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Cargo Cult Primitives

(this was written in 2018, long before Covid became its single best example)

One of the best Ricochet posts of all time was @DanHanson’s post on Cargo Cult Science. Among its other virtues, the article (which if you have not read, you really,, really should) was amazing because it helped us see how, even within the highest intellectual echelons of the scientific world, people revert to ways of thinking about the world that are, for lack of a better word, primitive and silly.

Our modern world is so very capable and technologically advanced that it is hard to credit the possibility, or even the probability, that most people, most of the time, remain as rudimentary in their thinking as were our pagan ancestors. I would go so far as to suggest that the vast majority of people are, when it comes to making sense of the world, as simple-minded as those island primitives who worshipped American soldiers because they came bearing goodies.

Hanson wrote:

 [Science] requires excruciating attention to detail, and a willingness to abandon an idea when an experiment shows it to be false. Failure to follow the uncompromising rules of science opens the door to bias, group-think, politically-motivated reasoning, and other failures.

Hm. Bias, group-think, and politically-motivated reasoning are at the core of the #metoo movement, are they not? So are the notions of “sustainability”, “climate-change”, “The Religion of Peace”, “peak oil” and countless other sloppy shibboleths. We are in the midst of a rash of witch hunts and demonization that future ages will look back on and laugh, with the sophistication and smug superiority with which we were, not long ago, taught to laugh at the Salem Witch Trials and McCarthyism.

This kind of primitive inability to critically think is what allows the TSA and countless state licensing boards to flourish, that ensures the continued employment of people who slap “known to cause cancer in the State of California” labels on every product we can find. It has become so endemic that we have lost any tenuous connection we might have had to critically concluding that a rational person should not be forced to “grin and bear” such rank foolishness in everyday life. So we might smart under the latest TSA grope, well aware that despite billions of lost hours waiting in line and being searched, the TSA has yet to capture a single Bad Guy intent on doing Bad Things – but nothing changes. And we tolerate endless other bureaucratic demands on the most precious thing we have – time – and we manage to do nothing about them. Our society is as much in thrall to stupid people following stupid rules at the expense of our freedom as ever the ancients were in thrall to paying protection money to numerous deities in order to ensure good fortune. Actually, in some ways, we have it worse: the ancient pagan deities just demanded things that we possessed, but the modern deities of Mother Earth and Government and endless bureaucracies demand more than just money or things – they demand that we insinuate these idolatrous foolishnesses into every aspect of our daily lives, from being barraged with pro-pagan branding of “Organic” and “natural” and “non-GMO” goods when we purchase things to endless urges (sometimes enforced by the strong arm of the law) that even disposing of trash must be done according to senseless rules of recycling, ensuring that everyone spends hours of their lives sorting through their waste. There is so little curiosity about whether recycling even works (and such an obvious conclusion that it is hugely counterproductive) that academics no longer even ask the question. Bias, group-think and politically-motivated reasoning dominate.

In many respects, we hardly notice these countless miniature assaults upon our freedoms; we are inured to them, often able to immerse ourselves in our virtual worlds in order to avoid the ongoing and real indignities of regulatory overheads on every aspect of our daily lives. More often than not, this just further emboldens the assailants.

It is well worth mentioning that this dichotomy between a world enslaved to cargo-cult thinking and a world in which mankind tries to aspire to greater meaning and accomplishments is by no means a modern creation. This dichotomy is at the heart of the Exodus from Egypt.

Egypt was the home of nature-worship. Its idols were the things these ancient scientists could touch and feel – the sun, the Nile… every physical force was its own deity in some way or another. All mankind had to do was to live in harmony with nature, and life would be predictable and safe. It would also, of course, be as meaningful as the lives of any animal that lives in harmony with nature. Which is to say, entirely without any meaning at all.

Torah Judaism was so enormously different in qualitative ways than other religions that even its adherents had (and still do have!) a hard time wrapping their heads around what it all means. Judaism has no shortage of laws or rules or regulations – but they are all either practical (as in matters of society and law), or symbolic, to show us how to connect with G-d and each other, to create holiness. Instead of living in harmony with nature, G-d, in the Ten Plagues, shows His superiority over the simple-minded ancient Egyptian scientist who sees only Nature, and not its creator, as the measurable forces in this world. The Torah keeps telling us, from beginning to end, that we have Free Will: there is no destiny unless we believe it to be there. Nature is as false and uncaring a god as were the logistics personnel who brought food into Pacific islands.

What cargo-cultists of every kind fail to understand in their guts is that externalizing our understanding of the world to Mother Earth or Fate or Destiny or superheroes or the Nanny State is outsourcing our own lives. When we do that, we are not really alive, and our lives are no more valuable, in the scheme of things, than the lives of any animals on this planet. Everything that lives will die; the question is whether or not we make our lives matter, whether we live by the 6 days of physical creation (Egypt), or the 7 days of creation that includes our Creator (static monotheism), or the 8 days that includes mankind’s contributions to the world, our partnership with G-d in improving the world around us.

This world, the one encircling us now, the #metoo world, is a world gone mad. The WSJ last week ran a story about how the “big” question today among new couples who might have been already copulating with each other for months, is “what is your last name?” Far too many of our species are not much better than ferrets. The concepts of “holiness” or even a “soul” are so far removed from common culture that they might as well be some obscure Shakepsearean reference, known only to a very few, understood by even fewer, and even by those precious few, often just as a historical or cultural curiosity.

It is our task, as difficult as it is, to keep finding ways to help people to gain perspective, to see how the thoughts of a Jordan Peterson are not reactionary or dangerous, but are in fact little more than common sense (as rare as that can be). We must keep trying to show people how their lives can and should have meaning, how each person’s life can uniquely contribute to their families and friends and the wider world, from a kind gesture to an angry word unspoken. This is a hard road to hoe, because people continue to senselessly revert, just as intellectual scientists do, to cargo-cult thinking, that, as Hanson tells us:

…have not passed the tests of true science. Thus they become little more than fads or consensus opinions of experts — a consensus that ebbs and flows with political winds, with the presence of a charismatic leader in one faction or another, or with the accumulation of clever arguments that temporarily outweigh the other faction’s clever arguments. …

In a cargo cult science, factions build around popular theories, and people who attempt to discredit them are ostracised. Ad hominem attacks are common. Different theories propagate to different political groups.

Quite so.

Let us be a light unto the nations.

Comments are welcome!

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