Cargo Cult Science: When You Follow The Instructions But Don’t Understand The Process

Richard Feynman was one of the great scientists and physicists of our time, truly one of the great minds of humanity. But rather than a scientist, a physicist, or a Noble laureate, he is best described as a curious character.

The following is an excerpt from his 1974 commencement address at Caltech entitled Cargo Cult Science:

“In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.”

You may find it funny right now, but we often engage in similar activities. We follow the instructions, perform the rituals, and memorise the definition without actually understanding the process, without capturing the essence, and without learning anything.

There’s no learning in it. This kind of experimentation with too much focus on outcome rather than the process isn’t scientific either. Feynman calls these superficial methods Cargo Cult Science.

“Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they’re missing. But it would be just about as difficult to explain to the South Sea Islanders how they have to arrange things so that they get some wealth in their system. It is not something simple like telling them how to improve the shapes of the earphones.”

This is why it’s often tough to answer when people such specific advice. Because, when the overall business strategy is wrong, or the entire work culture is in shambles, there’s no one thing that can be fixed to get things working. There are no quick fixes. Such cargo cult cases require holistic rethinking of the whole problem from the beginning. But the main difficulty is that it’s very hard to explain it to the people involved. Ignorant people often don’t recognise their own ignorance. Cargo cult of people don’t know they follow cargo cult science.

So, the takeaway is very simple. Get your fundamentals very clear. Don’t aim for fast results with superficial learning. Have skin in the game. Hypothesise, experiment, explore, and remember to follow the scientific method.

When you are treading unknown territories, things are very likely to go awry, and if you don’t have deep understanding of the domain and the problem, you would be busy improving the shapes of the earphones. But the planes won’t land.

Show Comments