Richard Feynman created the concept of cargo cult science, which are activities that look scientific but aren't. He based it metaphorically on cargo cults in the Pacific:

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 imitate 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.

Do Cargo Cults, as described by Richard Feyman where Pacific Islanders imitate western artefacts and culture in the hope of material wealth, exist?

Wikipedia has an article on cargo cults. Based on the material there, it seems plausible that some activities existed that are called cargo cults by at least some anthropologists, though it may not represent what is thought of as cargo cults by the general public. There are also some references in the article that support the description of cargo cults as matching those in the general perception, but a lot of the citations are either to journal articles (probably too specialised), books (probably inaccessible), or news articles (not too trustworthy, even if it's the BBC).

I'm kind of skeptical because the story of cargo cults seems too good a tale for people to have the heart to debunk it, and because I tend to be suspicious in general about anecdotes about other societies or groups being ignorant, even if they're Americans.

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    The BBC article has pictures, do they count as first hand evidence?
    – Sklivvz
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 11:10
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    -1. What are you skeptical about? There are photographic evidence and interviews showing the existence of at least one cargo cult from a reputable source (Smithsonian) that you found yourself. What more evidence do you want?
    – March Ho
    Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 12:41
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    Peer-reviewed journal articles and academic books are the gold standard as sources, both for this site and for science in general. Surely you don't mean to dismiss them. Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 15:13
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    Unclear what you are asking. Wikipedia gives a fairly clear description of cargo cults, with references. Are you questioning the veracity of the references? We're not really competent to judge scholarly sources. If you are asking whether actual cargo cults are like 'the general public" imagines them to be, that is probably best answered by reading up on what they are actually like. Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 16:41
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    I'd recommend the book Man Belong Mrs Queen - a mix of anthropology and (often amusing) travelogue by a man who lives with a similar cult for a while and tries to understand it. He contests the standard interpretation of such cults like Feynman's (that people genuinely think that such imitation will bring magic results) and explains them as being a little more like fandom/celebrity cults closer to home - more about building group identities than actually believing you'll summon a plane (or marry Justin Bieber). Commented Nov 24, 2015 at 17:32

1 Answer 1


The article In John They Trust, by the Smithsonian confirms that such cargo cults exist.

Imitation of western societies:

Chief Isaac Wan, a slight, bearded man in a blue suit and ceremonial sash, leads the uniformed men down to open ground in the middle of the village. Some 40 barefoot "G.I.’s" suddenly emerge from behind the huts to more cheering, marching in perfect step and ranks of two past Chief Isaac. They tote bamboo “rifles” on their shoulders, the scarlet tips sharpened to represent bloody bayonets, and sport the letters “USA,” painted in red on their bare chests and backs.

Expectation of western goods:

This is February 15, John Frum Day, on the remote island of Tanna in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu. On this holiest of days, devotees have descended on the village of Lamakara from all over the island to honor a ghostly American messiah, John Frum. “John promised he’ll bring planeloads and shiploads of cargo to us from America if we pray to him,” a village elder tells me as he salutes the Stars and Stripes. “Radios, TVs, trucks, boats, watches, iceboxes, medicine, Coca-Cola and many other wonderful things.”

As the Smithsonian seems to be a fairly reputable magazine specialising in subjects such as science, technology, and art, and researched the issue first-hand, I have to conclude that cargo cults really existed in the form described by Feynman.

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