Cargo cults and the liturgy of caution
“Precautionary principle” via Wikipedia:
The precautionary principle (or precautionary approach) is a broad epistemological, philosophical and legal approach to innovations with potential for causing harm when extensive scientific knowledge on the matter is lacking. It emphasizes caution, pausing and review before leaping into new innovations that may prove disastrous. Critics argue that it is vague, self-cancelling, unscientific and an obstacle to progress.
Michael Crichton in “State of Fear”:
The 'precautionary principle', properly applied, forbids the precautionary principle.
John Frum flies airplanes
Wikipedia tells us that a cargo cult is “a millenarian belief system in which adherents practice rituals which they believe will cause a more technologically advanced society to deliver goods”. The classic example is a Polynesian society circa 1940 whose islands were “borrowed” by Americans who needed to build the requisite infrastructure for prosecuting war against the Japanese. Interesting things tend to happen when one society collides with another society that has a much more filled-out tech tree; one such thing was the development of movements which attached religious significance to the activities that brought “cargo” - sophisticated products of modernity previously unavailable to isolated Pacific islanders - to the islands. The direction of aircraft and ships, the moving of boxes, even military parades, all registered as religious rituals to many islanders, and not for entirely crazy reasons. Indigenous work teams would often participate in these activities and be rewarded with good cargo, blessings from the gods for right action. Then the war ended, the Americans faded away, the flow of cargo slowed down, and many islanders doubled down on the ritual aspects of their interactions with the people who had brought them a taste of prosperous modernity. Adherents of these cargo cults - some of which still exist today - have been known to make incredibly complex imitations of things like airfields and military parades in the hope that planes will return bringing the blessings of the gods and their plentiful cargo.
This ritual pantomime should look awfully familiar. We’re no different from illiterate Polynesian islanders in terms of spiritualist predilection, and while we certainly ought to know better, we don’t seem to. Our society also engages in complex pantomimes of practices established in the 1930s. The main difference between the cult of John Frum in Vanuatu and the dominant cargo cult of the Anglophone world’s elite is that our rituals are quite a bit more heady and abstract, therefore requiring a much more sophisticated apparatus to do liturgy and call down blessings and cargo from the sky. Our Rooseveltian cargo cult has a number of overlapping priestly castes; cognitive adolescents fresh out of MBA programs pantomiming entrepreneurship, serial grant applicants pantomiming scientific and cultural inquiry, ideological minstrels pantomiming journalism, and gerontocrat functionaires pantomiming statecraft.
Our pantomime is fundamentally liturgical; it is a form of repetitive religious practice designed to placate vague powers beyond our understanding and coax gifts from them. This is how we get companies that hire consultants every six quarters to throw another layer of meaningless process on top of what the previous consultants installed, social and medical scientific output that follows strict formulas that ape rigor but mostly doesn’t replicate, ritual catharsis and consensus enforcement through dragging or struggle sessions that actually work to fragment consensus over time, and a uniform institutional preference for homilizing over actual engagement with problems.
Historically speaking, extravagant liturgy is good for the priestly caste; if pleasing the gods is a totalizing social imperative it follows that the totality of social resources must be ready for deployment in service of the gods, which is to say in service of society. It’s good to be the king, but it’s often better to be part of the group with a monopoly on access to the gods, however abstract they may have become in our comfortable modern dark age.
This caste of priests play-acting the dominant leadership tropes of the mid-20th century lacks any structural motivation to deploy capital or talent against real problems when they can just reinvest in things that augment their liturgical practice. Luckily for all of us the temple grounds are built around an airport that still works from time to time; but the priests have done an extremely good job of taking credit for the airplanes, especially since they recruit the occasional actual pilot to join in the rituals in exchange for unsupervised joyrides on the planes.
Cargo creates a buffer between us and the natural world. Conflating an abundance of good cargo with the blessings of the gods is not at all a silly or unsophisticated thing for people to do. To ascribe religious significance to things that we do that result in prosperity and safety is highly adaptive. But when we sanctify performance of landing strip clearance and reveille assembly while ignoring the aircraft factory and officer training program, we walk down the same path as people who worship John Frum, abandoning practices and infrastructure that deliver actual safety and prosperity for pantomimes that deliver neither.
One core ritual practice of our expert bureaucracy and its cargo cult is the misguided application of the precautionary principle. The irony of this is that we possess more and better tools to act with confidence in the face of uncertainty than ever before. We really should know better. Despite this we approach almost every collective action problem with ritual statements of caution, then we wait for the results of methodologically baroque trials and we spend years too long designing and reviewing and litigating rather than executing, all while opportunity after opportunity to engage with reality passes us by like airplanes looking for a real airport. If our bureaucracies are priesthoods, then administrative review and dawdling is the kernel of their liturgy. As this liturgy becomes entrenched,
We deploy the precautionary principle to avoid risk, which allows risk spread to unexpected places, untreated and metastatic. At some point we kick the can one too many times and everything falls apart. People suffer. And then we go back to pious intonations about risk. We live in the detritus of decades of ritualistically risk-averse decisions made on the basis of cargo cult practice rather than reason and evidence. We have made precious few real investments in the future, and the ones that we’ve actually pulled the trigger on have usually followed strict formats that minimize risk above all else.
This is a low-effort, unedited late-night polemic loosely adapted from a tweet thread. I haven’t done much of this sort of (non-technical) writing outside of tweet threads in a while, so hopefully I’ll become a bit more coherent as time goes on. That said, I’ve been pretty clear that this is just “fragmentary errata”, so you shouldn’t expect too much.
I want to further develop this idea of cargo cults and liturgy, dialogue on the subject would be appreciated. What are some other institutional rituals we should interrogate?
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I am sympathetic to this analysis but am also wary. Like in the old joke about an engineer's child asking him why the sun rises from the East and the engineer replying "It works, don't touch!", so have I at this stage in my life, have become very wary of sudden changes and disposing of systems that may seem antiquated and unnecessary but turn out to be Chesterton's fences. Plus the fact that system design to be successful has always and everywhere to be an iterative process. I know you're prompted to write this in particular in the light of the 11 months it took for the vaccines to be almost approved , but I can easily see a huge downside risk of rushing one bad candidate that would set us back way more than the damage done while waiting for the trials to be conclusive.
I love this post. I keep coming back to it and I've been coopting this metaphor for a while. If you want to see your conception carried to extremes, take a look at the DoD.