Cargo Cults and Creationists
Cargo cults are one of my favorite anthropological phenomena. They arose on tiny isolated Pacific Islands during World War II, when the Japanese and American militaries used the islands as landing strips and supply caches. All of a sudden, the islanders, who had been using primitive tools and technology, were confronted with an industrial culture and military. The islanders were given food and trinkets which seemed to magically appear from the sky as ‘cargo.’ Given their previous total isolation, they had no way of comprehending the situation. Many islanders believed the visitors and the goods were gifts from their gods. As suddenly as the foreigners appeared, however, they disappeared when the war was over, and the islanders were left without the excitement - and more importantly, without the foreign riches. Thinking they had fallen out of favor with the gods, the islanders decided to mimic exactly the foreigners, who were clearly blessed by the gods, in hopes of bringing the cargo back. And so they did - they took up marching, with sticks instead of guns, and they built elaborate replicas of things like planes and radios - not with metal and silicon, but with materials from the island. They believed that these material objects and demonstrations were the source of American power - missing, of course, the true sources of American wealth.
So what’s the relevance? I was reminded of cargo cults this week when I read about a controversy surrounding a leading creationist organization, the Discovery Institute (DI). They released a video criticizing population genetics, narrated by their developmental biologist standing in front of her lab. Or so we’re led to believe. In fact, the ‘scientist’ was standing in front of a green screen, and the lab was a stock image from Shutterstock. The fraud was pointed out by a number of science bloggers, and the defiant DI responded by releasing an actual picture of Ann Gauger in her lab, complete with a petri dish, some parafilm, reagent bottles, and even a small hood.
They’re completely missing the point. The real joke wasn’t that the creationists used a green screen when they had an ‘actual lab’ (although that’s pretty funny in its own right). The joke is that the DI thought showing off a fancy lab was going to grant them scientific legitimacy. It might have impressed some science-illiterate yokels, but it’s not fooling a single academic. The pictures of squirt bottles and jars in a lab are the equivalent of the cargo cult’s palm frond version of a fighter jet. This controversy shows the creationists want to look like scientists in lieue of acting like scientists. Doing science doesn’t mean having expensive or flashy equipment; you can do science with just a curtain and your hands. So clearly science is not the sum of your lab stockroom. To do real science, the DI would need to collect evidence and then proceed to a hypothesis to explain the pattern, instead of starting with a belief and then seeking the evidence to prove it; conduct actual research, instead of putting forward untestable predictions; and address all relevant evidence, instead of only picking out facts they can distort to support their worldview.
For some reason, though, I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot more cargo cult science than journal articles coming from the DI in the future.