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Bronze-level articleCargo cult

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We've only been waiting for our prophet for 60 years. You've been waiting for 2,000.
—A John Frum cult leader, asked by a reporter how he can keep the cult going despite modernisation.

A cargo cult is a religious movement usually emerging in tribal or isolated societies after they have had an encounter with an external and technologically advanced society. Usually cargo cults focus on magical thinking and a variety of intricate rituals designed to obtain the material wealth of the advanced culture they encountered.


[edit] History

During the Second World War, the Allies set up many temporary military bases in the Pacific, introducing isolated peoples to Western manufactured goods (cargo). While the military personnel were stationed there the natives noticed these people engaging in ritualized behaviors like marching around with rifles on their shoulders in formations. After the end of the war, the Allies left, removing the source of cargo and leaving the peoples nearly as isolated as before. In their desire to retain the goods, various peoples throughout the Pacific introduced new religious rituals mimicking what they had seen the strangers do.

In one instance well studied by anthropologists, a group of Melanesians interpreted the US military drill as religious rituals, leading them to conclude that these behaviors brought cargo to the islands. Hoping that the cargo would return by duplicating these behaviors, they continued to maintain airstrips and replaced their facilities using native materials. These included remarkably detailed full-size replicas of airplanes made of wood, bark, and vines, a hut-like radio shack complete with headphones made of coconut halves, and attempts at recreating military uniforms and flags.[1] Cargo cults exemplify the third law of Arthur C. Clarke: that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The Melanesians believed that Western manufactured goods were created by ancestral spirits, but the occupiers had unfairly gained control of them. The islanders expect that a messianic Western figure, John Frum, will return to deliver the cargo. No one knows who Frum is, nor is there physical evidence he existed,[2] but the islanders continue to ceremoniously honor him. After the war the US Navy attempted to talk the people out of it, but by that point it was too late and the religious movement had taken hold. Subsequently the Melanesians have been waiting over sixty years for the cargo to return. Then again, Christians have been waiting nearly two thousand years for their guy to come back.

Modern cargo cult believers do exist, although most see John Frum and the like merely as manifestations of the same divinity worshiped in other parts of the world, and treat the trappings of the belief as a worship service rather than a magical collection of talismans. The term "cargo cult" has caught the imagination of the public and is now used to describe a wide variety of phenomena that involve imitating external properties without the substance. In commerce, for example, successful products often result in "copycat" products that imitate the form but are usually of inferior quality. It is also often used as an example by ancient astronauts proponents.[3]

[edit] Cargo cult science

The late Richard Feynman described what he called "cargo cult science" by analogy with this phenomenon. It contains many of the superficial trappings of science with little of the substance.[4] These could include the use of footnotes that look like academic references,[5] fancy quantum physics terms or graphs and charts. All combined would happily make a scientific looking document (and might even have an authoritative looking font, rather than something like papyrus) but on examination wouldn't contain anything of scientific merit. Cargo cult science would more commonly be called pseudoscience today.

[edit] See also

[edit] Footnotes

  1. The Melanesian cargo cult of John Frum
  2. Though it is rationally impossible that someone who is not intimately familiar with English names would invent such a name. If he did not exist, the natives may have heard stories of such a man or or at least of "John From (somewhere)."
  3. As in this blather from a book by Erich von Däniken.
  4. Cargo Cult Science
  5. But really don't say anything useful.
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