The Skeptical Gamers

Bringing critical thinking to Gen Con Indy

2011 Talk: “Cargo Cult Science”

Posted by Adversarial Writer #2 on March 23, 2011

Also returning from an acclaimed 2010 run (of one venue) is “Cargo Cult Science,” presented by myself and Tom Foss. This one even had buzz last year; we were recorded for a podcast, the URL of which I have since lost, so if you’re reading this, podcast guys, please send me the link so I can give you a proper shout-out for being so awesome.

“Cargo Cult Science” looks at the phenomenon of people who believe they are doing science but don’t understand the process enough to actually be performing it properly. Instead they act in almost scripted ways based on their flawed understanding of the method, believing that by going through the motions, their results will be useful.

The metaphor is borrowed from Richard Feynman, who first  used it to refer to activities that have only the outer patina of science without the proper guts on the inside. “Cargo cults” refers, in the most well-known sense, to a phenomenon wherein colonialized cultures misunderstand the actions of their colonizers and begin acting out their “rituals” in ways that clearly communicate that misunderstanding. Of course, as with most things in anthropology, things aren’t quite that simple, so the talk will open with a brief introduction to the phenomenon of cargo cults and why it is such a useful metaphor for pseudoscience.

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