Cargo cults: Are you a member?
Posted on Friday, 30 June, 2006 | 8 comments
Columnist: Ken Korczak
If you are a computer programmer, a faithful church goer, or a real estate developer, a lot of your practice may be based on sheer nonsense, and you may not know it. You may have fallen prey to a Cargo Cult. The story of the origin of Cargo Cult culture is fascinating, and sheds light on how perhaps all religions originate, but also on how superstitious beliefs infect even our highly technical and scientific society.Today on the South Sea island of Tanna, Britain's Prince Philip is worshipped as a god. Prince Philip recently sent 300 autographed pictures of himself to the Tannan cult members, who treasure his image. In the picture, Prince Philip holds a traditional war club, although to make it totally authentic, he should have been naked. Even though the Prince is fully clothed, the Tannan Cargo Cult members prize the pictures as holy icons with magical powers.Why do they worship the British Price? To understand, we must consider the Cargo Cult. The phenomenon goes back more than 80 years, but really flourished during World War II. Natives on many south Pacific islands had never before seen airplanes, modern war ships and other strange sights -- such as tanks, Jeeps and men wearing godlike clothing. Very often, cargo planes would parachute crates of clothing, canned food, tents, weapons and other useful stuff for the amazing new visitors -- who often shared the goodies with the natives.But when the war ended, the soldiers left and all the stuff stopped dropping from the sky.
The natives assumed that all they had to do was imitate the practices they had seen the soldiers performing to make the “sky gods” come back with all the neat stuff. Thus, they carved headphones from wood, and wore them while sitting in fabricated control towers, or airplanes made of bamboo. They waved landing signals while standing on the old runways. The cultists thought that the foreigners had some special connection to their own gods, who were the only beings powerful enough to produce such riches.Of course, every once in a while, a plane or visitor would return - and the cult priests took credit for it. Before long, the new Cargo Cults became established religions, many which have lasted ever since. Cargo Cult thinking was blended with indigenous religious practices, and before long, intricate and elaborate belief systems -- religions -- arose based on origins that Cargo Culters of today don’t understand. Modern Cargo Culters accept the rules, dogma and tenets of their religion “on faith” and based on the way their parents raised them ito believe. Sound familiar? Think off all the rules, rituals and ceremonies of modern day religions. How much of it might have originally produced by a Cargo Cult mentality?Cargo Cult thinking is very much alive today, and particularly susceptible to it are computer programmers. Cargo cult programming is characterized by the ritual inclusion of code structures that serve no real purpose.
Those who write Cargo cult programs explain their useless code as a way of working around a certain computer bug, whose origins they know nothing about. A classic example are programmers who think that using commenting code is good, and then produce every line with comments such as "increment i by 1". The result is a lot of bad, problematic computer coding that can screw up a lot of things. Those who fall prey to cargo cult programming do so because of the same thought process displayed by primitive peoples on remote islands -- they saw other, advanced computer programmers doing it, so they assumed it was affective and good.But it’s not just computer geeks who are unwitting members of Cargo Cults. In the world of business, all kinds of economic distress results from Cargo Cult mentality. A classic example are the many failed shopping malls in many cities. Because some shopping malls become successful and lucrative, other developers assume that all they have to do is build their own shopping mall to achieve the same success. But any shopping mall is successful for a wide variety of complex economic variables, demographic trends, market demands -- not just the building itself. Cargo Cult thinking prevents people from thinking critically and scientifically about what they are doing. The result is often disaster.Today, we laugh at primitive cultures on remote islands when they build a replica of a Cessna airplane out of bamboo and fern fronds, and then sit inside it while wearing a couple of coconut shells over their ears to imitate modern headphones. We think it’s weird that anyone worship the image of Prince Philip. Yet, you can find the same phenomenon every day in our modern world, from computer programming to real estate ventures -- not to mention mainstream religion -- which are almost certainly deeply embedded with hidden, forgotten Cargo Cult rituals and rationales of all kinds.Even brilliant scientists can fall into the Cargo Cult trap.
The great physicist Richard Feynman said he saw examples of Cargo Cult thinking all the time. He said that many scientists often produce studies with all the trappings of real science, but which are nonetheless pseudoscience and unworthy of either respect or support. The cure, for Cargo Cult thinking, he said, was strict adherence to scientific method, and rigorous peer review of all practice, theory and results.Yet, Cargo Cult mentality is insidious, often invisible and extremely difficult to detect. How much of your life, your beliefs, your work, your practices are the result of the Cargo Cult phenomenon? Think about it.
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Ken Korczak is the author of Minnesota Paranormala: