Phillip and I recently made a long car trip. On the way, we listened to the digital recording of A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson. Motivated by the realization that he didn't understand anything about the universe, planet Earth, or the conditions that make life as we know it possible, Bryson traces the history of Western scientific thought for non-scientists. I can relate to Bryson, and I learned a lot.
There were fifteen discs (yep, it was a long, long, ride), testimony to the long history of scientific investigation and the tremendous amount of accumulated scientific information. But as Bryson repeatedly observes, human beings still know next to nothing about the the forces upon which our lives depend or how we, or anything else, came into being. Our knowledge is a drop in the proverbial bucket. Some people--including some scientists--- believe that human beings will always be in a state of partial ignorance because the universe is too complex for us to grasp, and/or because we are part of it, embedded in the mystery. A human being cannot step outside of the cosmos, so our perspective and understanding will always be a function of our involvement. This is a humbling reality, often hidden from view by the workings of our collective technological fantasies.
The existence of the unknown (and potentially unknowable) unites myth and science, just as it unites myth and religion, myth and politics, myth and psychology, myth and art, and any other set of human ideas. Human beings understand, learn, and express themselves through metaphor, which allows us to bridge the gaps, but not close them. Science is mythological because it depends on metaphor. But there's more. Science is a mythology because it is theory (story) that attempts to answer the big existential questions and explain the unknown. How the universe came into existence, for example, and how it will end.
Scientists, and anyone else who depends upon and uses scientific knowledge and theories, need to be alert to the inherent human need to mythologize. Myth contains the meaning of the scientific enterprise. Unconscious mythologies cause blindness. Over and over and over again, Bryson recounts a story of rivalry, of ridicule, and the rejection of a theory that was latter embraced as truth. Some of them are almost laughable in retrospect, but don't fool yourself into thinking that people in the past were just more ignorant.
In 1962, Thomas Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, an analysis of the history of scientific ideas that popularized the concept of a "paradigm shift" and destroyed the "myth" of a logical, rational, steady progression toward increasingly accurate scientific knowledge. Kuhn doesn't talk about myth or use the term "mythology" and neither does Bryson. But both provide a perspective on the evolution of science that can be read as a case study for the power of unconscious cultural mythologies.
Of course scientists are fallible human beings, subject to prejudices and blind spots, and controlled by the same cultural mythologies that govern the rest of us. But can we keep this in mind when we turn to the "experts" with technology to save us? And can we question our own participation in the scientific mythology of our times?