Cargo Cult Science

During World War II, American forces fighting in the Pacific set up bases on remote islands whose people had had very little prior contact with other civilizations. These people, with technology at a Stone Age level, were amazed by the strange visitors and the almost miraculous cargo they brought with them – chocolate, cigarettes, radio, steel tools. When the war ended and the soldiers left, some tribes went to desperate measures to summon them back, forming religions – cargo cults – which tried to induce the soldiers to return through sympathetic magic. Some of them went so far as to make mock military uniforms, cut “runways” in the jungle, or build “control towers” out of bamboo. The most famous surviving cargo cult is the following of John Frum, which I’ve written about before.

I mention all this because a friend sent me this bizarre article from a group calling itself the Spiritual Science Research Foundation, “How does prayer work? A spiritual perspective“. It’s an excellent example of what (to borrow a phrase from Richard Feynman) we might call “cargo cult science”.

This article is clearly intended to mimic the form of a peer-reviewed scientific paper. It has an abstract, a section discussing the “mechanism” of prayer, plenty of colorful graphics and charts, and plenty of technical-sounding talk about which postures increase the efficacy of one’s prayers by what percentage:

But for all its glitzy graphics and pseudotechnical jargon, this article is no more science than a cargo cult’s bamboo control tower will attract real airplanes. It imitates the form while completely misunderstanding the essence of what it’s trying to recreate.

The essence of science lies in answering two questions: how do you know that? and how can I test it? Both these answers are missing from the SSRF’s prayer article, which spews forth assertion after ludicrous assertion without making the slightest effort to explain how its author came by any of this knowledge. Just take a few examples:

A person at the 50% spiritual level will more often than not pray for his spiritual progress… a person who prays for the death of another person will be helped by a negative subtle entity from the 4th Region of Hell… The subtlest frequencies are generated when one pays gratitude along with the prayer… Prayer increases the particles of the subtle basic sattva component in the vital body sheath… In our life, 65% of events happen as per destiny… Prayers of people who are below the 30% spiritual level lack potency… By touching the wrists to the chest, the Anaahat chakra is activated and it helps in absorbing more sattva frequencies… In some cases people hold hands and pray. This is also a spiritually incorrect practice… All other things being equal, using the recommended mudraa (posture) for prayer helps to improve the chances of one’s prayer being answered by 20%.

The article goes on and on, throwing out these statistics as if they were well-established facts, never attempting to explain how any of this knowledge was acquired. Nor does it make any effort to explain how an interested person might test any of this to confirm for themselves that it’s true.

What seems clear is that groups like this (and others) are envious of science – of its precision, of its demonstrated success, of the esteem it enjoys from the public. They want to claim some of that authority for themselves, which is why they ape the form and language of a scientific paper, hoping that the credulous will be deceived by the resemblance into thinking that their beliefs are scientifically verified as well. Yet despite its pretense of scientific language, this article is essentially no different from any other religious book, making bald assertions which the believer is required to take on faith.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Nonreligious Nerd

    Actually, I think the bamboo control tower has a better chance. at least with that there is a chance a pilot will have a wtf moment at the bamboo structure and land. this slim chance is greater than the 0% chance that this is science.

  • Valhar2000

    As was mentioned in an episode of Penn and Teller’s “Bullshit”, ghost busters are a very good example of people who practice cargo-cult science, or pseudo-science. The sort of people who will use infrared cameras and lasers, who will leave recording devices running all night and later “analyze” the results, who will wear white coats and latex gloves everywhere they go.

    They see real scientists using these instruments in their work and assume that the instruments and methods they observe are what makes the results “scientific”, and thus assume that if they use the same instruments and methods their own work must be just as good; how could it not, if it has the same components?

    They do not understand the scientific method, nor do they understand that the trappings they imitate are merely external manifestations of it, contingent on the time, place and situation to which it is applied, so they cannot hope to understand why their own efforts are so thoroughly divorced from actual Science.

    Steve Dutch puts it well:

    [...]science is extremely decentralized. The reason it doesn’t seem so to the average crank scientist is because the gulf between crank science and even the lowliest real scientist is huge. You might as well put on an elk suit and try to lead an elk herd.

  • fancyplants

    But… I want to be a big glowy white person with a yellow dot in the middle of my chest. It all sounds positive and would be beneficial to me were it all to be miraculously true, so.. where do I sign?

