Cargo Cults and Cultural Confusion

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” said Arthur C. Clarke, the author known best for 2001 a Space Odyssey and alsoproposing geosynchronous satellites for transmitting TV and radio over wider distances back in the 40’s, a time when that was unthinkable and widely mocked. Those people were wrong, in the end, and we call the height of space where those satellites now fly the Clarke Belt in recognition.

But back to the magic.

If you remember the south Pacific map from last week, we’re going there again: just south and east in roughly equal measures.

This is the island(s) of Vanuatu, the site of TV show Survivor and not the only cargo cult but perhaps the more anthropologically studied and famous one.

Basically, during World War II there was a lot of strategic military base establishment. The big dominant powers of the time were at war with each other, the smaller countries were just trying to stay out of it or form tiny alliances with the big boys and so there was a lot of shuffling around by everyone trying to keep their backs covered. Did the US necessarily need these random tiny islands in the south Pacific? Not in hindsight, but they built them anyway as airplane staging points between Hawaii and Australia, and in the event of some bizarre twist of fate, they could be used to scramble attacks towards Japan or whoever.

All that to say, the Americans (and later Germans) landed in the middle of a tribal area and built runways for their planes, brought in troops and buildings and crates upon crates of supplies. More food than the natives had ever seen, and exotic technologies from America that were completely new. They saw the destructive power of guns, chainsaws making noise and cutting through trees in seconds, the magical communication of radios and the loud flying birds carrying it all in and out.

The soldiers were seen as gods walking among men. Who could blame them?

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

But here’s the most fascinating part: the islanders didn’t stop.

The war ended, the bombs had been dropped. Everyone packed up and the military presence in the area eventually wasn’t necessary any longer. The gods left as mysteriously as they appeared.

There was some correlation and causation cultural confusion that led to the cargo cults, this cacophonic campaign of convoy company came and carried on, the coasts and cottages combed for coffee and cockpit crashes but clearly conflict contracted, cultivating curiosity and clear-cut customs: they had to summon the gods back.

So they built runways and waited.

No response from the gods. No planes landed with food and goods.

They built radio towers from bamboo and airplanes to litter the ground, as if to attract the cargo back.

See, they didn’t realize the causation: runways don’t exist because the existence of radio tower structures summon planes down. The goods weren’t circling high in the sky and watching for bamboo binoculars and wooden chainsaws to bring them back. The old gods needed a sacrifice to take action, but the Americans weren’t even close to the area at the time. nothing the islanders did would bring the shiny birds back.

They kept trying. They set up an entire replica military base, everything as it was before. Everything as they remembered brought the original gods. They had jackets with USA on them, little badges of honor over their left breast made of scrap metal chunks. Headphones made of coconut halves. They had marches and did the ceremonial actions they had seen the Americans do: pushups and training exercises.

So that’s the cargo. Enter the cult.

John Frum, a man who may or may not have ever existed. He’s reportedly white (but legends conflict) and he was / is going to be a Navy man when he lands on the island and brings back the wealth of the Americas.

I say ‘is’ because this is a real thing right now as I write this in 2015, they’ve been waiting for 70+ years. The numbers of the cult have dwindled from the thousands into the mere hundreds now, but it’s still held strong by a core group of believers who know John Frum is going to come for them and bring back prosperity and happiness and physical gifts. Jesus Frum, if you will, but the Christians have been waiting a few millennia more.

It’s described in The Pacific Islands: An Encyclopedia, Volume 1 (page 303) that in 1957 an American warship Yankee landed and tried to explain to everyone that there was no John Frum, that he wouldn’t in fact appear landing on a US plane or (I’m not making this up) riding out of the Yasur (God in their language) volcano on a motorcycle.

The crowds listened and then dismissed him as false, completely ignoring all further attempts to disprove their messiah.

Frankly, I would cling fast to a mythical man riding out of a volcano on a motorcycle and showering everyone in gifts too. That dude sounds awesome.


You’ve probably heard the term before. We also call them cargo cult programmers (and I am one) — the sort of inexperienced coders who copy and paste code snippets that do unknown things because they worked on the original and surely must work here.

It’s a very common correlation and causation error. We see the correlation (airports = planes = food coming in) but not necessarily the causation (war strategy causes airports to be built, not radio tower buildings cause airports to work).

And it’s statistically slippery.

Spurious Correlations has all sorts of graphs to demonstrate this. Obviously we know cheese consumption doesn’t lead to death by bedsheet entanglement (ordoes it?!), but given this graph we could probably make a great news expose and terrify millions of people with misguided facts — and they are factual, this is true data, but that doesn’t mean it’s a true causation.

This applies to basically anything on the news.

“Isn’t it suspicious that George W Bush wasn’t in his office the day of 9/11 attacks?!” an angry mob demands, as if that explains motive or suspicious involvement. Maybe he was on the golf course, maybe he was doing any of a literally unlimited number of other things that day. Presidents aren’t barricaded into the White House 24/7. Correlation, not causation.

There’s a million examples here, least of which the recent ones about supposed immigrant terrorists but anyway.

Spelling bees are called that in the same way a quilting bee or a logging bee is. Crafting bee, apple bee, spinning bee, barn bee. Basically an activity where the whole community comes together to do a single task, usually to help one another. Etymologically dubious, but they say it’s from the middle English ‘bene’ which is like a community prayer or favor.

Ever relevant XKCD

Okay! That’s it for this week.

As always, check out the archives for older episodes and I plan on posting them to Medium on a few week delay so the wider internet can read them eventually, but you subscribers will always get them as soon as they’re written.

I don’t know if I’ve ever said this, but I don’t schedule or stack these — they’re literally written every sunday morning the day they go out unless I’m physically away or unable to which isn’t very often because since becoming self employed I can’t justify ski hill weekends anymore. Sometimes I finish writing exactly as the 10:00 comes up and actually get to press the launch button live. It’s 9:46 right now, so that’s a little too long to wait around.

Also taking suggestions for Calgary brunch pubs — we were at The James Joyce last week and while everything was great they do have smaller booths so I suspect it’ll get a little awkward as the group starts to grow. Next brunch is January 3rd (the first sunday of every month) and if you’re reading this, you’re definitely the kind of person who should come.

Until next week,