Shinichi Urano's personal blog

Mostly thoughts around Software Development and Entrepreneurship

Cargo Cult

Posted at — Feb 1, 2020

(Ceremonial cross of John Frum cargo cult, Tanna island, New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), 1967)

There’s a growing trend today in using “Cargo Cult” as an adjective to form various idioms, most likely started by Richard Feynman in this speech to coin “Cargo Cult Science”.

It loosely means “form without substance”, but it’s actually much more than that. Here’s Feynman’s description of Cargo Cult:

In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land 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 like 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.

It’s great and colorful imagery and everyone in the industrialized world will immediately understand that the Cargo Cult people are missing something essential.

But what is it that they are missing? The next time you’re at a social gathering, try introducing this story and asking the question - “what are they missing?”. I think you’ll get a lot of answers like “they’re missing the right equipment”, or “they’re missing the infrastructure.”

But what they’re really missing is the same thing that Feynman’s “Cargo Cult Scientists” are missing. They’re missing an understanding. They’re missing the answer to the “why” question. The Cargo Cult people believe that they have gained the knowledge of summoning airplanes out of the air. But they have not gained an understanding of why certain conditions and actions might result in airplanes coming down loaded with cargo.

In other words, “Cargo Cult” can be described as a group of people doing something without understanding why those actions will have the desired result.

As Feynman noted, the Cargo Cult way of thinking is everywhere. I’m not sure how to fight that. I’m not even sure if it’s always a bad thing. But I do think “Cargo Cult” is a great way of describing this behavior, and we should have it in our shared vocabulary.