Cargo Cults And Skyscrapers – Part 1 of 2


“In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes 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 to 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.”
– Nobel-Laureate Richard Feynman, from his 1974 commencement address to the graduating class of Cal Tech

Something To Believe In

Cargo cults provide a glimpse – both amusing and fascinating – into the nature of belief. Presented with strange, new experiences that defy the familiar, they struggle to fit these into their existing paradigm. (See: This Video)

Our preconceptions become the lens through which we attempt to understand everything new that enters our world. Hence, we can find plenty of cognitive bias and rigid thinking in almost any modern organization:

•Political Parties & Government
•Corporate Culture
•Religious Institutions
•Universities & Academia
•The Scientific Community  (No, they’re not immune – Feynman’s speech is specifically about them.)

Though these are not equally guilty, all share a piece of the same legacy that inspired The Gods Must Be Crazy

Everywhere we look, we can find factions so deeply committed to their positions that they won’t even consider other points of view; Ostracism and punishment of those who disagree is the most common response.

Why do people defend their beliefs the way pack animals guard their territory from intruders? Might this be more than a coincidence?

Upsetting the Apple Cart

It’s easy to point at those who do this and call them idiots – but even the wisest of us cling to a few silly rituals and traditions out of habit. It’s much easier to see this behavior in others, than in ourselves

New ideas – political, religious, philosophical, or scientific – almost always originate at the fringes of society. The more radical the idea, the further outside the mainstream it will usually find acceptance.

Innovation, is, almost by definition, an act of rebellion against a status quo…

“All that was great in the past was ridiculed, condemned, combated, suppressed — only to emerge all the more powerfully, all the more triumphantly from the struggle.” – Nikola Tesla

In the early-to-mid 1800’s, abolitionists were considered the lunatic fringe of the Republican Party, yet by the end of the Civil War, their beliefs had become the Union’s raison d’être.

Modern offshoots from mainstream parties – such as the Tea Party, Liberty Movement, Occupy Wall Street, and Restore The Fourth have already changed the national conversation in the U.S. (not to mention, the world). How long can the establishment hold out against these?

Scientific revolutions are not unlike political ones:

Nikola Tesla’s proposals for AC Power were opposed by Thomas Edison, who believed DC current was superior. When Tesla left Edison’s company to work for Westinghouse, Edison engaged in a nasty smear campaign to discredit his work.

Isaac Newton was an outcast from the Royal Society, until Edmund Halley supported his work, funding the publication of Principia Mathematica. Ironically, Newton would later become President of the organization whose members had made mockery of his ideas.

•Academic recognition for his work on relativity was an uphill battle for Einstein, especially with his lack of formal credentials. It wasn’t until the Hafele-Keating experiment in 1971 that the last skeptics fell silent. Ironically, Einstein himself was equally skeptical of Quantum Mechanics.

Noam Chomsky denounced and ridiculed Daniel Everett, a linguist whose studies of the Pirahã tribe challenged his own theory of Universal Grammar. Regardless of whose theory is correct, there’s a powerful irony in a recognized scholar who advocates challenging the establishment (See: Occupy), except when it happens to be himself…

Carl Woese, whose work ultimately established a third domain of life – archaea, was shunned by his colleagues for nearly a quarter century, before being awarded the National Medal of Science for his work.

The more a new idea upsets the apple cart, the more resistance it usually meets…

The Towers We Build

So, now we must ask: Why is this?

If some of history’s most brilliant minds are capable of bias, what does that mean for the rest of us? Can this be overcome? Why does it exist?

Consider the following thought experiment:

You’ve been consulted by the owner of a 60-story skyscraper to provide a cost-estimate for adding 10 stories to the top of his building.

A month later, you’ve completed your estimate, but in reviewing the original plans, you’ve found that the design and materials of the bottom five floors didn’t meet strength and safety requirements. Somehow, this slipped by the inspectors.

So, you have two choices:
Option 1: Quote him $80 million for the additional 10 floors, ignoring the issues with the foundation.
Option 2: Kindly explain to him that he needs to tear down the entire building, and rebuild it at a cost of nearly $600 million.

Unfortunately, in the real world, “Option 2” usually amounts to getting fired…

Why? Plenty of other architects will be all-too-happy to tell the owner what he wants to hear. The more expensive the project in question, the easier it will be for him to doubt the competence of whoever points out its flaws.

From experience, the author would advise anyone who wishes to have a “successful” career in the corporate or government contracting world to sharpen their “Option 1” skills – or find another line of work.

The sunk cost fallacy is a frighteningly powerful factor in real-world projects of this kind.

The Path Of Least Resistance

So what does this have to do with our beliefs?

The building owner and the cargo cultists have something very important in common…

Both find it much easier to build on top of what they already have, than to pay the cost of revisiting their foundations.

Because every discovery is built on top of prior knowledge, and each layer costs time and effort – any belief system should be expected to resist change.

When someone points out the flaws in our expensive foundation, we want to throw that person out of our penthouse – and often do; When someone tells us what we want to hear, we invite them up for a drink – to hear more of their opinions.

In Human Behavior And The Principle Of Least Effort, George Zipf explains this as an applied path of least cost – one of nature’s most common tools.

Nature knows how to select for efficiency. Unless we’re somehow not part of nature, why wouldn’t our behavior be influenced by this?

Though Zipf’s Law originated from a study of human language history, it has since been applied to almost every field in some way. Every time you Google something, or use autocomplete, you can thank this principle for your speedy results. It’s one of a few rare laws of nature that are isomorphic between otherwise-divergent fields of knowledge. (See: Anthem Of Equivalence)

Some have denounced his work as a negation of free will – yet it could only negate the power of choice for those unaware of it. With conscious consideration, it can be overcome…

We can choose to rebuild our skyscrapers instead of kicking “heretics” out of them. In fact, we might even learn to enjoy the process of revisiting our foundations – as the ultimate exercise of personal freedom…

Though the author lacked the tools for articulating this concept to others – it came as a very early life lesson.

Learning Not To Fool Ourselves

“Ownership is not limited to material things. It can also apply to points of view. Once we take ownership of an idea — whether it’s about politics or sports — what do we do? We love it perhaps more than we should. We prize it more than it is worth. And most frequently, we have trouble letting go of it because we can’t stand the idea of its loss. What are we left with then? An ideology — rigid and unyielding.”
Dan Ariely, from Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

So, how do we keep this in check, and keep our thoughts flexible?

It helps to assume a small degree of uncertainty in all knowledge. Skepticism towards others is easy – directing it inward requires discipline.

We should examine other belief systems at every opportunity – especially those we disagree with most. We may find aspects of truth, even in perspectives we reject as a whole.

We must learn to accept when we are caught fooling ourselves. Instead of being angry, we should take it as a lesson in humility, and a reminder of our own humanity

In the end, no ideology can be fully trusted to audit itself – the most coherent will always welcome outside scrutiny and competition.

Of course, rivalries between schools of thought have proven themselves useful, though some participants become more caught up in the competition, than the ideas themselves…

Which highlights the need for another approach entirely

To Be Continued…



  1. Wekkel 01/25/2016, 9:09 AM Reply

    Will you publish part 2 at some stage?