My New Favourite Buzzword: Cargo Cult Science

As buzzwords go, it’s a pearler. Cargo Cult Science incorporates all of the subtleties of the various areas of pseudo-science in three short words, far more effectively (in my opinion) than Voodoo Science or Quackery.

I came across the word last week while reading an article about bad programming practice where a problem was isolates as being “Cargo Cult Programming”. The scenario was one where a developer obviously had an incomplete understanding of the reason why certain things are done and just blindly did the same thing again and again because he heard it was good practice … even though, in the scenario the article analysed, it was probably worst practice.

So where does “Cargo Cult” come from? Cargo Cult is an anthropological term to describe the tribes of Micronesia and other areas of the South Pacific who had a rather strange belief. During World War II, the islands of South Pacific became strategic locations for the Japanese, the Americans and the British Royal Navy based in Australia and New Zealand. In some cases, the isolated tribes of the region had their first encounters with outsiders during the war. They would watch as armies moved in, constructed airfields, and strange cargo arrived from the heavens. Believing that the cargo had been sent by the gods, these tribes believed that simply constructing an airfield would mean that they would get cargo. After building simple “airfields” and not receiving any cargo, they did not discard their assumption but assumed that the airfield wasn’t detailed enough.

US Stamp 10c 1941 Over time, after carefully spying on the airfields that the armies had constructed, the cults began building highly detailed airfields from the available materials and even had control towers with bamboo aerials, a traffic controller sitting behind a desk wearing a “headset”.

When I heard about this years ago, I thought that it was a fallacious rumour, a joke about how “backwards” primitive thinkers are. Only when I heard the term now did I start researching the subject again.

So like the Cargo Cults, Cargo Cult Programmers will be found copying and pasting code almost at random until it seems to work, not actually understanding the underlying principles. Similarly, the Cargo Cult Scientists like homoeopaths, reiki healers, vitamin mega-dose doctors and so on, are all pretending to do genuine science, they have all the authentic equipment, the big words and the white lab coats, but they are only imitating, not grasping the actual essence of scientific research.

The term “Cargo Cult Science” was coined by Richard Feynmann (the other giant name in Quantum Physics) during the Caltech commencement speech in 1974. You can read the speech here and I highly recommend it.

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~ by James on 7 December 2008.

3 Responses to “My New Favourite Buzzword: Cargo Cult Science”

  1. I love it.

  2. Excellent stuff… I found the Feynman article very interesting indeed, thanks for pointing me to it.

  3. Dawkins gives a brief introduction to cargo cults in The God Delusion, and I agree – the concept is absolutely beautiful to express so much of what is wrong with both pseudoscience and religion in general.

    Most hardcore Christians are quite upset when confronted with real proof of how easy it is for an absurd belief system, complete with dogma and ritual, to just spring up overnight and persist for decades. I just love telling people about cargo cults, and I’m glad more skeptics are learning about them.

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