That Cargo Cult Lie Again

In an otherwise excellent defence of Mathematics as a fundamental component of a liberal education, professor Robert Lewis of Fordham University once again draws on the old South Pacific cargo cult chestnut to illustrate Bad Thinking about Mathematics:

The story may seem sad, amusing, or pathetic, but what does that have to do with mathematics education? Unfortunately a great deal. The south Pacific natives were unable to discern between the superficial outer appearence of what was happening and the deeper reality.

How… interesting. Obviously these primitives suffered from some sort of cognitive dysfunction never, ever experienced by enlightened Westerners who never, ever engaged in pageantry, idolatry or mimicry in their lives. I guess it’s patently obvious that more advanced, educated people of a noticeably paler complexion never argued for the literal truth of artifacts that were always intended to be symbolic.

I’m going to take a deep breath now….

Okay, look: I’m no anthropologist, but I don’t think it requires more than a few moments of reflection to realise that cargo cults, while appearing novel and unique on the surface, are little more than ritualised re-enactments of a time of plenty and the invocation of a desire to return of wealth.

And -it’s shocking, I admit- there exists a remote possibility that the people partaking in this pageantry are aware of this.

The popular belief that Manaro, the god of Ambae’s volcano, departed to the US with the Americans hardly stretches credulity. It can be understood as a metaphor for the realisation that the power exerted by the Americans in their brief sojourn on neighbouring Santo was so out of scale with local kastom that it in effect kidnapped the old gods. The conclusion of this story, by the way, is that someone needs to go to the US and get him back in order to restore order. I suspect the modern word for this heroic adventurer is ‘entrepreneur‘.

The John Frum cults in Tanna do spend a lot of time and effort in their pageantry. But not significantly more than that expended in Little Italies across North America, where the cult of the Mother still thrives.

Even the Prince Philip cult (again in Tanna) is perfectly comprehensible: If the villagers demonstrate consistent faith and support by conferring the highest imaginable honour upon the most powerful person they’ve ever met, they might continue to enjoy his patronage. Read this way, you could even argue that Philip’s deification is some pretty calculated (and, if you watch the BBC, effective) flattery of the recipient.

Most important of all, though, people tend to forget that cargo cults often work:

We are all creatures of ritual. We all, to some degree or other, associate results with the gestures that precipitate them, rather than with the actions themselves. And more often than not, this modus operandi works just fine.

I’m not arguing for the fundamental validity of the logic underlying cargo cults; but just once in a while, I wish that people would look at them and see themselves.

It’s regrettable than even an eminent professor of mathematics would fall victim to the very thing he decries: the inability “to discern between the superficial outer appearence [sic] of what was happening and the deeper reality.”