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December 7, 2010



It's a well-worded thesis, but I wonder whether a hard distinction can't be drawn between those endeavors wherein one can successfully "fake it til you make it" and those wherein "faking it" is in fact a movement away from "making it".

Hobbyists and enthusiasts can become experts and/or become licensed practicioners to the extent that their enthusiasm eventually leads them to seek resources -- instruction, official sanction, etc -- outside of their own domain of knowledge and culture. But some phenomena that resemble cargo cults are in fact founded on the active rejection of foreign authority, and aim to erect an alternative to the system of authority which created the original phenomenon being copied. For example, Intelligent Design Theory is a sort of cargo cult, employing an imitation of scientific forms in an attempt to imbue mythology with the social authority -- and perhaps even the predictive power -- of science. But it's difficult to imagine the embrace of the pseudo-scientific forms of ID to be a springboard toward disinterested empirical inquiry -- the only reason the movement exists at all is to stand in opposition to actual science.

Justin Smith

Thanks Picador. I'm very interested in both cargo cults and ID theory, but I'd never noticed the similarities until you brought them to my attention.

I think young earth creationists, with their baraminology and stuff like that, are certainly running a sort of cargo cult, in that they've borrowed the veneer of respectability from the higher-status scientific establishment they oppose. ID theorists in contrast --at least if they're being forthright about their views-- are really more guilty, I think, of failing to keep their activities straight. I think the teleological argument for the existence of God is interesting and worthy of discussion, but that doesn't mean it has a place in any biological research program. Back to the young earth creationists, though: it seems to me that for them 'making it' would mean coming to occupy the positions of power that are now mostly occupied by real scientists, which would enable them to make decisions about the content of textbooks and so on. It's true that this would amount to a displacement of their adversaries, but still it doesn't seem to me fundamentally different from the way, say, graduate students (eventually) displace their mentors. It's all imitation followed (if the imitators are lucky) by displacement. The big difference is that the grad students do a much more thorough job of getting inside the roles of the people they are imitating than do the creationists or the classic cargo cultists in New Guinea.


I think I agree with you about "imitation followed by displacement" being the fundamental dynamic at work in all of these situations. In evoking Creationism and ID, I was grasping for an example in which at least some of the functions of the predecessor simply CAN'T be continued by the imitators, because the imitators have rejected the core substance of their predecessors' practices while retaining only their forms.

I think that what I had in mind was a trend I've seen from time to time in conservative religious discourse whereby the underlying rigor of science (and even engineering) are rejected as unduly rational, or worldly, or counter-revolutionary, or whatever term gets used these days. There's a desire to imitate and displace, yes -- but it's accompanied by a complete lack of appreciation for the accumulated knowledge of the field and the arduous training required to acquire even basic skills in the discipline. While these imitators could achieve (indeed, have already achieved) the social authority that was perhaps their primary goal, they simply won't be able to replicate the technological products of technical and scientific rigor, because they've rejected the actual substance of the disciplines they've been imitating.

But I sound like some kind of bitter atheist technocrat, and that's not really what I'm trying to get at, so maybe I can come up with a better example. In fact, re-reading your original thesis, I've started down a totally different train of thought, one focused on the ostensible functions of the cultural phenomena in question, and so not really addressing what was interesting about your post.

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