    It’s saddening to think that, although most people are intelligent enough to see it as crap, there will be some suggestable sorts who go for it.

  • derek hudson

    The great thing about pontificating about gods, or prayer, or whatever pet belief you want to spread, is that mere assertion is sufficient. This is why I have a secret (not now!) envy for the Ray Comfort’s of this world. They need do no research, no experimentation, and, often, alas, no thinking. Just assert. ‘God created the heavens and the earth’ is asserted, and the assertor (is there such a word) believes that they have answered eveything by that statement. The fact that it begs many questions and sets up millions more is ignored. Leave your science. It’s too time consuming, difficult, expensive and, ultimately, uncertain. Give me the good old ‘it’s true because I say it’s true’ technique any time. It makes things so much simpler.

  • Dan

    Reading the full article and others on the linked site reminds me a lot of the pseudo-science trappings of Transcendental Meditation. Another day, another dollar for the guru.

  • Alex, FCD

    This was my favorite part:

    In our life, 65% of events happen as per destiny.

    What the hell does that even mean? What kind of predestination has a 35% failure rate? What kind of sloppy omniscience is this?

  • NoAstronomer

    FancyPants said :

    “…most people are intelligent enough to see it as crap…”

    You’re a lot more optimistic than I am.


  • Ritchie

    Oooh, what a coincidence. I was reading about these Indonesian cargo cults (for the first time) only a couple of hours ago!

    It was in Stephen Oppenheimer’s Out Of Eden – the story of how one small group of early human pioneers left Africa to colonize the entire rest of the planet outside that continent. He was talking about an extremely wise and perceptive New Guinean called Yali who nevertheless believed in these cargo cults. His point was that it is a mistake to consider such races of people as less evolved or more primitive. The differences between the races of economic power, technological advancement and cultural (religious) sophistication are largely just accidents of history, and not an indication of differences in innate intelligence between races.

    Jared Diamond actually takes this as his central thesis in his book Guns, Germs, and Steel.

  • Wedge

    “Cargo Cult Science.” I love it.

    The variation I run across most often is the creationist statement that if you can’t reproduce an event in a lab, studying it is not science. As if labs and test tubes and white coats are what makes “real” science.

  • Steve Bowen

    I liked this bit…

    When a person prays, he remembers God intensely and has an intimate dialogue with Him about issues very close to his heart. By the law of reflex action [my emphasis], God also feels closer to him.

    I think I must have missed out on “the law of reflex action” in my studies. Or maybe it’s an invocation like “By the power of grayskull!” which is similarly potent.

  • Eric

    I’m not sure if it truly relates, but all the woo & pseudoscience on that site remind me of Ken Wilbur’s Integral Institute.

    I live in the Bay Area. Here we trade religious fundies for new age wackloons. And the worst of the lot are the Integral folks.

    Has anyone read about these Integral people? I’d love to find others who’ve experience the amazing arrogance, vapidity and ersatz intelligence.

  • Dale

    Aw Steve, you beat me to it! I was going to pull that same quote.

    Just browsing the articles on the site is good for a chuckle. I find the “cargo cult science” descriptor to be quite apt; as was observed, this page has all the trappings of science, but none of the substance. They’ve got: section by section breakdowns of the “information”, implying that ideas build upon each other; pages upon pages of graphs, stuffed to the brim with percentages and technical terms pulled seemingly (who am I kidding: actually) out of thin air; and even footnotes! Of course, the footnotes are nothing more than additional lines of garbage, but boy do they look official!

    All this posturing reminds me of something I picked up back in my Catholic days, which could perhaps be summarized in the following way: imitation is the sincerest form of spiritual growth. One of the things Catholics are asked to do is learn about the lives of saints. The Church hopes that by doing so, believers can become as much like the saints as possible, and thereby achieve enlightenment (insomuch as that term applies to Catholicism). To draw the connection, it’s sometimes a case of monkey-see, monkey-do: those who follow certain saints will imitate their dress, speech, mannerisms, and lifestyle, to the point of isolating themselves from society in a monastery or convent so as to avoid outside distractions. It is the hope and prayer of these Brothers and Sisters that their posing as saints will eventually lead to actual, recognized sainthood, and fortunately for them, it sometimes does (although never within their lifetimes, so they likely never know it).

    The parallel I see here is this: the big churches of the world aren’t doing anything dramatically different from the cargo cults. They’ve just had more time to hone the practice down into something that, from the outside, doesn’t seem as patently ridiculous as building radios out of coconuts. The Catholic Church is all about ceremony and tradition: they sing the same chants, mumble the same prayers, dress up in the same ridiculous costumes, and go through the same motions over and over again. I guess what I’m asking (rhetorically) is: How is a Sunday Mass, with its hymns, robes, candles, and synchronized standing, sitting, and kneeing, any different from the cargo cultist standing on a fake runway trying to call down John Frum?

  • Ritchie

    I’d also like to make one final point – it seems to me there is one very striking difference between the cargo cults and this SSRF article in particular and religion as a whole in general – the cargo cults are built on events that really happened!

    Fair enough they are a rather whimsical attempt to make sense of that they saw, but what they saw was at least real. Can the same be said for most religions/the above article?

  • Ebonmuse

    What kind of predestination has a 35% failure rate? What kind of sloppy omniscience is this?

    Perhaps the authors meant, Alex, that 65% of events in our life are predestined and the rest are our free-willed choices. Of course, being partially predestined is like being slightly pregnant – how can an event in my future be predetermined if I have the free will to make a choice now which may prevent it from ever coming to pass? This is clearly one of those statements you’re not supposed to think about too hard because it sounds sciencey.

    I think I must have missed out on “the law of reflex action” in my studies. Or maybe it’s an invocation like “By the power of grayskull!” which is similarly potent.

    In my reading, this may come from a garbled understanding of Newton’s third law. Evidently, for every prayer there is an equal and opposite anti-prayer – which I guess would be handled by one of those “negative energies” from the nether regions of Hell.

  • exrelayman

    Ebon – Loved your essence of science sentence and have placed it in my quotes file. It also inspired me to create my own quote for my quotes file: Faith believes, science tests.

  • Yahzi

    Eric – I work with a fellow who espouses Wilder and the Integral movement. He keeps telling me that he is a trans-rationalist, which is better than a pre-rationalist or rationalist, because it includes both.

    Wilber’s philosophy is also apparently non-dual, which is different from monism because… well, I can’t really say. Apparently it’s just like dualism, but without the dual part; and its nothing like monism, even there there’s only one thing. None of it makes a lick of sense.

    But my fellow isn’t a hippy – he’s an engineer who thinks Obama is a socialist bent on destroying the world, and Global Warming is merely a plot to engineer a world government.

    But otherwise, ya, you got the right description. :D

  • Yahzi

    Sorry – that should have read “espouses Wilber”.

  • Yahzi

    Dale – “as patently ridiculous as building radios out of coconuts. ”

    I dunno… making Jesus out of crackers seems patently ridiculous to me. :D

    It’s not that mainstream churches are less absurd; it’s that we’ve been trained by birth to overlook that absurdity.

    Back in the pre-bellum South, the invisibility of slavery was so potent that occasionally white women would undress in front of black male servants. Socilization is a powerful force.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    As I’ve put it elsewhere, when I want real music, I don’t listen to air-guitarists.

  • Greta Christina

    Mostly I just want to say “yup.” But I also want to say this:

    All other things being equal, using the recommended mudraa (posture) for prayer helps to improve the chances of one’s prayer being answered by 20%.

    This made me laugh out loud. It’s like a late-night infomercial, or an ad for antacids. “Increase your praying power by 20%! Act now, and get the final liberation of one family member absolutely free!” I mean, do these people listen to what they say? Do they have any idea what they sound like? Do they get that they sound like a Saturday Night Live parody of themselves?

    Sorry if I’m a little punchy. I’ve been spending too much time on Facebook debating with believers who think criticizing religion and making fun of it is inherently intolerant and bigoted. Thank you for reminding me why it’s important.

  • Alex Weaver

    Huh. It seems like the only thing they got right is the association of “nether regions” with “worldly pleasures.”

  • Sarah Braasch

    There are some very funny people who frequent this site.

  • Caiphen

    At least the natives were worshipping something that had empirical evidence to show it exists.

    It makes more sense than Christianity.

