During the Second World War, fierce fighting took place between the Western Allies and Japan. The Melanesian Islands were used first by the Japanese, then by the allied forces as staging posts to stockpile war supplies.
Until this happened, the people of the Melanesian Islands had been completely isolated from the wider world. They encountered both state-of-the-art technology (e.g. aircraft and radio) and the products of industrial society for the first time
Aircraft landed and took off. Supplies were air-dropped by parachute. Soldiers in identical clothes drilled and worked while they watched. Sometimes these curious strangers engaged with their people, and gave them strange gifts. Then the soldiers disappeared, as quickly mysteriously as they had arrived.
The reaction of the Islanders to these strange visitations provides an insight into the claims for the scientific status of Scientology, and why Scientologists accept the organisation’s extraordinary claims.
This encounter was a serious psychological challenge to the indigenous culture. They could not reproduce the artefacts and technology that they they glimpsed, and had no experience of the industrial processes that had created these things. They decided that the goods had been originated by supernatural means.
Soon, charismatic individuals began to preach that the Gods &/or Ancestors had created the ‘cargo’ to give to their people but the mysterious visitors had stolen it, or been given it by mistake.
The solution was to perform new rituals designed to persuade those same supernatural forces to send more cargo – but this time deliver into the hands of the right people.
Islanders took on the appearance of the visitors – for example by dressing in cast-off uniforms and ‘drilling’ with sticks. They spoke to the Gods through wooden radios, and ‘heard’ their replies through headphones made from coconut shells.
This robust and creative response saved their self-esteem, and their culture survived what could have been a devastating encounter.
When he learned of this phenomenon, pioneering physicist Richard Feynman coined the expression ‘Cargo Cult Science‘. He initially intended it to apply to ‘bad science’, but it can be extended to describe a host of fringe ideas which claim to be ‘Scientific’ but have no rational or systematic basis.
Modern cargo cults imitate scientific culture. The aim of this application of sympathetic magic is not to attract cargo (we probably have more than enough consumer goods) but status.
Cargo cult scientists cannot produce valid scientific concepts of their own because they do not understand the intellectual process by which they are bought about. Consequently, they are not taken seriously by the scientific or medical establishments. They compensate for this by arguing that their cargo (the prestige that they desire) has been stolen from them. The thieves in this case are vested interests who would (supposedly) be laid low by the guru’s revolutionary ideas – academics, doctors, psychiatrists and others who have earned the status that the cultist merely aspires to.
The USA in the 1950’s was fertile ground for this sort of thinking. People were recovering from a gruelling war, during which the power of science had been decisively demonstrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and about to enter into a new form of conflict – ‘the cold war.’
The future was seen to belong to science and technology – an optimism which was expressed through science-fiction pulp magazines – so the publication of “Dianetics” in “Astounding Science Fiction” represents the ideal example of a new form of cargo cult.
Dianetics is replete with claims to scientific authority. Hubbard constantly refers to his ‘research’ and ‘stable data’. He draws analogies between the human brain and complex mechanical computers, and constantly asserts that his conclusions have the reliability of natural law.
At this time, the man in the street had learned that science was powerful – but did not understand how it worked. They judged claims like Hubbard’s by their style, not their substance – and were taken in.
Of course, Hubbard originated no real research for Dianetics. His book was pure ‘cargo cult science’ – the few real scientists who examined it found his claims to be simply false. These include:
When people like Hubbard attract followers, their delusional self-belief can take on a life of its own. When a formal organisation is created, the founders position is reinforced – and the higher the status that is conferred upon him by the group, the more prestigious their position, as his disciples, becomes.
‘Qualifications’ (including elaborate certificates and titles) are awarded and diagnostic sign of cargo cult pseudo-scientific props are deployed. Hubbard came to rely heavily on one such prop – the e-meter .
This strange creation is a simple electronic device called a Wheatstone bridge. The user holds two electrodes (early versions used empty soup cans) one in each hand, so that a small electrical current is passed through their body.
A needle on the device (the blue box that can be seen on the right) moves when the person holding them sweats, or relaxes their grip. These movements are ‘interpreted’ by Scientologists – who are taught that they can indicate anything from the existence of previous lives to the concealment of crimes.
The e-meter demonstrates the same understanding of electronic engineering (and psychology) as the coconut-shell headphones and wicker aeroplanes of the Melanesian Islanders. Cargo cult science comes full circle.
The Article “Cargo Cult Science” is included in the following book:
1985 | Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman: Adventures of a Curious Character |
Richard P Feynman as told to Ralph Leighton
It can be read, or downloaded on its own from the links below: