Principles of the American Cargo Cult -- the beliefs that make bad argument

This brief, snappy, somewhat depressing article on "Principles of the American Cargo Cult" tries to sketch the characteristics of "misbeliefs [that] constantly underlie bad arguments in public debate."

To this I'd add: "The plural of anaecdote is fact."

All interconnection is apparent
* Otherwise, complicated explanations would be necessary.

The end supports the explanation of the means
* A successful person's explanation of the means of his success is highly credible by the very fact of his success.

You can succeed by emulating the purported behavior of successful people
* This is the key to the cargo cult. To enjoy the success of another, just mimic the rituals he claims to follow. Your idol gets the blame if things don't work out, not you.

You have a right to your share
* You get to define your share.
* Your share is the least you will accept without crying injustice.
* Celebrate getting more than your share.

Principles of the American Cargo Cult (via Making Light)

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  1. It may all boil down to a need to maintain self-esteem and comfort with the world– saying “I am a good, moral, and competent human being living in a world that seeks to be just”.

    Chances are, none of those qualities are likely to be entirely true, but walking around saying “I am critically flawed, morally deficient, vastly ignorant, in a cruel and merciless world” is a fast route to depression.

  2. Emulating what successful people do isn’t a bad place to start. It’s probably not the brand of coffee they drink though.

    “All interconnection is apparent”

    This is a favorite of conspiracy theorists. They don’t believe in coincidence or shear luck. A world filled with malicious all powerful entities is preferable to one that just doesn’t give a f*ck about you.

    “walking around saying “I am critically flawed, morally deficient, vastly ignorant, in a cruel and merciless world” is a fast route to depression.”

    Heh… works for me. It’s even worse if you can’t lie to yourself. Ethical principles are a handicap.

  3. “These are illusions of popular history which a successful religion must promote: Evil men never prosper; only the brave deserve the fair; honesty is the best policy; actions speak louder than words; virtue always triumphs; a good deed is its own reward; any bad human can be reformed; religious talismans protect one from demon possession; only females understand the ancient mysteries; the rich are doomed to unhappiness . . .”

    -From the Instruction Manual: Missionaria Protectiva
    Children of Dune
    Frank Herbert

  4. Geez was Frank Herbert just reading the old Hollywood/TV Production Code?
    American thinking has yet to recover from the Right’s thoroughgoing control of the Mass Media of the forties/fifties/sixties, IMO.

  5. I recently read The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow (Caltech professor, son of Holocaust survivors, and pal of Steven Hawking) which examines some of these logical fallacies. I can’t recommend it enough.

  6. Huh, I was thinking of a similar concept recently. But I tried to make a stronger connection between the South Seas cargo cults and our own American habits. Especially the fact that the key to what makes a cargo cult unique from just faulty folk-knowledge, is its mistranslated understanding of a foreign culture. The article just seems to focus on aspects of American culture(and really, are they exclusive to Americans?)

    I think a closer analogy is the interesting phenomenon of American media importing foreign culture by the boatload. Especially the onslaught of all things Japanese (also kind of similar to what happened among the Parisian avant-garde of the turn of the last century). How many American kids collect and play with Naruto playing cards are aware of the floating pieces of pureed fish that float on top of ramen soup that the show takes its name from?

    I also think its a bit presumptuous (and ethnocentric) of of him to equate cargo cults with bad habits. Culture, whether it comes from insular or imported origin is simply culture. I don’t think either good or bad that kids might sooner recognize Pikachu than Donald Duck.

    I imagine that the New Guinea cargo cults are equated with being backwards by the author not for the fact that they are cults but because some of the beliefs are drawn from American (and therefore, wrong headed) origins.

  7. Some minor and possibly irrelevant additions:

    — Random chance is romantic (or even sacred), intentional action is cold (and perhaps wrong).

    — To understand (or to believe you understand) a person or a thing is to make him or it insignificant.

    — Nature and natural things are good and good for you.

  8. I always misunderstood the meaning of “Cargo Cult.” I thought it described a society of people who believed their god was going to land in some divine ship and take them away to a better life. I eventually just thought, well ‘jeez’ isn’t that almost every religious belief?

    I actually am not sure why the author used it to describe our social mentality considering its historical meaning.

  9. I’m also unsure the connection between these logical fallacies and the Cargo Cult phenomenon.

    Based on my experience of Western European culture, I would say these characteristics are true for them as well.

    Ugly Canuck: you might want to reread section III: It’s Not Your Fault.

  10. Emulating what successful people do isn’t a bad place to start. It’s probably not the brand of coffee they drink though.

    You’re right, people often tend to cherry-pick the behaviors they are prone to do anyway rather than the ones likely to lead to success. (“Bill Gates dropped out of college to start Microsoft, so I’ll quit school to pursue my dream too!”)

    Another problem is that little qualifier “purported” in front of “behaviors of successful people.” Biographies are often incomplete or romanticized when the true story isn’t as interesting.