  • Nurse Ingrid

    I love this concept of cargo cult science. It reminds me of the ads for cosmetics in which someone in a lab coat talks about how this product contains alpha-hydroxy-whatever and is “clinically proven.”

    How deeply strange, the degree to which our society has fetishized all the trappings of science at the same time that we have so thoroughly abandoned its actual principles. This never struck me in quite this way until I read this post.

  • A’Llyn

    What this reminds me of, with all the charts and percentages, is a roleplaying game, like Dungeons and Dragons. You pray, roll the die to see if you succeed, and the correct gestures add a 20% positive modifier. That’s a +4, you know, which is nothing to sneeze at!

    The only thing missing is a chart explaining the DC of each type of thing you want to have happen, so you know how high you have to roll on your d20 to get someone to drop dead, or achieve Final Liberation.

    Also, I would want to see the write-up on Final Liberation. I bet a sneaky player could use it to get rid of an opponent (because I’m sure Finally Liberated people don’t hang around bothering with adventurers), while still maintaining a Lawful Good alignment.

    Heh. I am a geek.

  • Bruce

    A’Llyn, you should codify your RPG idea, incorporating this feel-good mumbo jumbo into a paper and dice game with rules all bound up pretty-like in a book, then sell it to the credulous. The people who produced the above documents would eat it up. They sound geeky enough and maybe you could make a small fortune. Best of all, the money you make is that much less money your marks will have to spend on truly harmful woo.

  • anon

    One of my friends told me about “Noetic Science”. He thought it looked promising. I was skeptical. I’ve looked a fair amount through the site and I haven’t found anything but “objectives” and “aims,” utterly ambiguous or patently obvious “results,” potential Placebo effects and just absolutely trashy “science.”

    On the other hand, I just checked out that Integral site. Apparently they have good web designers, and they even included a pic of an actual integral from calculus! What more could you want in order to feel motivated towards this stuff!

  • Dale

    @ A’Llyn – I agree with Bruce. Your idea is pure gold (or gp, as it were). I can just imagine the potential extensions, at least for D&D: converting others to your belief system adds a +1 to your next roll, rolling a natural failure causes the deity to send a horrific plague, and if you can beat the DC, you can have your god complete dungeon puzzles or kill boss monsters for you. Playing a cleric would never be the same again!

  • Staceyjw

    In San Diego I am surrounded by wealthy white woo lovers and Mexican catholics- neither is as sensible as a cargo cult.

    I’ve been trying to find an article about atheist thoughts on “chakras”, “energy” and other related “spiritual woo” for awhile now. I hear about it so much, I would love to hear other responses (likely more eloquent than mine).
    I am told countless times, by actual friends: “saying your an atheist is so negative”, “you need spirituality” and “you’re closing your mind to so much (by denying god and demanding proof of supernatural)”. Ugh!

    The worst part is that woo believers (and creationists) jump to use science when it suits them, deny it when it disproves them, Some claim energy and chakras are real and are scientifically proven.Most people I know heavily into woo have done lots of psychedelics and are convinced what they experienced is real.

    Please point me to any related posts!


  • Alex, FCD

    I’ve been trying to find an article about atheist thoughts on “chakras”, “energy” and other related “spiritual woo” for awhile now. I hear about it so much, I would love to hear other responses (likely more eloquent than mine).

    For every one that asketh receiveth; and she that seeketh findeth. Ebon’s ‘Popular Delusions’ series is excellent on that topic, and also includes bits on astrology and crystal healing amongst others.

  • Modusoperandi

    Yahzi “Back in the pre-bellum South, the invisibility of slavery was so potent that occasionally white women would undress in front of black male servants.”
    So, what you’re saying is that being a slave has its perks?

  • D

    What. The. Eff.

    This has to be a Poe. It simply must be, or humanity is doomed. True dichotomy, there. What on Earth makes them think that these figures are at all justified? Your bit on the aping of science is spot-the-Hell-on, though: I once said of Creationists that they are to science what a bunch of children on a field trip are to auto manufacturing. You see, the children can dress up in outfits, they can push buttons and pull levers and shout orders at each other, take coffee breaks and punch clocks all day long… but if no automobiles come out, then they weren’t manufacturing automobiles. If peer-reviewed research is not generated, if testable claims are not being evaluated, if controlled experiments are not being carried out, then no science is being done, The End.

