beach." It's a religious experience I just stumbled on, and around which I will now form a belief system.
posted by NickDouglas at 8:32 PM on March 8, 2005


You want more of this stuff about psuedoscience and junk science and why many people believe crazy ass stuff like crop circles and ESP and such -- I highly reccomend Carl Sagan's Demon Haunted World. It deals with many of these themes and is a strong call for science education.
posted by the theory of revolution at 8:40 PM on March 8, 2005


Wonderful links. Feyman text is, well, Feyman - excellent. But I rather enjoyed learning (from the first link) the history of the Prophet Yali and how he made the Aussies look like fools (and managed to drive the Christian priests away and de-evangelize his people). Smart guy. While the cargo still won't come, it is better to wait for cargo than to spend a Christian life of fear and guilty hoping for after-death payback.
posted by nkyad at 10:09 PM on March 8, 2005


(Thus why I wrote last month, "Objectivism is the cargo cult of philosophy". They've copied the trappings of reason and wave them around wildly, hoping that Ayn Rand's plane will land and upon them she will bestow her blessings.)

The head of the cargo cult was taken to Australia and given tours of factories, warehouses, distribution centers, and airfields. To the astonishment of the Australian authorities, this did not deter his belief. This is as it ever has been.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:10 PM on March 8, 2005 [1 favorite]


Wow...
Now I know, and knowing is half the battle.
Thanks for this!
posted by numlok at 10:26 PM on March 8, 2005


Build it and they will come.....NOT!
posted by mono blanco at 10:31 PM on March 8, 2005


I've been fascinated with this ever since I saw a brief mention of it in a mythology book. Great post, pieoverdone.
posted by cmyk at 10:36 PM on March 8, 2005


Thinking about cargo cults always depresses me. Such fervent belief, such impressive effort, such shining uncrushable hope for the future. And all based on an idea that is, to us, so obviously misguided.
posted by hattifattener at 10:38 PM on March 8, 2005




LOL @ mono blanco --- Great Post!!!
posted by zach4000 at 11:43 PM on March 8, 2005


Great bongo player too!

BWAHAHAHAHA *wipes tear from eye*

Great post, and Feynman is a great man. One of those people I'm sad I never got to meet, but you can really feel like you've met him through his writings.
posted by TungstenChef at 12:17 AM on March 9, 2005


"I'm, uh, studying massage. Could I practice on you?"

Heh...
posted by sour cream at 12:53 AM on March 9, 2005


whoa great link! i love finding out about these kinda things viewed from an anthropological standpoint.
posted by wessatong at 1:07 AM on March 9, 2005


In Vanuatu, a group of cargo cultists asked the pilot arriving with goods who the tribal chief of Britain was. He informed them it was the Queen. However, their culture could not stomach the idea of a female god, so they natrually inquired who her husband was. The group apparently still worship the Duke of Edinburgh.

We need more snarky creationist links.
posted by Pretty_Generic at 1:35 AM on March 9, 2005


/worships feynman
posted by Pretty_Generic at 1:36 AM on March 9, 2005


This is some fascinating stuff. But what is this supposed to be? From the h2g2 article on the subject:
The Christian Message (Interpreted)

In the native view, the Christians worshipped the god Anus.
Eh?
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 3:40 AM on March 9, 2005


They were referring to the, eh, rather unfortunate mis-interpretation of Christianity by the natives. Within context, the same article also discussed how practitioners of voodoo thought they were acting like devout Catholics should be, etc.
posted by DaShiv at 3:53 AM on March 9, 2005


Admitting limitations and being open to criticism may be construed as weekness by some, but in fact is strength. It is the strength of scientific method that has resulted in the progress that we have enjoyed in the past 4 hundred years. It is the antithesis of a faith based existence and is what distances us from the likes of the cargo cultists and the various extinct South American civilisations, for example.

A move back toward 'faith based' decision making is a retrograde step and cannot benefit the human race. Humility and open discussion of ideas will help our survival. Scientific method allows for the discussion of ideas outside of the influence of political, economic and religious influences that can colour judgement. As in Socratic dialogue, the ideal of consensus is something we should strive toward, but not neccesarily an attainable result.