  11. I agree with #10:
    Cargo Cult strikes me as the wrong metaphor.

    How about:
    “Principles of faith-based rapture-ready
    evangelical Christian belief system”

  12. “To this I’d add: ‘The plural of anaecdote is fact.'”
    …and I’d add to that “…other peoples’ anecdotes that fail to support your anecdotes are just anecdotes.”

    I’d add (note that there may be some overlap):
    “A comfortable lie is true.”
    “People who disagree with you are using the wrong facts.”
    “Unpopular minorities are both unpopular and minorities for a good reason.”
    “Obeying those above you with whom you agree is patriotism, obeying those above you with whom you disagree is treason.”
    &
    “Disagreement or criticism of your beliefs is repression.” and its cousin “Other people regulating your life is repression, while you regulating theirs is [insert ‘promoting family values’, ‘protecting the children’, ‘defending the sanctity of marriage’, ‘protecting freedom’, etc].”
    …granted, I’m terribly left-wing. The following also apply to “my” side:
    “You come to your decisions rationally, while other people do so based on emotion.”
    “The only Free Speech that should be defended is speech that you agree with.”

    urshrew “These are illusions…Frank Herbert”
    Nerd.

  13. Wups. That should probably “oppression” in place of “repression”. I’m always mixing up my pressions. Once, I swapped impression and depression, so instead of sounding like Mister T, I made everyone sad.

  14. A quote from Vonnegut (“Player Piano” I think): “If you’re so smart, how come you ain’t rich?” (usually posted next to a miniature US flag at a cash register).

  15. It’s always fun to point at “They” and say how foolish their
    acts and beliefs are. I almost hate to quote the addage “when
    you point one finger at someone’s flaws, three fingers are
    pointing back at you.” Our self-righteousness wells up within
    us, and we feel better, more intelligent and evolved than they
    are. I suppose in some small way it’s good for us. People with
    low self esteem don’t accomplish much.
    I’d like to throw these thoughts into the mix:
    You don’t really have the right to criticise until you’re ready
    to be criticised.
    You don’t deserve to be heard until you’ve listened.
    You don’t deserve ANY right until you’ve granted it to everyone
    else.
    You don’t have the right to judge anyone. If you think what “they”
    are doing or saying is wrong, don’t go there. If someone should slash
    your tire, and you feel that was wrong, slashing his tire won’t justify
    your action- it makes you just as wrong. Doesn’t “fighting fire with
    fire” make a bigger fire? It seems to me that when you slash his
    tire, or pass judgement on someone, you’re joining the Cargo Cult.
    OMHO

  16. > “To this I’d add: ‘The plural of anaecdote is fact.'”

    While I totally understand where Cory’s coming from with this statement, and I agree with it *from the perspective I agree with from,* – ;^) – there is another way to view this statement that reveals two valid approaches to the goal of understanding.

    First, let’s legitimately discard the examples that the statement’s intent (here) correctly identifies – those who attempt to pick and choose a few anecdotal examples and attempts to hold them up as support for a reduced/reductionist bivalency (true/false, fact/myth, right/wrong, etc..)

    But a valid use of a plurality of anecdotes would be the accumulating datapoints approach to understanding. This is another very important, essentially *non-reductionistic* way of gaining understanding. By mapping anecdotal information, particularly in large sets and by as many comparable attributes/criteria as possible, a visualized topology (almost always irregular – like nature) can emerge.

    This too is a representation not to be confused with actual reality as well, but it’s not as misleading and treacherous as the kind of drastically reduced bivalency found in most (Western) mindsets and approaches to understanding.

    Everything in that list is both true, and simulataneously not true in some circumstances and framings. This is the inherent problem with reductionist thought. It sets up a swirling fractal of bivalency that if you ponder it long enough will flip back and forth like an optical illusion.

    Logic is a powerful tool, and clearly there are too many today that lack the ability to use it at all. But it’s also a mistake to conflate truly valid logic with truth itself.

    I tend to think of reality as messy, topological, difficult to boil down without losing its most important characteristics, and most easily visualized by accumulating and multi-dimensionally mapping and embodying datapoints. And that will produce something worthy of pondering and gaining deeper insights into, and not necessarily making simple reduced conclusions about.

  17. Another good one:

    * Memory is infallible and all-encompassing.
    It happened exactly like I remember it.
    If I don’t remember it, it didn’t happen.

    That seems to be the core behind “THE SECRET” and many other self-help groups – if you focus 100% of your attention on positive thinking, then you only remember the positive — and magically (since memory is infallible and all-encompassing) you wind up with a life where only good things happen. Magic!

  18. Mostly this is not uniquely American: sounds like the human condition to me. I think that’s why religions are popular, to soften the blow of reality, to help you to cope. The world that we want to live in is orthogonal to the actual one, in many ways. That’s just the way it is; it’s not particularly blameworthy to wish for something else. It would be better to realize what has to change in order to get there, though, rather than just pretending.

  19. I hasten to add that mapping is itself a treacherous undertaking, and as we all know from the “mappings” of conspiracy theorists, it’s possible to yield something that looks like an emerging truth that is quite possibly misleading.

    Below is the most astute assessment of conspiracy theorists that I’ve ever come across. It’s by architect, Rem Koolhaas, which I found printed in Rob Kovitz’ brilliant “Pig City Model Farm”).

