Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Contributing Editor


Stone 382
by Sean Monaghan

A.I. Oh!
by Tom Doyle

Castle of the Slave
by Aliyah Whiteley

Home From Home
by Mark English

Aliens With Candy
by Michael Andre-Driussi

A Cumdumpster Kid
by Rebecca L. Brown

Harmony, Chaos, and the Reign Thereof
by Kyle White

Potential Killer
by Fredrick Obermeyer

Cinderella's Holo-Wand
by Sarina Dorie

Ears, Eyes, Nose ... and Throat
by Jez Patterson


Cargo Cultism
by Eric M. Jones

Coronal Mass Ejection by John McCormick




Shorter Stories

Comic Strips



Cargo Cultism,

or John Frum—Here He Come ...

By Eric M. Jones

CARGO CULTISM HAS COME TO MEAN an activity or project which bears a superficial resemblance to a real activity or project but whose equipment, methods and theoretical bases are completely inadequate to achieve the desired aim ... activity with form but without substance.

The appearance in Melanesia of European colonists and Christian missionaries in the 19th century sparked strange behaviors among natives who observed that European colonists did not seem to do any work and yet were rewarded by unimaginable riches that magically arrived from mysterious places on great sailing ships. The natives decided that their best strategy to share in this wealth would be to ape the colonists by carrying around pieces of paper, erect flagpoles, hold odd ritualized meetings and engage in other nonsensical behavior that attempted to copy the European activities.

These ritual behaviors were also intermixed with Christian missionary zeal for the end times, which the natives believed were indicated by the strange white people who wandered among their villages preaching the Gospel and causing a general upheaval in their ancient way of village life.

The white Europeans who manned trading posts and colonial administrative offices were constantly on guard against native messiahs and cult leaders—who seemed to pop up like summer thunderstorms.

When the Japanese invaded in 1942, followed soon by Americans, there was another cargo cult revival. The natives responded to these modern incursions by building make-believe runways with control towers and parking aprons with wooden aircraft.

World War II rolled through the hundreds of islands of the Pacific theater, bringing cargo planes and ships that disgorged great material wealth to the military and supporting forces. This could not have been much different from seeing extraterrestrials landing, and it thoroughly wrecked the indigenous culture and traditions. But the Americans also brought men with black skin like the Melanesians, who shared in the largess with the white men. This reignited the cargo cults in a way that the Dutch whites, who had spent nearly a century trying to suppress the Melanesian’s dozens of versions of cargo cults, must have noted with chagrin.

The Vanuatu natives, for example, began to worship a mythical amalgamation of black World War II Navy Construction Battalion Seabees called John Frum. The cults swelled and persisted for decades, only to be quieted somewhat in recent times by modern schools and the entertainment and information flood of the modern age.

But this inclination to believe that the imitation of an activity will produce a desired result affects many fields of human endeavor. Richard Feynman, in his 1974 commencement address to Cal Tech, included in his autobiographical book “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” (W.W. Norton & Co.), writes about cargo cult science:

“So we really ought to look into theories that don’t work, and science that isn’t science:

I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call cargo cult science. 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 [coconut shells] on his head for 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. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they’re missing. But it would be just about as difficult to explain to the South Sea islanders how they have to arrange things so that they get some wealth in their system. It is not something simple like telling them how to improve the shapes of the earphones.”

I ask myself: is it possible to have a thriving discipline that masquerades as a science that is entirely bogus? That publishes “learned” tracts but is entirely (or mostly) just made up? That has schools and institutions and literature but exists only as a delusion in some overactive minds? That has pointless seminars and vapid award ceremonies? Of course it is—they’re everywhere.

For a long time I have been suspicious of activities that claim to produce a result, but contain no real basis for achieving the promised outcome. In actual “scientific” fields this is rarely an issue. The mathematical demands imposed on science and engineering and their self-correcting natures tend to separate the successful from the merely wishful with charming alacrity.

Of course, it is patently obvious that religion in all its forms is simply cargo cultism—in that religions pretend to be doing something that clearly has no objective reality or even the most vague attachment to reality. It does serve some common psycho-social need, but the trappings of religcargoious paraphernalia clearly do not summon the deity by their abundance. Life would be much simpler if things worked that way. Transubstantiation, for example, where the communion wafer is actually the body of Christ and not just a symbol, is clearly whacky. That is not to say that religions serve absolutely no purpose; again, they certainly do, but reality doesn’t seem to be part of the equation; it’s all coconut shells on heads, magic hats, and waiting for the cargo to return.

But there is a commonly experienced “spiritual” feeling in the grand vaults of great cathedrals. Is this for nothing, or do the cargo cult followers also dwell in this ambiance while standing watch in the control tower with a set of coconut headphones? My guess is that they do, and that a person is privileged to be the guy standing in the tower with the coconuts on his head. That’s what dress-up is all about. Human psyches are malleable messes at best.

Psychiatrists refer to this sort of thing as “magical thinking” which is the belief that some underlying relationship exists between thoughts and events where none actually exists, or that there are imagined relationships between merely grouped phenomena.

Are we being as silly in other areas of our lives and our civilization? More recent and more liberal views of the John Frum cult and other cargo cults believe that the cultists really aren’t any loonier than believers in religions, pseudo-sciences or other types of magical thinking.

