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To most people, the term "myth" has two meanings that are believed to be closely related, if not completely synonymous. The first, and oldest meaning is a story that might illustrate some heroic deed, or might provide an explanation for some view of the world or society. The myth purports to be true, both in its lesson and in its composition.
Within any society there are those that belive the myth to be literal fact, and those that view it as a parable, thus allowing its composition to be false, while agreeing with the truth of its principles. We may also expect that there are always some that believe neither the story, nor the validity of the lesson.
The second meaning, and the one that is most used today, is that myth is a popular misconception: a lie. We hear such things as "that so and so causes this, is a myth, and has no basis in scientific fact". Setting aside the notion that fact is fact, whether scientific or not, we can see that the dichotomy insinuated is "falsehood" and "truth". "Myth" and "scientific" are substituted to give weight and authority to the statement. As the intended audience is usually the general population, the perceived reception of such a statement has more importance than any intended transmission.
An audience of scientists, for example, would prefer to hear whether or not a conclusion was reached through the use of "good science", meaning that the scientific method was followed in appropriate experimentation, that the data was accurate and complete, and so on. If the subject was theoretical physics, experiments might not be possible at all, and allowances would be made for this. Scientists would not allow their conclusions to be called "unscientific" without thoroughly questioning the bases of such accusations.
Why would an average member of the public react in a manner different from that of the scientist? We can be fairly certain that the member of the public does so, because these type of statements are used frequently without the media being bombarded with irate calls of "unfair!"
Ironically, the scientist takes on the role of a mythical figure, a demigod that has the ability to separate truth from falsehood, an oracle whose pronouncements need no interpretation and frees us from the tiresome process of analytical thought. We do, however, have an aversion to a single authority, and while there are many that would place their entire fate in God's hands, no one would do the same to any human individual.
If we cannot democratize, we attempt to generalize. We cannot feel secure in saying that a scientist states this, so it is true, so we say that science states this, so it is true. To be democratic, to have open elections on the verity of each theory put forward, would be counter-productive. We only want to hear a pronouncement, we want to be given some sense of security. To hear that ten scientists believed one thing, while six believed something else, would destroy our mythical construction of the scientist. The demigod would become human, become one of us, and our confidence would be shaken.
It would be a safe assumption that the vast majority of scientists do not view themselves as demigods. Many would have experienced their hypotheses exploded by subsequent testing, new discoveries replacing old assumptions, and healthy debate among their peers about every aspect of their work. They too are human, and their insecurities are alleviated by beliefs about the scientific method, by peer support in the type of questions they ask of their subject, and by current trends and fashions in research.
We are not investigating the mind of the scientist, but the public or mass perception of the word "scientific". Hearing the word "scientific", our mind often flashes briefly to a laboratory containing long tables full of retorts, flasks, test-tubes, and yards of glass tubing. It is invariably staffed by people wearing white lab-coats.
This image of a place where science is conducted is extremely limited. It seems only to apply to some sort of chemistry, we do not see the kind of equipment associated with particle accelerators, there are no scanning electron microscopes, nor any other equipment associated with the myriad types of sciences. We see chemistry equipment because chemistry, growing out of medieval alchemy, is the grandfather of all of the sciences.
The popular view of the scientist today is not dissimilar to that of the alchemist, priest, or shaman in ages past. Primitive societies still have their shamans who are accredited with supernatural powers. We are now split on the subject of the supernatural. Those that believe in the omnipotence of science, criticize the beliefs of those that do not, and this is where the designation of "myth" comes into the picture.
The term "myth" is used in a derogatory sense. In the commonest modern usage "mythical truth" is an oxymoron. It is only in reference to mythology as an academic subject that an event could be stated to have some mythical truth. An example would be where some event in the real world could be compared to a myth, perhaps in someone's emotional reaction to an event where the result is similar to that of a mythic character faced with similar circumstances. We should remember that myths were often created to explain some part of the human condition, and to that degree were realistic if not historic.
Clearly, little credit is given to myth in the mass mind. Psychologists, like Jung and others, have found myths useful in their studies. The mythic image is often powerful and resonates with our psychology. This does not mean that the inventors of these myths were shrewd psychologists, it only means that the myths that had the power to be passed down to us were the ones that connected with our own psyche. We could view it perhaps as a form of "natural selection".
As myths deal with similar situations in different societies, and as they have connections to the human psyche, they can be studied and compared with each other. We are only limited by what we might include in such studies. It would be easy to omit some part of a culture's mythology if we were working under the false assumption that it was historical fact.
This brings us back to the original statement: "that so and so causes this, is a myth, and has no basis in scientific fact". We have seen that "scientific" has a mythical conotation, and at the same time "myth" is misunderstood as being the same as "falsehood". We are left with the conclusion that "myth" is denegrated, and the mythic content of "scientific" is unacknowledged.
We have ignored both the truth of myth and the myth of science! Top