Saturday, May 15, 2010

Science Be My Shepherd: Introduction

Pretend for a moment that you don't know anything about science. Forget everything you've learned from grade school until this very moment. You know nothing about how your body works or germs or what foods to eat. You're clueless about the migratory habits of sea turtles, because even the information in Finding Nemo is too complex for you. You have no idea that the world is an oblate spheroid, and why would you? Shit looks pretty flat to me.

Now, take a look at the sun (carefully.) Can you tell me what it is? Of course not, since you know nothing about science. But then, it's got to be something right? There can't just be this huge ball...or circle...of something up there in the....something...without a reason. So go ahead and take a guess. Taking a guess is alright. It's better than alright, actually, this is how science gets started. Sometimes though, after taking a guess, people have this pesky question "why?" that pops up afterward and then they can't answer it. So they take another guess and make a whole narrative around their first guess. This story is called a myth.

So let's try it, remembering that we have no prior scientific knowledge. See what you come up with. To me, it looks similar to an eye, but it moves across the sky like a bird. So maybe it's the pupil of a gigantic dragon, the sky being its iris. Perhaps it is a ball of fire being thrown over the entire world by two giants in a slow, one-sided game of catch. Or is it the burning passion of a lover perpetually chasing her desire, the moon, only allowed to meet every eclipse. I could play this game forever, thinking of hundreds of different scenarios, and you could too.

There are two things to take away from this thought experiment of explaining the sun. The first is that each individual person can come up with many widely varying stories to explain anything they don't understand, and if we have large groups of people, there would be a vast multitude of myths, ranging in disparity. The second is that without any scientific knowledge or tools to make observations, there would be no way to determine if one was right. Since each culture, past and present, has had a large number of scientifically illiterate people, we can safely assume that there were many, many myths, and that the vast majority of those myths have died out.

So then how does one story come to dominate within a culture? Without science, we have no way of determining if a myth is true and therefore better, yet one myth out of many becomes the myth for a culture. How did one person's story for the sun become the story for his or her entire civilization? I believe* this happens as a coordination of three factors, probably occurring in this order.

One factor is that the myth must be in agreement, or least, more agreement, with the scientific knowledge available at the time. That is, you will have a better chance at establishing your myth if the two giants in your story are throwing a ball of fire instead of a cube of ice. It is more believable that the dragon is flying instead of burrowing underground. This also means that if scientific knowledge advances enough to show that the myth couldn't possibly be true, it gets abandoned or altered. If we find out that the sun is not made of fire, for example, and we know that it's made of plasma, then we either say that the giants were throwing plasma the whole time, or we just scrap the whole thing.

Second, the myth must be widespread, of course, so it requires public appeal. So, the story has to be cool. For example, my made-up story about the lover chasing the moon should resonate with everyone at least a little bit -- we have all felt like we were in pursuit of someone or something we will never catch. But a story that wouldn't resonate with you would be if I suggest that the sun is a wolf, trying to eat the moon, which is personified by a small child. When eclipses occur, this is the wolf succeeding in eating the baby. It's a disgusting, despicable story, and no one would opt for this one over the lover myth.

To use an example from real mythology, the ancient Chinese explained the sun as a phoenix. Long ago, there were ten of these birds and they would rotate out who gets to be the sun each day. It's a pretty sweet system, especially since we all know that phoenixes are lazy. Well, one day they decide to all go joyriding at once, so they take off at dawn and see what kind of trouble they can get into. As it turns out, one sun is enough for Earth, so when it got nine extra ones, it got all kinds of fucked up. In steps the personification of justice and archery skill, deciding that these silly little monster birds need to be learned a lesson. So, thok, thok, thok, he shoots nine of the birds. (Also, thok, thok, thok, thok, thok, thok.) After this, we have one phoenix left who is our current and only sun. To me, this story is considerably cooler than the three that I made up, so if someone relayed this to me, and again, bearing in mind I have no scientific knowledge, I would probably choose the bird story.

Third, for a myth to become the myth in a culture, it must be accepted by authority. It doesn't matter if authority hands down the myth or if authority accepts the myth after it becomes widespread. So, if there are many myths floating around in one culture, the one that is accepted by authority is the establishment myth, while everything else is the deviation from the norm (generally speaking.) Consider how the ancient Chinese would regard an ancient Greek in their midst. Both myths are equally valid (or, I should say, invalid) but the Greek will look like a weirdo for thinking that the sun is a chariot instead of a bird.

But then, there is a shortcut to succeeding in all three conditions, a shortcut that is better adapted to staying in control than just regular myths. I am referring to the religious myth. Just put the words "a god" or the word "god" into a myth and it conquers any nontheistic myth while rapidly becoming widespread.

Take our first condition about a myth dominating in a society: relative scientific accuracy. When dealing with gods of presumably omnipotent powers, anything is possible. One need merely offer the excuse "god did it," and no explanation is necessary as to how it matches up with current scientific understanding. When offering a god as a reason for anything, one can even claim the direct opposite of what is known by science. Don't believe me? Visit a creation museum. (Or, don't, actually.) Or, hell, you don't even need to do that, since some Christians believe that water is magic.