In psychology, anthropology, political science, pedagogy, penology and many other so-called “soft sciences” the game is wide open. Cargo cultism also finds its way into social and corporate life. Just read “Dilbert.” Certainly the majority of the computerization in businesses from the mid 1980s was a kind of cargo cultism. It resulted in powerful personal computers being plopped onto the desktops of employees, many of whom had not the slightest notion of what to do with them other than word processing and email. In my work experience, the boss often had the biggest and most powerful computer and the least use for it. If we put the magic icon on the desk, magic results were certain to happen. This often disturbed the information system’s priests as well.

In earlier writings, Feynman also makes the point that primary education has been going on for many hundreds of years and the data is available to do a meta-analysis to determine exactly what method works best to educate children. Does anyone run this analysis instead of waving their hands around and proposing some new fancy-sounding educational theory? No.

A local example for this writer is my local school district that has built a new $140 million school, in the clearly cargo cult belief that the education supplied to students will improve as a result. There actually may be beneficial consequences, such as the ability to attract better teachers, or better air conditioning, but it is unlikely that the mere edifice will have much effect.

Schools with antiquated buildings can teach quite well. One might ask if it would be better to spend $10 million to fix up the old school and perhaps use the remaining $130 million to pay the salaries of 130 additional teachers forever. ($130,000,000 × 8 percent would generate $80,000/year each, for 130 really good teachers, in perpetuity.) Still they believe, “Build it and they will come ...”

Are there cargo cult countries? Sure. Consider countries run by dictators and kings, with monetary systems run on inflating printed paper; economic policies dependent solely upon other countries largess and massive (if even possible) brain drain? Are they real countries or merely large family-owned penal colonies with a flag?

Are Ponzi investment schemes cargo cults? Certainly, except for those where a clear scam is perpetrated with no delusions. But there are many Ponzi-type schemes whose perpetrators fervently believe that their methods are not scams at all. They believe their own press, but they are really financial cargo cults. As long as money keeps pouring in, everybody will profit.

In the article “The Financial Crisis and the Systemic Failure of Academic Economics” by Colander, Föllmer, Haas, Goldberg, Juselius, Kirman, and Sloth (nobody wanted to go out on that limb alone), I note that several reference are made to the availability of computer data. Hark! I see a revolution where real facts are used, instead of hand-waving babbling. What a relief ...

It also seems true that the recent (1997–2000) dot-com Internet bubble was based on cargo cult psychology. All over America companies were started by energetic charismatic people with no business plan, no clear path to profitability; only a vague notion that if enough smart people could have access to enough high tech hardware and sat on Aeron chairs, they could share in the riches and something wonderful would happen. You could just feel the optimism in the air!

What about monetary systems in general? They are all scams because there is no actual medium of exchange except barter, and running a monetary system on barter does not work well. We operate a monetary exchange based on the faith in the Federal Reserve paper as a stand-in. So we live with it. You can’t carry chickens around as conveniently as pieces of paper that promise you chickens. But it is still just wishing and hoping.

I have a friend who fervently believes that precious metal is the only real currency. He claims that everything else is, or was, just a promissory note. I tell him that if he has gold and I have a gun, I soon will have both. Having gold, therefore, seems to require protecting, and in actuality that means having a castle with fortifications. The whole cost of not accepting paper currency seems impossibly high, so we choose to live in fantasy.

Other than that pesky psychology thing, we have all the data for a working model of the economy. It is unfortunately true that real socialism becomes desirable when the economy can be accurately modeled and then used to create a system that could be “the most good for the greatest number of people.” The Soviets knew that, but they couldn’t get the computers, or a populace that wouldn’t game the system.

Feynman especially berated psychology as another such pseudo-science. Certainly chiropractic, Freudian psychoanalysis, phrenology, astrology, homeopathy, naturopathy, alchemy ... the list is endless. Of course, some of these pseudo-sciences decided to become real sciences by adopting the scientific method (I simplify here considerably). Chemistry was boiled down from the alchemy of the philosophers’ stone, aqua vita, Hermetic principles, various kinds of magic incantations, etc. Astronomy came from astrology. (When Galileo showed his fellow Paduan professors his telescope, many would not look through it, fearing that God’s heavenly imperfections might be revealed.) And in fact, physics itself was “Natural Philosophy” trapped in Aristotelian dominated scholasticism until the 17th century. In all of the successful pseudo-science-to-real-science conversions, the adoption of scientific methods, strict rules and procedures, standard processes, etc., made all the difference.

In the late 1800s, when medicine finally broke away from the philosophy of humours and started to keep track of things to make medicine become a real science, Western medicine was less advanced than when Constantine moved the Roman capitol to Constantinople to escape the barbarians.

So we all live out our dreams, hoping like the Melanesian cargo cultists that somehow the goods will be delivered. If we only believe hard enough, everything will probably work out. END

Further Reading

“50 Years Ago: Cargo Cults of Melanesia,” Peter M. Worsley, Scientific American, May, 2009.

“Cargo cult,” Wikipedia.

Eric M. Jones is the Contributing Editor of “Perihelion.” He is an engineer, designer, consultant, and entrepreneur, currently working in his Internet business PerihelionDesign, designing, building and selling unique products, parts and materials for people in the home-built experimental aircraft community.