Cargo cult activism

posted by Mike on March 10th, 2010

Richard Feynman explained “cargo cults” in the classic essay 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 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.

Activists can think this way, too. We’ve seen something work in the past, and so we try it again. Sometimes the underlying situation, power dynamics, and participants are very different, so the tactic or strategy doesn’t work. If we understand why it worked the first time, we can modify it to work in the present. But too often, if it doesn’t work, we just try it again with more passion. I mean, it worked for the Civil Rights struggle/labor movement/Gandhi/right here in this town in the 90s. Why wouldn’t it work for us today?

The South Seas cargo cultists didn’t realize that the important thing about a radio was what was inside, not what was outside. We should step back more often to analyze what we’re doing, to create tactics and strategies that work like the effective ones of the past, rather than just looking like them.

I’d bet we can avoid some of the worst of “cargo cult activism” by asking a few questions of the next thing we’re planning to try. Why do we think this will work? What’s a recent example of this working? How well do we understand that example? Did it work the last time our group tried it? If not, why not?

See also:

This post was inspired by a conversation we had during a 508 podcast:

Published in: General | on March 10th, 2010 | Permanent Link to “Cargo cult activism” | 4 Comments »

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4 Comments Leave a comment.

  1. On March 18, 2010 at 09:03 Scott Schaeffer-Duffy said:

    Every nonviolent action should be evaluated for aspects that were good and aspects that could be improved. Gandhi called nonviolence “an experiment in truth.” It is not static, but that does not mean that we cannot learn from previous experience. Some of the tactics and much of the wisdom of the civil rights movement, anti-Vietnam War movement, anti-nuclear power movement… can and should transfer to new issues and circumstances. Then again, creativity breathes new life into action. We don’t want to reinvent the wheel or make classic mistakes over and over. We also don’t want to use language and tactics which spoke to previous generations and are now archaic, unclear, or, worst of all, incomprehensible.

  2. On March 18, 2010 at 15:42 Nick said:

    Mike, you’re totally wrong. In fact, this is EXACTLY what Feynman was ranting against!

    Feynman’s “Cargo Cult” essay is a description of what science is. It only applies to science, and it’s not valid to apply it to another domain. Science requires repeatedly observing and changing only one variable at a time. That’s just not possible in activism.

    The methodology you’re proposing is unscientific and doesn’t solve the cargo cult problem. If the south seas villagers ask themselves, “Why do we think this will work? blah blah…” they will never get any closer to understanding what will bring the cargo planes back. Thinking that you’re being more scientific by asking these questions is “cargo cult” thinking. It makes us believe we’re being more scientific when we’re not.

  3. On March 18, 2010 at 16:49 Mike said:

    Nick: I’m not drawing from Feynman’s critique of “cargo cult science” so much as adopting the “cargo cult” metaphor. Feynman points out that the cargo cult airmen and cargo cult scientists are doing their best to copy the real thing, but are “missing something essential” (electronics, a willing military supply chain, “scientific integrity,” applicability “of the scientific method to the subject”). I can’t put my finger on the “something essential” missing from cargo cult activism; it might be “a strategy relevant to the situation,” but that’s just a guess.

    My intent is to give a name to a phenomenon that the activists I’ve talked to agree is real, so it will be easier to talk about it. I have no illusion that trial-and-error or asking good questions will produce some sort of “scientific activism.” I do think that they make it easier to see when tactics are, by our own standards, “missing something essential.”

  4. On March 22, 2010 at 16:12 Nick said:

    Well, when you do finally figure out how to make the planes land, let me know. :)

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