Why Cargo Cults Plague Business

Why Cargo Cults Plague Business

What do Christopher Moore and Richard Feynman have in common?

Cargo cults.

In Richard P. Feynman’s book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! there is a chapter titled “Cargo Cult Science.” The title is a reference to phenomenon known as a cargo cult. Feynman uses this vivid example to criticize some practices in the scientific community.

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 make 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.

I couldn’t help but laugh as I read this chapter in Feynman’s book. That’s because it reminded me of another book I recently finished reading. That book was Christopher Moore’s fictional tale, The Island of the Sequined Love Nun.

Moore spent a lot of time on the research part for his book. He was able to deduct his trips to tropical paradises as business expenses on his taxes. I’m glad he did, because Moore incorporated much of what he learned into the literature. The Island of the Sequined Love Nun gives you a feeling for what it must have been like to be in such an environment. It also makes for an entertaining acknowledgements section in his book. It was there that Moore revealed how many of the vignettes he based on real life.

Cargo Cults in Science

Putting aside the …Love Nun, let’s return to Surely You’re Joking… Feynman explained why he is talking about cargo cults in his book. He talks about many issues. To start with there is a tendency in science to do an experiment and to only publish if the result is favorable. That’s not good enough, because those that will pick up where you left off will benefit if they can learn from your failures too.

Another big issue is that funding and support is hard to come by in science when you want to repeat an experiment that was already done. Feynman had a student who wanted to do an experiment that built on top of previous research.

I explained to her that it was necessary to repeat in her laboratory the experiment of the other person — to do it under condition X to ee if she could also get result A, and then change to Y and see if A changed. Then she would know that the real difference was the thing she thought she had under control.

The student loved the idea, but her advisor said no because the experiment was already done and it would waste time.

Feynman has more to share about this and other examples of cargo cult thinking infecting the scientific arena. What this means for the world of business is much more important.

Cargo Cults in Business

… it would be just about as difficult to explain to the South Sea Islanders how they have to arrange things so that they get some wealth into their system. It is not something simple like telling them how to improve the shapes of the earphones.

I read that line, and put Feynman’s book down, and closed my eyes. I was having an “IG Nobel Moment,” the more mischievous and much younger cousin of deja vu. The IG Nobel Prize is an award given to an achievement that first makes you laugh, and then makes you think. I leaned into this feeling, laughing but then sobering up to a realization.

That realization was about blood sweat and tears. People shed large amounts of these liquids to achieve their own business version of summoning the cargo cult gods. By people, I mean my clients and my coworkers and bosses. By people, I mean me.

Feynman was much gentler and forgiving about this. He wrote that a great deal of the difficulty in solving this problem has to do with two elements. One element is that often the subject is difficult in and of itself. Another element is that the scientific method is simply not applicable to the subject. These aren’t the only two elements preventing the cargo cults from causing the planes to land, but they are important ones.

The Difference” by xkcd.com, used with permission

For many of the subjects we need to observe in business and decide upon we know too little about the subject. We don’t have enough data, or there are too many factors at play that prevent us from isolating a root cause. In these situations it becomes very difficult to be able to run an experiment with any rigor that allow us to prove or disprove a theory.

For the islanders, if a plane lands and brings great fortune and fame on a Sunday, and then takes off again on a Wednesday, they can’t be faulted for positing the theory that Sundays are more susceptible to plane visits than Wednesdays. The fact that the number of observations of the phenomenon happens so infrequently, maybe once or twice, is also not anyone’s fault.

All too often, telling someone that an experiment is “inconclusive” is followed by a reply. That reply is something like, “well, we can’t prove Sunday isn’t significant, and it IS our best day overall, so let’s put all of our time and energy into Sundays for the next month.”

This is one reason we hate to bring bad news to the attention of leaders of an organization. It’s not because the bad news means the messenger will be killed, but because the messenger is more likely to be ignored entirely.

If you are in this role as the marginalized messenger, your next decision is to either fight this faulty logic about Sundays, or let it go and let them do what they want. The problem with the last statement is that it eats away at your integrity, and it is also clearly not in the best interests of the organization to bet most of the money on Sundays. In case of the former, you have put yourself in a precarious and contentious position, and being the argumentative naysayer is a really tough gig.

Ceremonial cross of John Frum cargo cult, Tanna island, New Hebrides 1967 by Tim Ross / CC BY 3.0

The island villagers tried to increase wealth by imitating success as best they could. Instead of trying to imitate headphones and antennas, we try to replicate the success of Zappos or Facebook. Reading best selling books and watching TED videos replaces fireside stories. It doesn’t seem so different from the day to day of any business person.

So what do we do about this? I’ll tell you in an upcoming blog post how we can counteract the effects of cargo cult mentalities. (Click here to read part two.)

Since I’ve left you depressed and without a way to make life better, I’ll wrap this up with the following from xkcd.com.

Experimentation” by xkcd.com, used with permission

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