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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Science as popular mythology

The third point is that Substance and Shadow addresses particular scientific theories in terms of how they are presented to the nonscientific public by authors and journalists who may or may not be professional scientists themselves. No, in researching this book I did not plod through the original writings of Darwin, Einstein, Eddington and Bohr. Wolpert says nobody does this anyway: ...no one is interested that [calculus] was discovered independently by Leibniz and by Newton ... and no one would now read their almost impenetrable papers. As ideas become incorporated into the body of knowledge, the discoverers, the creators (of whom there may be many), simply disappear. Likewise, no one reads Watson and Crick's original paper if they want to know about DNA, or Darwin if they wish to understand evolution.

From statements like this I contend that science is a modern myth. Dramatic storytelling is essential to mythology, and through popular science books and magazines, myth is reborn today as Wolpert's body of knowledge. It is the science writer's myth, not the science researcher/theorist's grind, that captures the public's imagination, seizing for science popular credibility. Even if the myth insults common sense, that only adds to the mystique scientists enjoy in society. Swedish physicist Hannes Alfvn explained this in his 1978 paper entitled How Should We Approach Cosmology?

The people were told that the true nature of the physical world could not be understood except by Einstein and a few other geniuses who were able to think in four dimensions. Science was something to believe in, not something which should be understood. Soon the best-sellers among the popular science books became those that presented scientific results as insults to common sense. One of the consequences was that the limit between science and pseudo-science began to be erased. To most people it was increasingly difficult to find any difference between science and science fiction.

- Substance and Shadow - Suhotra Swami

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