It sounds like a joke from a Christmas cracker: what do Pacific islanders and bad sex science have in common?
At first glance, not a lot. The real connection started over sixty years ago, as World War II came to an end.
The islands of Melanesia, north and east of Australia, include the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, and Fiji. Because of the location, Melanesia was strategically important in the Pacific arena during the war. Occupation of the islands by various combatants was inevitable.
The conflict had brought millions of troops to the Pacific. Along with them came the most technologically advanced martial systems yet seen. For the Pacific islanders, it was an exciting and baffling time.
The natives of Melanesia watched the supply chain of the war machine lurch into full capacity. First Japanese, and then American, troops occupied their islands. Airstrips and planes brought clothes, medicine, food, and weapons in vast quantities. In a short amount of time – and from seemingly nowhere – manufactured
goods were delivered in far greater volume and variety than the natives had ever known before.
Ordinarily, someone might have taken the time to explain to the Melanesians what was going on. But by the time the troops arrived, missionaries and aid workers had already been evacuated. Without anyone to explain the situation, the islanders relied on their own experience. What sort of event would have the power to direct these supplies to the islands? They logically concluded the armies obviously had the attention of some very powerful deities.
After the war, the supply flights halted. The troops who had lived on the islands disappeared. Cargo deliveries stopped turning up. So, the Melanesians did whatever it took to make the planes come back. They decided to imitate the people who had occupied their islands.
Melanesians took over the abandoned air bases, wearing headphones carved from wood. They built new control towers and assembled life-size model planes out of straw. They dressed in the style of US soldiers and performed parade drills, all to attract the favourable outcome. These methods had, after all, already worked so well for others. Traditional religions were abandoned – the gods previously worshipped by the Melanesians had never been as generous as the ones who supplied the occupying armies.
The islanders were imitating what they saw, without realising what manufacturing and technological developments in far-away countries had caused it to occur. These imitations developed into what is known as a “cargo cult.”
The planes did not return. The supply lines were not revived. As time went by and nothing happened, the Melanesians stepped up their efforts. The ceremonies became more ingrained. The cults gained prominence, because if people did enough, if they believed enough, then the gods should deliver the result they were after.
The John Frum cargo cult is still active in Vanuatu today. Followers believe Frum sent the American servicemen during the war, and will return to the islands one day. Islanders organise ceremonial military marches and raise flags on 15th February, John Frum Day. Elsewhere in Vanuatu, Prince Philip is worshipped as a deity, and his followers request goods such as a Land Rover, rice, and money.
What happened in Melanesia has since become shorthand for a kind of mistake in logic made by people throughout history. Because the Melanesians had not encountered the full scale of Western technology before, and live simple lives even today, their assumptions were understandable.
However, it also happens with groups of people who have the means to know better. In particular, cargo cults can take hold when people try to replicate the look and feel of scientific research, without understanding its underpinnings. Claiming the methods of science, without buying in to the philosophy of how and why they
work, is unethical. If you don’t play by the same rules, you can’t use the same tools.
In the next part of this series I’ll be giving examples of cargo cult research – and how you can spot the errors even well-meaning people reporting on sex and sexuality make.
Brooke Magnanti is author of The Sex Myth which explores many fascinating myths about sex.