    It not only explains how books like this one get written, but why they’re so compelling to those lacking sufficient reasoning skills.

    “Paranoia is a delirium of interpretation. Each fact, event, force,
    observation is caught in one system of speculation and “understood”
    by the afflicted individual in such a way that it absolutely confirms
    and reinforces his thesis – that is, the initial delusion which is his
    point of departure. Just as in a magnetic field metal molecules align
    themselves to exert a collective, cumulative pull, so, through
    unstoppable, systematic and in themselves strictly rational
    associations, the paranoiac turns the whole world into a magnetic
    field of facts, all pointing in the same direction.

    Paranoia is a shock of recognition that never ends.”

    – Rem Koolhaas, The Paranoid-Critical Method

  20. Mostly this is not uniquely American: sounds like the human condition to me. I think that’s why religions are popular, to soften the blow of reality, to help you to cope. The world that we want to live in is orthogonal to the actual one, in many ways. That’s just the way it is; it’s not particularly blameworthy to wish for something else. It would be better to realize what has to change in order to get there, though, rather than just pretending.

  21. This phenomena is being used to some extent in the publishing industry. I think our brains have a propensity to evaluate situations and to model them based on incomplete data sets. Survival depended on mimicking, and still does, and a large part of that mimicking depends on what we perceive to be as behaviors with favorable outcomes. So, if I’m going to base some of my own future-modeling on what’s happening right now in publishing, I’m going to have to use anecdotes, quite a chuck of which have been provided by Cory Doctorow. It may not be the most scientific process, and prone to error, but that’s life. Anecdotes often precede theory, which precedes experimentation, which precedes facts (or more facts).

  22. Another fallacy that leads to much error due to inaccurate conclusions:

    Correlation is causation.

  23. TroofSeeker “It’s always fun to point at “They” and say how foolish their acts and beliefs are.”
    Is it okay if I freely acknowledge (and try to pluck, with varying degrees of success) the log in my own eye?

    “I almost hate to quote the addage “when you point one finger at someone’s flaws, three fingers are pointing back at you.””
    Nuh uh! The other fingers are pointing at your palm. Bad hand! Bad!

    urshrew “@Modusoperandi; Why thank you!”
    It’s easy to recognize the characteristics in the other when they exist in oneself (I don’t even like the new books, but I still have to buy the next one anyway, just in case it’s not disappointing. And there’s always a next one…)

  24. MODUS,
    “…Is it okay if I freely acknowledge (and try to pluck, with varying degrees of success) the log in my own eye?”
    Attaboy! Your studies of ancient wisdom have served you well!
    I’m a mfg. eng. When a production problem is brought to my attention, I always ask the operators what they think. In my experience, everybody gets great ideas, everybody has an epiphany of deep wisdom now and then, and even if they’re wrong or generally [unknowledgable], most everybody appreciates being heard, and they like you and respect your opinion because you were wise enough to listen to them.

  25. You can succeed by emulating the purported behavior of successful people

    Change that to ‘You can succeed by emulating the behavior of purported successful people’ and you get the other half of that problem. Whom are we emulating? Bernie Madoff? Wouldn’t it be better to have some principles to live by?

  26. What is this compulsive hunger for principals, and the desire to do some good in this world? I offer it as evidence of a Divine Creator, who has endowed us with morality. It isn’t logical in a godless creation. Why not steal? It’s easier than earning something. Why not kill someone who doesn’t like me, if I’m sure I could get away with it? What if he’s a liar and a thief?Something stronger than words Mommy spoke is stopping me. It’s wrong. And while people continue to kill, they know it’s wrong, and often leave evidence so society can stop them, or they’re tormented by guilt. Guilt? Not logical, Jim. Divine.

  27. So you think chimpanzees, who have many of those same impulses, are also gifted with divine insight?

    People who are community-positive breed better, survive to adulthood better, and have children who are more likely to survive than people who are not. It’s not 100%. Nothing natural is (well, almost nothing).

    As for guilt, I think that’s more diabolical than divine.

    And “hunger for principals” — that’s just a Daddy fetish.

  28. We already have several religion threads going. I see no reason for this one to turn into another one.

  29. TroofSeeker “Attaboy! Your studies of ancient wisdom have served you well!”
    Bazooka Joe comics have never steered me wrong.

    Xopher “People who are community-positive breed better, survive to adulthood better, and have children who are more likely to survive than people who are not.”
    Plus, there’s just enough room for cheaters, weasels, sociopaths, liars and thieves (in politics, business, advertising, some branches of law and, oddly, beekeeping), that they never get bred out, either, passing on their unpleasantness both genetically and by example.

    Takuan “but it’s so much easier than intellectual rigour!”
    If you look at the brain as a muscle, and intellectual rigor works out the brain, then the net effect of intellectual rigor is a brain that’s too big for your head. Why, just coming up with that made my head slightly heavier on one side.

  30. Yes. When next we meet the Fantastic Four, my minions will…bee…victorious! Moo ha-ha! ~ The Pollinator

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