Spirituality supports reality, we gotta strive for the right mentality.
Where; spirituality=playing the bongos
right mentality=scientific method.
posted by asok at 4:10 AM on March 9, 2005


John Frum he come!

A few years ago I read an article that linked the cargo cult phenomenon or impulse to the legend of the sirens found in Homer's Odyssey. I just spent 20 minutes googling and gscholaring fruitlessly for it, and I kick myself for not remembering who wrote it or what the title was but I think it was in the Classical Quarterly. Anyway, the writer suggested that the legend of the Sirens had its roots in some reality of the mediterranean. It posited that a people inhabiting a coastline marked by treacherous shoals had realized that if they could lure passing merchant ships into the rocks they could then wade down and collect free cargo from the shipwreck. Over time this passed into folklore as the Sirens.

Just thought I would mention that, as it seems to me like the will to cargo is probably a pretty old human instinct. See also Frazer's The Golden Bough, and especially the chapter on imitative magic for more about getting shit for free.

Isn't that whole notion of "dressing for success" an implementation of the same sort of thought? We think that if we dress like the wealthy and successful we too will become wealthy and succesful.
posted by mokujin at 4:48 AM on March 9, 2005


Celebrity endorsements work.
posted by DaShiv at 5:11 AM on March 9, 2005


I had never heard of this before. I love you, MetaFilter. (And I worship you like a god.)
posted by ColdChef at 6:43 AM on March 9, 2005


Back to the nuts and bolts, I remember high school experiments where knowing what the results were supposed to be, I, either consciously or unconsciously, would modify numbers. Would the teacher mark me down for "wrong data"?

It's not a big step from that to gathering data for researchers in college where I had an idea of the thesis they expected. Of course, the methods to verify my research were better. I couldn't just change things. But I could've missed something new and exciting because I wanted it to match something else. When did I develop the required mindset for honest research? It wasn't with the "expected the expected and give us the right numbers" mentality I learned in high school. Research isn't just about open and honest reporting, as Feynman said; it's about having an open and honest mind.
posted by artifarce at 7:01 AM on March 9, 2005


This is neat stuff. It was neat last year, too. Thanks for the Feynman link!
posted by mds35 at 7:12 AM on March 9, 2005


Fooo. I searched Feynman and Cargo Cult.
posted by pieoverdone at 7:14 AM on March 9, 2005


Thanks pieoverdone! I've been trying to spread the word about cargo cults for years; now I can just point people to this post.
posted by all-seeing eye dog at 7:36 AM on March 9, 2005


This is neat stuff. It was neat last year, too.

...it was neat in 2002 as well.

Though this is a far better post, pieoverdone.
posted by jbrjake at 7:54 AM on March 9, 2005


I am going to get a plane, load it with goods, and fly on over there.

Once I land, I will declare myself John Frum. I will distribute goods, hailing myself as a diety.

I will tell the locals that if they want more goods to arrive they will have to appease me, and I am easily bored and hungry for innocent flesh.

This is how I will live out the remainder of my days.
posted by Sully at 8:15 AM on March 9, 2005


...this is a far better post, pieoverdone.

Agreed! Well done, pieoverdone.
posted by mds35 at 8:31 AM on March 9, 2005


John Frum = "Hi, I'm John, from US of A!" Maybe that is why there is no record of the soldier...

I was just reading about this in Paul Thereoux's travel book "Happy Isles of Oceania". If any of you wish you were traveling there right now, I suggest reading it as an alternative.
posted by hellinskira at 8:36 AM on March 9, 2005


Dream Park by Pournelle/Barnes has a fictional RPG scenario within the fiction of the book itself that's based on a Cargo Cult and a golden "egg" that turns out to be an A-bomb. Amusing romp. Not saying it's in any way non-fictional, more an indication of our Sci-Fi/RPG cultural interaction with our conception of who these folks are.
posted by kalessin at 8:59 AM on March 9, 2005


Only on metafilter - I just spent the last 20 minutes trying to figure out why I was recently thinking about cargo cults, was it a game I was playing on the computer? No, it was a book. . . a book about a game. . . but not a real game, a sci fi book. . . not a new book, a book from goodwill, how am I going to google that? And then kalessin found and posted it.