    A’Llyn’s bit on D&D reminds me of the Chariots of Iron “Priests & Prophets.” They did a great two-part bit on the story of Exodus, with players taking the role of Moses & Aaron, and the DM was God. My favorite geeky bit was when they talked about Peter’s commune in the book of Acts, they were all like, “Yeah, Ananias comes to Peter and lies about how much money he’s got, so Peter speaks some hokum and Ananias just dies. That’s the first documented use of Power Word: Kill by a 17th-level cleric – ” “Wait, I thought that was a ninth-level wizard spell?” “It is, but he’s a cleric so he needs to be 17th level to use it. Anyway, Ananias’ wife tries to pull the same trick later in the day, so Peter uses Power Word: Kill on her, too.” “A ninth-level wizard spell twice in one day by a cleric? So he must be, like, at least twenty-first level – or he took an extended rest in between.”

  • ashling

    D&D references? So they were right, D&D does lead to godlessness ;)

  • Modusoperandi

    Ashling: Only if they make their Saving Throw.

  • anti_supernaturalist

    what is prayer?
    it’s not about what you want — it’s about what’s wanted from you

    God’s lack of a direct response to prayer is not a response of ‘no.’ It’s simply a non-response. To the priest-pastor-rabbi-imam it is important that “God” never respond. They’d be out of a job.

    To hear God speaking to you directly makes you a likely hysteric or schizophrenic, not a likely saint. Why is it Jesus rather than Buddha who appears as an auditory hallucination to Saul/Paul of Tarsus? Why doesn’t Teresa of Avila go into sexual ecstasy over Krishna like Radha and the other voluptuous Gopis of Vrindavan?

    Jesus admonished his followers against prayer as asking-for-stuff — “consider the lilies of the field” — or prayer as public performance — “they have their reward.” So, even the fiction writers of the so-called gospels knew how to hedge their bets . . . How could a non-existent being respond?

    By 100 BCE philosophical skepticism had made naive prayer — let’s-make-a-deal, or a god’s direct public response — fire from heaven or thunder over the left shoulder — literally beyond belief.

    Prayer finally amounts to a purported alignment of a person’s intentions with “the will of God.” Or with the will of Yahweh, Allah, Ahura Mazda. Pick your favorite from the big-4 near eastern monster-theisms. They’re interchangeable.

    Prayer is one fat red herring. The word ‘prayer’ simply gets redefined from let’s-make-a-deal until the action it points to is rendered into attitude adjustment. Now the religious “authorities” have you. All that matters is your attitude — are you prepared to submit to them as some god’s proxy?

    So you have a problem adapting to our authority? — well it’s your problem. Or better yet, intones father-pastor-rabbi-imam, you are your problem. You’re out of touch with their realities — which we know to be fictional lands of religious fantasy.

    The so-called great theistic religions and Freudian psychiatry are one in creating fictitious illnesses (sin/neurosis) for which each offers bogus cures at premium prices.

  • Lauren

    Then again, there is the article on that SSRF site on why women are more prone to demonic possession than men, and why they are more incomplete, more imperfect, less bound to achieve sainthood, etc… what a bunch of baloney! to even imply that their mothers are inferior in any way just shows how lost these guys are. Another pseudo cult that belittles women…

  • davdT

    Well put!!! Sort of the religions version of “MATH IS THE LANGUAGE OF THE UNIVERSE Delusion in science. So who is right the deluded in the math/science world or the deluded in the language poetry world? Twiddle dee arguing his goat herder turban is valid while twiddle Dum argues his goat herder turban is more valid. Which virutalized perspective is valid?

  • Anthony

    “What seems clear is that groups like this (and others) are envious of science – of its precision, of its demonstrated success, of the esteem it enjoys from the public.” – Adam, that is one of the most self righteous comments I’ve ever read. Read the entire website, and regardless of whether or not you believe the claims of the Spiritual Research Foundation(I, personally do NOT), You will clearly see that the purpose of the site is to promote positive energy, and to present spirituality in a more FINITE way(that loosely resembles the scientific method).
    Maybe you should spend less time worried about “esteem enjoyed from the public,” and more time taking a legitimate look at your own spirituality. The simple fact is, science is everything – nothing is supernatural or otherworldly. However, spirituality is an aspect of science.