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Cargo cult

Describes ritualised practices which imitate other practices superficially, but which are carried out without an understanding of their inner functions or meanings, and therefore cannot fulfil their intended functions.

Origin of the term

“Cargo cult” is the name given to a series of cult-like rites that emerged among various isolated indigenous peoples, especially in Melanesia, after first contact with Western visitors. The latter often brought food, medicine and other goods with them - either as gifts or to pay local workers. When the visitors – and thus the goods they brought – eventually stopped showing up, the natives built simulacra of airports, harbours or radio towers in order to imitate what appeared from their understanding like ritualistic acts – such as the signalling movements of ground controllers (“marshallers”) at an airport.

However, by imitating only the superficial appearance and not the intrinsic functionality of the facilities and operations, these acts were, as one might expect, unsuccessful in bringing back the goods.


The meaning of the concepts “cargo cult” and “simulacrum” considerably overlap. The best distinction that can be made is that the former refers primarily to patterns of behaviour or actions, while simulacra refers more to things or reified ideas and concepts.

Cargo-cult science

This term refers to an imitation of scientific work that is content to imitate the outward form of science – possibly in order to associate oneself with its reputation and get an air of authority – while not understanding or not respecting its core methodology.

The most important aspect of cargo-cult science is that, although scientific work takes place in a formal sense, it is not done with the aim of gaining knowledge, but rather to enhance one’s own reputation and/or to confirm previously predetermined positions.

This can be done, for example, by producing purported “studies” for the purpose of influencing political or social discourse. These usually retain at least a minimum of “scientific” credibility by imitating the outer form of academic publications in terms of typesetting and prose, with numerous footnotes, references to renowned scientists and studies in the bibliography or citations and often complex and hard to understand statistics. At least the better of these “studies” may even be published in a scientific journal, and one has to look closely to find the weaknesses in them.

It would be easy to dismiss such practices as a feature of pseudosciences such as homeopathy or astrology – where they are indeed prevalent – but unfortunately tendencies towards “cargo cult” can also be found in the established scientific establishment.

FIXME This article is still incomplete.

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