Religious myths shortcut the second condition of widespread appeal and acceptance by utilizing a reward/punishment system. The phoenix in China for example, doesn't really give a fuck if you believe in him or not. He's a bird. He's got bird problems revolving around bird business to worry about. But when a god steps into the picture, they are always excessively prone to flattery and extremely sensitive to people not paying any attention to them. You know, like a toddler. Anyway, let's take Helios, driver of the chariot of the sun in Greek religious myth. Helios actually cared about what people did and thought of him, and as a result, there was at least one cult surrounding him (with a big-ass statue to go with it.) It was a grave offense to deny or displease Helios, and was both naturally and supernaturally punishable. Anaxagoras, who lived in ancient Greece and was so fucking smart that he knew who "Anaxagoras" was, suggested that the sun was not a god named Helios or an extremely bright chariot, but instead a flaming ball of metal bigger than Peloponnese. He was sentenced to death.** Imagine how bad it would have been if he suggested that the Sun was a millions times larger than the Earth.

Religious myth can shortcut to authoritative acceptance in two ways. Leaders are always looking for magical ways to maintain or increase their rule (both in ancient times and recently.) It only makes sense to ask whatever supernatural force was popular at the time for help. Additionally, the appeal to secular authority wasn't necessary for the religious followers. It's an easy choice, really. Do you want a king or a god? So, if a leader didn't believe in your religion, it was unimportant because they were not even a god*** And there was even the creation of new authority in the forms of clergy, shamans, medicine men and...did I forget any? Whatever. They're all the same.

So, we have all these good reasons that religious myth should dominate any culture. But then, that isn't how it works now, is it? I don't put any virgins in my volcano when it's not raining. When I eat the heart of a duck, I don't gain his strength. I'm guessing you don't put blood on your door to keep angels of death out.

You may think that you're not being particularly smart when you think that putting a virgin in a volcano is a useless (and wasteful!) practice, but you actually are. In fact, by my calculations, you are smarter than 99% of all of the people that ever lived (Note: this is not real math.) You also probably don't even know how the computer you're reading this on works. I don't. I'm pressing a few keys on a keyboard that I don't understand, which goes through a computer I don't understand, which displays letters on a monitor I don't understand. The only thing I really get here is the letters, and even those are a little bit hazy sometimes. (I'm looking at you, lowercase L and capital I.) My point is, even though most of us don't understand how a computer works, we're pretty well convinced that it isn't magic. And it would be hard to make us believe that it was.

We're living in a significantly more scientific age than at any other point in history. Recently, I taught a science lesson to five-year-olds about the size and temperature of the sun. They are suddenly smarter than Anaxagoras was 2,000 years ago, and Anaxagoras was smarter than all the humans that lived for 198,000 years before him. These kids can barely not soil themselves with urine and they know more about the sun than the geniuses in ancient Greece.

And even though we're doing amazing things, and we are, there is still some room for improvement. In the words of Richard Feynman: "Is no one inspired by our present picture of the universe? This value of science remains unsung by singers: you are reduced to hearing not a song or a poem, but an evening lecture about it. This is not yet a scientific age."

The world is still captivated by myths. I don't sing songs and I don't write poems, but I want to explain and show that science is more captivating than religion, science is more enlightening than religion, science is more exhilarating than religion, and, most importantly, science is cool.

The title of this series of articles is "Science Be My Shepherd" and here's what I want to do:
  • I want to educate about science. This includes you, reader, but it also includes me. I learn more about things when I'm forced to explain it publicly, under scrutiny, and I have to learn enough about it to make it simple enough for your average internet user to understand. But I also want everyone to know about all the cool shit that exists in the universe.
  • I want to show how far we've come. Like I said earlier, my five-year-old students are suddenly geniuses as far as the ancient Greeks were concerned, who thought that the Sun was just a bunch of fiery horses. This is amazing, and I hope you realize it.
  • There is a huge discrepancy between what religions claim and what actually exists. If the universe was actually how the holy books say it is, it would be a significantly more boring place. It also should help show that myths like these are not divinely inspired, as they would not be so blatantly far off from the truth.
  • I remember a time when being an atheist was frightening, scary, and desolate. It was before I knew or understand how beautiful everything around me was, even the smallest things. I would love to show the incipient atheist what's really going on, and how amazing it is.

Of course, there are also some things that I will not be doing. They are as follows:
  • Sadly, no debates on whether or not religion is true or false in these articles. This just isn't the place for those things; that is not what I wish to accomplish here.
  • There probably won't be discussion on the morality of either religion or morality. I want to compare the awesome of science to the awesome of religion, and not what people should be doing.
  • I'm not trying to de-convert anybody to atheism. Again, this just isn't the place.
  • I'm not saying that people who believe religious myths are stupid. Technically, I am typing all this out, so it doesn't require me to say anything.
Each new article in the series will take a topic and compare the religious myth surrounding it with the current scientific understanding of that topic. I'm not a scientist, and I'm only barely smart enough to be called a "layperson": This is both a warning and a plea. I might represent something, even though I'm going to try damn hard not to, and also, if anyone sees an error in my articles (which will most likely be mathematical) please, I beg of you, let me know so I can fix it. If I do a decent enough job of explaining it, it should be apparent that science is clearly where all the cool things are happening, not with silly stories about guys on chariots.


* - Seriously, I'm just guessing here. I don't think it's a bad guess, but a guess nonetheless. I would love to hear alternative possibilities though.

** - To be fair, he got pardoned.

*** - Usually they were not a god. Sometimes they were.