The Ancient Mythology of Modern Science: A Mythologist Looks (Seriously) at Popular Science Writing

By Thompson, Tok | Western Folklore, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

The Ancient Mythology of Modern Science: A Mythologist Looks (Seriously) at Popular Science Writing


Thompson, Tok, Western Folklore


The Ancient Mythology of Modern Science: A Mythologist Looks (Seriously) at Popular Science Writing. By Gregory Schrempp. (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press. 2012. Pp. xiv + 291, preface, introduction, notes, works cited. $29.95 cloth.)

This work is carefully and painstakingly constructed around a straightforward but powerful argument: diat popular science writers engage in mydi-making, while often claiming that diey are striving, instead, against myth. Schrempp makes his argument via an intensive examination of several specific examples, some of which comprise chapters unto themselves. Schrempp argues diat popular science writers end up "mythologizing" primarily in their attempts to imbue subjective meaning into die objective world. Or, to put it another way, in trying to get the general readers to care about the scientific viewpoint instead of die mydiic, popular science writers end up employing mydi-making strategies. There is dius a strong sense of irony running through the work - in case by case, Schrempp carefully demonstrates how popular science writers emulate exacdy what diey denigrate. In part, this is because of die power of narrative language in describing objective reality for homo sapiens, but in part it is also a testament to scientists' glib dismissal of die power of mytiiology coupled with an equally glib assurance in the righteousness of science. When scientists assume die role of high priests in explaining cosmic trudis to the ignorant masses, mydiologizing is perhaps destined to occur.

Perhaps most convincing, or at least easiest to witness, is his first example, comprising die bulk of chapter 2, which is essentially a deconstructionist critique of The Artful Universe (2005), a book by John Barlow, professor of mathematics at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow of the Royal Society. In this work, Barlow attempts to explain man's place in the universe, especially centering on the acquisition of fire. Schrempp titled this chapter, "It had to be you! Fire without Prometheus." His critique of Barlow's work is convincing and masterful. Early on, Schrempp points out that "what Barrow gives us in his fiery crescendo is none other than a new version of an ancient story that Western readers associate with Prometheus..." (36). He strips away the scientific-sounding claims to reveal "just-so stories" and shows that, following Barrow's anthropocentric and ethnocentric ideas of culture, "we arrive at the astounding conclusion that we are the right size to wield the particular technologies that our species invented" (53). Towards the end, Schrempp offers that "Scientific pronouncements go down more easily when they are already familiar as myth; a major source of persuasiveness in Barrow's analysis lies in the fact that it teaches us something we already believe" (63). Schrempp states that Barrow's "fire-maker" is "an ancient concept revivified through fresh iconography" (71), a recurring theme throughout his book.

One chapter critiques George Lakoff along with other scholars for following the "Copernican revolution," which Schrempp sees as an origin myth of the cosmos as kinship, while another chapter questions the current-day followers of René Descartes 's homunculus in the question of "the mind." Chapter 6, dealing with the moon, the earth, and the shifting of viewpoints of the universe, perhaps particularly as enunciated by Carl Sagan, investigates how popular science writers try to re-imbue a sense of public wonderment in the universe hand in hand with the government initiatives (in the case of NASA particularly) by employing compensatory mythic visions of the cosmos.

His last chapter is a short conclusion, tying in his many examples into supporting the view of his overall thesis. As the author himself states, "I have argued that many of the strategies employed in pursuit of such synthesizing ambitions - including storytelling, heroizing, speculative origin scenarios, microcosm/ macrocosm analogies, bold celestial imagery, and readings of moral lessons in the structure of the cosmos - are reminiscent of the strategies characteristic of traditional mythologies" (227).

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