If I had better google-fu maybe I could find the movie I'm thinking about too, from the 80s I think, where a helicopter or plane dumps all its contents on a remote island, and the inhabitants take it as a sign? There's no dialogue in the whole movie, just a dropped boombox playing Buttercup.
posted by mygothlaundry at 9:28 AM on March 9, 2005


Cargo... One could write a Pacific Island version of "waiting for God(ot)" out of this.

Also: Feyman in more detail about his encounter with Uri Geller.
posted by talos at 9:46 AM on March 9, 2005


All those islanders celebrating my birthday all these years, and I didn't even know I was destined to become John Frum. Fate has spoken.
posted by DaShiv at 9:50 AM on March 9, 2005


Hmmmm. Let me see if I have this straight.

Symbological artifacts are prepared. Elaborate rituals are performed on a regular basis. A strong sense of Faith is the foundation to their beliefs. All in preparation of the "return", of salvation from heaven.

Nope never heard of that one before.

What a backward and primitive people. They are "obviously misguided".
posted by somnambulist at 10:05 AM on March 9, 2005


Not to state the obvious or anything.
posted by skyline at 10:21 AM on March 9, 2005


fabulous post, pieoverdone - thanks!
posted by madamjujujive at 10:54 AM on March 9, 2005


But this long history of learning how to not fool ourselves -- of having utter scientific integrity -- is, I'm sorry to say, something that we haven't specifically included in any particular course that I know of. We just hope you've caught on by osmosis

I went a different university, but there was a course at mine that spent a lot of time dealing directly with this stuff - Philosophy of Science. Only problem was, there was no need to do that course (and plenty of reason not to) to get a science degree. Thus the university could graduate with a science degree people who ddidn't understand the basic principles of science. (I knew at least one where the misconceptions were shocking). Many people assume that philosophy courses are the useless ones, when they often seem to be the most important ones. Not sure why they have such a bad rap. Maybe when work-training is felt to be more important than education, theory gets relegated to second place.
posted by -harlequin- at 10:59 AM on March 9, 2005


Great collection of links about the cargo cults--when I first read about them a while back, there was some mention of Prince Charles, if I recall correctly--for some reason, they seem to think he's destined to come rescue them.
posted by etaoin at 11:19 AM on March 9, 2005


If I had better google-fu maybe I could find the movie I'm thinking about too, from the 80s I think, where a helicopter or plane dumps all its contents on a remote island, and the inhabitants take it as a sign? There's no dialogue in the whole movie, just a dropped boombox playing Buttercup.

Sounds like the movie "The Gods must be crazy", but this film has some dialog in the form of narration and it concerns a quest to dispose of a troublesome bottle dropped from an airplane.

Still, if you are in the mood for a Cargo Cult inspired movie this should do the trick.
posted by Gif at 12:37 PM on March 9, 2005


mygothlaundry, the movie you're thinking of is not "The Gods Must Be Crazy", but rather Luggage Of The Gods!.

I rented "Luggage Of The Gods!" for the weekly movie night at a house I shared with some friends. I wasn't allowed to rent any more movies after that.

Clearly, getting the rights to "Buttercup" ate up most of the budget, which is why they played it every five minutes.
posted by murphy slaw at 4:15 PM on March 9, 2005


"Boss, ze plane ze plane!!!!!!!!!!"

A truely bizzare story. Now I understand the lines and pictures at Nazca.
posted by snsranch at 8:09 PM on March 9, 2005


somnambulist wrote " Symbological artifacts are prepared. Elaborate rituals are performed on a regular basis. A strong sense of Faith is the foundation to their beliefs. All in preparation of the 'return', of salvation from heaven.

"Nope never heard of that one before.

"What a backward and primitive people. They are 'obviously misguided'."


How inciting and clever! Why, it would have never occured to me, nor any of the other Mefi readers. Thank you!
posted by Bugbread at 3:02 PM on March 10, 2005


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