10/08/2012 04:44 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2012

Mythology and Science; Or, What Do We Want From Popular Science?

In my allergist's office, a flashy poster announces "10 myths about allergies." It's a common format. The internet is littered with infomercials shouting, "the five myths of weight loss," "a dozen myths about organic food," "dangerous myths about pet care" -- all followed by widely-circulating beliefs that modern science deems false. These announcements have deep roots, for millennia before it became a foil for science, myth served as foil for the nascent movement called philosophy. But some intellectual historians -- notably Luc Brisson in How Philosophers Saved Myths -- have shown how those early philosophical opponents of myth had trouble letting go of their own mythic impulses.

You don't have to look very hard to see that 2000 years later, the booming genre of popular science is still having trouble resisting mythic impulses. In one of the earliest of the recent wave of best-selling books, The First Three Minutes (1977), author Steven Weinberg offers a model that many writers have followed. He opens confrontationally, with a reference to a Norse cosmic-origin myth that, he concludes, depicts "not a very satisfying picture." The remainder of Weinberg's book presents the scientific observations and calculations that he regards as the better, more factual alternative, with Copernicus representing a dividing line between mythic and scientific thought.

But in the book's Epilogue, Weinberg's attitude toward myth and science becomes more complex. In posing the question of how the universe will end, he introduces scientific theories of cosmic cycles by invoking -- less disparagingly this time -- the Norse apocalyptic scenario of Ragnorak. More surprising is Weinberg's shift in the last two paragraphs of the book to personal reflection. Declaring that little "comfort" is to be found in scientific cosmology, he looks down from his airplane and notices a stunning sunset and the roads between towns that signal human habitation. In this conflicted moment, Weinberg pens oft-quoted lines: "It is very hard to realize that this all is just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe.... The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless."

As modern as Weinberg's insight seems, it may not be as hard to realize as he thinks. Homeric-age poet Hesiod creates his Theogony around the Western World's most beloved story of the origin of the universe. In it, the human realm emerges from the abyss of Chaos that was (to borrow Weinberg's phrase) "overwhelmingly hostile." For both Hesiod and Weinberg, confronting the hostility of the universe is a test that, in Weinberg's words, "lifts human life a little above the level of farce."

Works of popular science since The First Three Minutes offer countless references to Weinberg's summary judgment about our place in the cosmos. But the same works are notably lacking in discussion of the science and math that lead to Weinberg's conclusion. This and other factors suggest that what popular science writers strive to provide ultimately has less to do with making scientific analysis accessible to readers (a high school textbook would do that) than with feeding their desire for morally and aesthetically compelling visions -- cosmic wisdom if you will -- backed by scientific authority. A big part of what audiences want from popular science is its least scientific aspect.

Such heroizing -- whether of scientists like Copernicus, or of all humanity -- is only one of the many traditional mythological features that move through contemporary popular science. The genre is rich also in prophecy, storytelling of many kinds, bold speculation, and moral lessons read from the structure of the cosmos. Moreover, archaic mythic images gain a second life as science metaphors. Hesiod says we are born from the mating of Sky and Earth, while Carl Sagan (Cosmos), citing the origin of everyday chemical elements in stars, concludes that "We are, in the most profound sense, children of the Cosmos." Obviously Sagan is not talking literally, but just as certainly he knows the power of anthropomorphic appeal. Yet, modern popular science writers persist in citing the Copernican lesson as evidence of the scientifically-stultifying consequences of letting moral reflection tangle with theories about the physical cosmos.

In The First Three Minutes, it is relatively clear where the science ends and the mythologizing begins. But more recent popular science writers lack Weinberg's discipline in drawing the line. For example, compare John D. Barrow's The Artful Universe in which the human species turns out to be all but necessary to the cosmos, with the late Stephen Jay Gould's Full House, in which humanity amounts to a freak cosmic accident. Presumably Gould and Barrow are engaging in the same science, but the source of divergence is difficult to find in anything scientific. Both writers present a cosmic vision infused with reflections on contemporary art, culture, values, politics, and social policy, as though these are all direct precipitates of their scientific findings. While the visions of Barrow and Gould are certainly inspired by scientific findings, both lie wildly beyond anything given in their data.

Popular science writers often refer to archaic mythologies as though these are entirely uninterested in empirical truth; but in fact most traditional mythologies offer astute (for their time) observations about nature. It would be more accurate to define the "mythic" as a readiness to parlay the best empirical understanding of the cosmos (of whatever time and place) into aesthetically and morally compelling visions.

Is myth good or bad? Since Plato we have been profoundly ambivalent. Still, to an academic mythologist -- one who is vocal in support of science and science education -- the tendency of popular science writers to proclaim a stark dichotomy between science and myth, only to employ mythic strategies in service to their moral visions -- these features are profoundly irritating. The fashionable opposition of mythology to science -- whether boldly asserted, then undermined in a book of popular science or plastered onto an eye-catching poster -- does little to bolster the authority of its authors and in the end undermines the call to critical rigor they proclaim.