14 June 2012


Gregory Schrempp. The Ancient Mythology of Popular Science: A Mythologist Looks (Seriously) at Popular Science. McGill-Queens University Press, 2012.

When scientific topics are discussed in language aimed at the general public is there an inevitable tendency for them to recapitulate age old themes? That is an interesting topic for discussion, however, I am not sure what extent this book engages with that discussion.
Schrempp examines a number of popular science writers and finds what he calls mythological themes in their writings, though I tend to see the use of sometimes anthropomorphic similes, rather than any worked out mythological theme.

This may be because he has a somewhat unusual take on myth for a folklorist and anthropologist. He does not define myth in the anthropological sense of stories which explore matters of ultimate concern (the origin of the cosmos, humanity, culture and society, the relationship between people and the cosmos, the meaning of human existence etc.); which definition would indeed put much modern science writing in the mythological tradition. Rather he defines it almost by the crude folk definition as “untrue stories”, or rather more specifically as portraying the cosmos anthropomorphically, “not as it truly is, but in our own image”. That of course begs the question as whether human beings could ever know the cosmos as it truly is, though science might aim at getting “locally factually accurate statements” about portions of it.

Schrempp takes several examples from science writing. Among them are John Barrow’s arguments that only creatures of approximately human size and shape could master fire and thus develop technology, an argument which clearly produces a view of humans as being very special beings indeed. Looking at the contrary argument of Stephen J. Gould that the apparent growing complexity of life is a statistical artefact (there is a limit to the degree of simplicity to which random variation can reduce life, so that the distribution curved is thus biased towards complexity, but the vast bulk of life here and on other worlds is likely to be unicellular), Schrempp suggests that this is a populist vision, in which the bacteria play the part of the masses. He also discusses Daniel Dennett’s use of the idea of the inner homunculus in the brain (I had always read Dennett as dismissing this notion). He also looks at the presentation and use of the images of the earth from space, particularly by Carl Sagan, in which they are presented as simultaneously as icons of the insignificance and special nature of the earth.

It is perhaps significant that the chapter which deals most with mythology proper, that involving the presentation of the cosmos as a reflection of the human body and body politic, is centred around the writings of Copernicus and does not deal with modern popular science writing at all, unless one considers such social science luminaries of a past age as Emile Durkeim and Marcel Mauss, or sociologists such as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson as “modern popular science writers”. However worthy these latter two are they are hardly popular writers in the Gould, Hawking, Sagan mould.
I suspect that what is presented as mythological writing here is the inevitable by-product of trying to construct a coherent narrative about anything in language accessible to the non specialist. -- Peter Rogerson

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