Cargo Cult Science

What is a “Cargo Cult”

“A cargo cult is any of a group of religious movements that occurred in Melanesia, in the Southwestern Pacific. The Cargo Cults believed that manufactured western goods (‘cargo’) were created by ancestral spirits and intended for Melanesian people. White people, however, had unfairly gained control of these objects. Cargo cults thus focused on purifying their communities of what they perceived as ‘white’ influences by conducting rituals similar to the white behavior they had observed, presuming that this activity would make cargo come.The most famous examples of this behavior are airstrips, airports, and radios made out of coconuts, straw, and other jungle materials that were built in the belief that transport planes full of cargo would land on them if they were built. Today, most historians and anthropologists argue that the term ‘Cargo Cult’ is a misnomer that describes a variety of phenomena. However, the idea has captured the imagination of many people in the First World, and the term continues to be used today.”

Task – read Richard Feynam’s paper on ‘Cargo Cult Science’

Cargo cult science, essay by Richard Feynman

Questions: 

  1. What does Feynman mean by Cargo Cult Science
  2. What makes good science according to Mr. Feynman? (Transparency: point out difficulties with your experiments; state possible “wholes” in your theories; Generality: theory goes beyond fitting the phenomena that was first observed- it also fits other situations; Reproducibility of experiments).
  3. What is the point that Feynman is trying to make by referring to Milikan’s experiment?
  4. What examples of the scientific method not being used appropriately does Feynman provide? What are the reasons for these lapses in scientific integrity?  What conclusions can you draw about the goals and motivation of scientific research? (An interesting account of what drives, in some instances, scientific research is given in “The double helix”, by James Watson.)

See the page on Natural Sciences

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