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June 5, 2018 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

The Myth of Science

I’ve been thinking a lot about what science means to broader culture today. When I hear people say “I believe in science!” or wearing a “Science! It Works!” shirt, I always want to ask them: What do you mean when you say “science”? What do you think science does? What is your myth of science?
When I say myth, I don’t mean “a thing that isn’t true”. Specifically, I’m referencing its use by French linguist Roland Barthes, who dissected how symbols work and disseminate in culture. Barthes uses “myth” to refer to how a symbol manifests shared cultural values, and he was particularly interested in myth as a form of speech: how it manifests in politics, social discourse, and advertising, and serves to give tangible raw power to a concept in the human mind. So what, to that end, is science’s myth?
I’ll start with the myth of the celebrity scientist. In the wake of Stephen Hawking’s passing, I read a lot of obituaries on him, and one trend I saw was the regard of him with an almost religious awe. His colleague Roger Penrose wrote for The Guardian that the vision of Hawking “head contorted…hands crossed over” was “a true symbol for mind over matter”, implying that his use of a wheelchair juxtaposed with his heady profession turns Hawking into someone who gained great wisdom in spite of great suffering, like the Hanged Man of the Tarot Arcana. While Penrose goes at length to explain what Hawking’s actual work was, when remembering him, it seems nothing short of supernatural reverence will do for his fallen comrade-in-cosmology.


This invocation of scientist as transcendent being would be incredibly familiar to Barthes. In his essay The Brain of Einstein, Barthes wrote of how the eponymous organ, which was preserved after Einstein’s death, became a “mythical object” in the eyes of the public. Logically, his brain should be no different to ours, but separating it from his person turned it into an object of reverence, like the Shroud of Turin or a Buddhist relic. So we regard his brain in a paradox, for a paragon of rigorous thought, he appears to us as having channeled some magical essence. After all, it was his brain specifically, of all other brains, to materialise the equation E=mc2, the first modern myth of science, and the end result of one man’s work, distilled into five characters.
I’m not saying we should stop venerating him and other scientists like him, but you can’t deny the fact that mythology of scientists influences how we view the practice. Barthes goes on to compare the popular estimation of science’s goal to the Gnostic idea that “total knowledge can only be discovered all at once, like a lock which suddenly opens after a thousand unsuccessful attempts,” for which in his time E=mc2 seemed like the key — “the equation in which the secret of the world was enclosed”. But science is by its nature unfinishable. To undo that perception, we have to specify that science can mean different things depending on how you invoke it.
Science is both a body of prior knowledge of what we already understand about a chosen field, and the process by which we generate more knowledge of that field. Sometimes it refers to one field (i.e. the science of astronomy) or all fields simultaneously. Scientific terms are litigious in their specificity, but are subject to change when new evidence comes to light, through paradigm shifts. “Gravity” under Newton was a phenomenon that exerted force over other objects; under Einstein, “gravity” came to mean the shape of space-time.

Here too is where I think Barthes can help. In Soap-powders and Detergents, Barthes examines how myths are used to sell consumers in trusting the effectiveness of those products, by explaining them in human terms, usually likening them to a martial or political entity. Powders “force out” dirt, bleaches “kill” dirt. Powders are selective, “keeping public order not making war” by removing dirt without ruining the fabric, bleaches are “absolute” and undiscerning.
In the same sense, we can liken the different ways science is invoked to have a myriad of definitions while keeping public trust in it, hopefully involving scientists and science communicators in shaping the discourse.
Do we have a myth for the separating power of peer review or academic journals? A myth of the absolute efficacy of gravity and electromagnetism? Ironically, the Sphere Earth could benefit from an injection of myth, if only to persuade those “free thinking” Flat Earthers on the fence.
Humans are creatures of narrative. Science is not a social construct, but it lives in a world full of them. Scientists and science communicators could learn to leverage semiotics to science’s benefit, and in turn, I want people to approach science with a literacy that doesn’t uplift it to religious status. If you need a clear goal, think on this:
This isn’t rocket science – consider your mission accomplished when that myth is obsolete.


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