Overcoming Cargo Cult Science

  • Date: 12/08/19
  • David Chapman, Meaningness

“Cargo cult science” performs rituals that imitate science, but are not science. “Doing what scientists do” is not doing science, and won’t deliver—just as “doing what a ground crew does” doesn’t bring planes.

If you create a good enough airport—the cargo will come.

What does it take for an individual to do innovative intellectual work, such as scientific discovery? Mere mastery of methods is not good enough.

What does it take for a community or institution to address a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world effectively? Mission statements, structures, principles, and procedures are not good enough.

Cargo cult science

Richard Feynman—the foremost physicist of the mid-20th century—gave a famous commencement address on “cargo cult science.”1

During World War II, many Pacific islands that previously had little or no contact with the modern world were used as air bases by the Americans or Japanese. Suddenly, enormous quantities of food, clothes, tools, and equipment, such as the islanders had never seen, appeared out of the sky in magic flying boats. Some of this “cargo” trickled down to the natives, and it was fabulous. Then the war ended, the planes vanished, and—no more cargo!

How to make the cargo flow again? The islanders had observed that, just before cargo arrived, the foreigners performed elaborate rituals involving inscrutable religious paraphernalia. Clearly, these summoned the sky spirits that brought cargo.

Religious entrepreneurs founded cults that duplicated sky spirit rituals using locally-produced copies of the paraphernalia. They imitated the actions of the airstrip ground crews using wicker control towers, coconut headsets, and straw planes (such as the one photographed above). Some cargo cults are still going, generations later, despite their failure to deliver even one landing by the sky spirits. Ha ha, stupid primitive savages!

Except, this is a perfect metaphor for most of what is called “science,” done by people with PhDs.

“Cargo cult science” performs rituals that imitate science, but are not science. Real science sometimes delivers cargo (fame and promotions for scientists; profits for R&D companies; technologies for everyone else). So, you think, OK, what do I have to do to make that happen? How did those guys do it? So you look to see what they did, and you do the same thing. But usually that doesn’t work well.

“Doing what scientists do” is not doing science, and won’t deliver—just as “doing what a ground crew does” doesn’t bring planes. It’s just going through the motions.

But exactly why doesn’t it work? And what does work? What makes the difference between cargo cult science and the real thing?

Full post

Recent Popular Articles


We use cookies to help give you the best experience on our website. By continuing without changing your cookie settings, we assume you agree to this. Please read our privacy policy to find out more.