If you haven’t heard of Cargo Cults, you’ve missed out on one of the most intriguing insights into human nature, first made popular by Richard Feyman in his 1974 commencement speech at Calttech.
Although the cults themselves did not originate in the second world war, it was this war that transformed them. During the war, the people of Melanesia found their normal daily routine overwhelmed by the Japanese and then the American war machines. Overnight, air bases would spring up. Forrest were cut down, runways built, and large steel birds flew in from the sky full of cargo, the likes of which the islanders had never seen before. The Melanesian people were fascinated by this radical transformation of their island and struggled to comprehend the world at large beyond the seas.
When the war ended and the air force abandoned them, they began mimicking the actions of the soldiers. They would clear bushland to form a runway, march with sticks instead of rifles, hoist American flags, build control towers complete with pseudo radios made from coconuts and straw, all in an effort to bring back the planes with their precious cargo.
All this would be a rather amusing by-line in history if it weren’t symptomatic of deeper characteristics shared by humanity at large. You see, over fifty years later, the cargo cults still thrive, they still honour John Frum Day on February 15th, they still await the return of their saviour.
Cargo cults highlight the confirmation bias spiralling out of control and examples of this can be seen all through modern society, albeit to a lesser extreme. The pervasive influence of homoeopathic remedies is a classic example, with dilutions for the cold remedy Oscillococcinum reaching 200C when such a dilution equates to 1 in 100^200 (or 100 with two hundred zeros following it). That’s roughly one molecule of the active ingredient for every molecule in the observable universe! In the 1800s, homoeopathy had a semblance of pseudo-science but, even then, it was questionable and failed double-blind experimental tests. Now, it’s nothing but snake oil. That’s the thing about Cargo Cults, though, thinkers need not apply. Please leave your logic at the door.
The characteristics of Cargo Cults are, unfortunately, all around us. In sales meetings, managers will hound their staff to examine previous successes, plan account activities and repeat “time tested sales methods” to drive up results. Get your coconut headsets on and guide those sales in to land.
This irrational confusion arises from our failure to distinguish cause from effect and our desire to replicate past achievements. If only somehow we try harder, work smarter, the gods of sales or homoeopathy will shine upon us. Sports stars will wear their lucky underwear, bounce a tennis ball five times before serving (not four times, not six, it must be five). Superstition, it seems, is a desire to wrest control from the chaotic world in which we live. It’s driven by the insecurity of not being able to control everything in life.
When it comes to science, Richard Feyman points out that an experimenter has to have disproving his theory as his first priority. It takes little mental effort to reinforce your position, but to challenge it, to try to tear it down, to do all you can to undermine your own position and still see it stand, that’s true science.
In a letter to J. Scott, Charles Darwin put it this way.
It is a golden rule, which I try to follow, to put every fact which is oppose to one’s preconceived opinion in the strongest light. Absolute accuracy is the hardest merit to attain.
In another letter, Darwin noted:
I had, also, during many years followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once, for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favourable ones.
If Darwin and Feyman had to drive their minds to avoid a confirmation bias, we too should be vigilant to ensure we maintain a balanced perspective in life with honesty and clarity, and avoid the natural human tendency to stack the deck in favour of what we’d like to see. If we don’t, we may awake up one day to realise we’ve been wearing coconut headphones.
Peter Cawdron is the author of the acclaimed hard science fiction novel, Anomaly.