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Myth vs. Fact

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I’d like to recover myth.

Some regard the first few chapters of the Bible as history. Others regard it as myth. Those in the history camp fear that those in the myth camp are denigrating the truth of the Bible. They think the only way for those chapters to be true is for them to be historically accurate. Those who claim that the stories are myth mean to claim something far greater than historical accuracy. They claim that these origin stories tell us enduring truths about the nature of man and the nature of God, the nature of sin and the nature of innocence.

One of the tragedies of our modern era is that we no longer believe in myths. Instead we believe in scientific verities, cold and soulless facts. Myth has two features that facts lack: Myth encapsulates truth in story, and it addresses our hearts not just our heads. We need myth to help us understand the mysteries of the world we live in.

I love science. Anyone who has followed my blog knows that I am a fan of science and of scientific thinking. But science cannot capture everything. Even if it were able to do so, it’s voluminous collections of facts would still fail to move me the way a good story does. Science gives us control or—more properly—the illusion of control. We can make engines do our bidding. We can make computers do massive calculations on our behalf. We can dig great holes, launch great ships, capture the light of galaxies too far away for our minds to grasp the immensity of the distance. We can travel to other planets and shrink our senses down to the perception of individual atoms and molecules. Science gives us the ability to do all these things.

Wonderful as science is, though, it cannot give us control over ourselves—or if it does, we find the cure worse than the disease. We still have widespread conflict over paltry differences like skin color. We still have envy, greed, lust, pride, sloth, wrath, and gluttony. We can no more change our fallen nature than we can change our DNA or the color of our blood. We need truth that goes beyond the facts that science can teach us.

We need the delicate power and transformative whisperings of myth, of story. Look at how much of the Bible is couched in narrative. Feel the way it insinuates its way into your thinking and understanding, so that you become not just a consumer of a fiction but a partaker of truth, an imbiber of intoxicating revelation. This happens even without any appeal to the Spirit, whose mysterious instrumentality is to take the words of this myth and sow them like seeds into your heart, water and nurture them until they grow into a changed life.

We need myth because it is truer than history and more comprehensive than scientific fact. Myth helps recreate us. It instructs us in the ways of a universe otherwise impossibly strange, unaccountable to us, and indifferent to our sufferings. Myth is true, and the truer a story is, the more mythical it becomes, until it becomes a part of the great Story that God has been telling from ages past, a Story of Love and Death, of Pride and Sacrifice, of Grace and Judgment. True myth always illuminates the Story of God.

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Voodoo Science

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If “voodoo science” sounds like an oxymoron, it’s because it is. Robert Park uses the term to cover all kinds of situations where the language and authority of science are invoked to lend credibility to outrageous claims. In his Voodoo Science: The Road From Foolishness To Fraud, he identifies three types of science that he calls “voodoo science.”

The first is pathological science. This is science that started out as real science but left the path of honest, peer-reviewed study for some reason. He cites the hoopla surrounding cold fusion in the mid 1980s as an example. A similar case could be made today against embryonic stem cell research. Pathological science is science gone awry.

Park shows how pathological science can easily become fraudulent science. This is science that has no other aim than deception, perhaps even self-deception. Dr. Hwang Woo Suk’s claims to have greatly advanced the possibilities of human cloning in 2004 and 2005 are examples of fraudulent science. His results were later shown to have been falsified.

Finally, Park addresses pseudoscience, quackery dressed in scientific garb. Homeopathy is a good example. The supposed “medicines” are solutions diluted with water or alcohol to the point where it is unlikely that even a single molecule of the original solution is in the final product. Park explains:

In over-the-counter homeopathic remedies, for example, a dilution of 30X is fairly standard. The notation 30X means the substance was diluted one part in 10 and shaken, and this was repeated sequentially thirty times. The final dilution would be one part medicine to 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 parts of water. That would be far beyond the dilution limit. To be precise, at a dilution of 30X you would have to drink 7,874 gallons of solution to expect to get just one molecule of the medicine.

As Park points out, there is no way to enforce quality control. The resulting solution should be pure water, and there is no test that can tell what the original medicine was, since no molecules of it remain in the solution.

The section where Park tells about Dennis Lee was embarrassing to read. Lee was a flimflam artist hawking perpetual motion and free energy with all the trappings of a traveling evangelist. He began his show with prayer, seemed to be healed of laryngitis, and repeatedly invoked God to legitimize his claims. “He even made references to his jail time—naturally, his incarceration had been part of a plot by the greedy polluters to suppress the technologies that might save the world.”

Throughout the book, Parks clearly describes in nontechnical language the fundamental errors made by voodoo science, and he equips readers with knowledge that will help keep them from being taken in by ridiculous but plausible-sounding claims.

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The Moth

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I came across The Moth from a posting on Malcolm Gladwell’s blog. It represents a kind of renaissance in live storytelling. The latest entry, by Ari Handel, is one of the best, at once poignant and funny. It reminds me of a comment that C. S. Lewis once made, that our successes with science have been too easy and come too fast and that maybe something like repentance is called for.

The one at the end by Elna Baker is also worth a listen.

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