The Skeptical Gamers

Bringing critical thinking to Gen Con Indy

Talk: "Cargo Cult Science"

Posted by Adversarial Writer #2 on February 8, 2010

Today I’m gonna give you a brief look at an event called “Cargo Cult Science.” “Cargo Cult Science” is a two-man talk given by me (Don) and Tom Foss. We will, in the grand tradition of Richard Feynman, examine Melanesian cargo cults and expound upon their utility as a metaphor for pseudoscience.

This talk will be an expansion of a single slide from last year’s “Skepticism, Critical Thinking, and Pop Culture” PowerPoint that really entranced the audience. I had inserted a single slide about cargo cult science and expected it to be a quick throwaway before moving on to the next topic. As it turned out, the great majority of the audience wasn’t familiar with cargo cults at all, and so I gave a brief explanation of them, which everybody seemed to find fascinating. For this year I thought “Go with what works,” and decided to spin it off into its own talk. After all, it’s such a useful metaphor.

Then, of course, I found out that Richard Feynman had already covered cargo cult science, which made me feel a bit sheepish, but kind of awesome at the same time. After all, I’m in some good company.

The talk will begin with a more detailed description of the history and formation of cargo cults. From there, we’ll move into cargo cults as a metaphor for pursuits that are all style and no substance, that mimic the external trappings of a thing without replicating or understanding the internal workings. Pseudoscience, of course, does precisely that with real science: pseudoscientists may toss about scientific-sounding words, they may wave around high-tech gadgets, and they really think they’re doing science, but at the end of they day, they don’t understand at all what science really is.

We’ll also extend the metaphor to as yet unexplored territory: cargo cult skeptics. Yes, they exist, and it’s only fair that we talk about them, too. If you’ve ever met someone who utterly dismisses the existence of bigfoot but can’t tell you why, or who has strong opinions on scientific topics but isn’t familiar with logical fallacies and the scientific method, you’ve met a cargo cult skeptic.

“Cargo Cult Science” will cover a little anthropology, a little philosophy, and a lot of pseudoscience. Hopefully, by the end of the talk, the audience will have obtained a new understanding of science and a useful heuristic for telling science and pseudoscience apart.

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One Response to “Talk: "Cargo Cult Science"”

  1. […] of different people. We’ll be educating the Gen Con population on archaeology, evolution, and cargo cults, and we’re staging two different iterations of a four-man panel called “Skepticism, […]

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