Monday 7 February 2011

Myths in Geoscience

As the oldest, and in some eyes the best way of telling a story Myths were powerful methods of communicating  science, to an audience without education (or limited science education) in time when science was considerably less well understood, in essences a myth is the first form of (geo) science communication. So let’s look at some examples and how they portray geological reality into stories and traditions of people.
The GSL recently (well, in 2007) published some papers on geology and mythology, which specific examples presented below are derived from.

Within Greek mythology Poseidon acted as both the earth shaker  and the king of floods, from a geological point of view the link between a shaking earth and raging water is a clear one; today known as a Tsunami. The form of Poseidon was a personification to fill-in an unseen force.  When geological events are intertwined with important historical evidence, such as the parting of the red sea, which has been attributed to wind, tide (Voltzinger &Androsov 2003) and seismic activity (there are a series of normal faults running down the valley). A group of wandering ancient peoples with limited understanding of earth’s processes are going to attribute an event that goes in their favour towards a God like figure – the same as the Greeks and Poisedian’s involvement in Tsunamis.

Changes in the biota, such as the growth of Plankton in rivers and lakes altering the colour of the water were taken to be blood; ancient peoples would have no idea about the growth of planktonic animals so attributing the bloodening of watercourses to a God’s displeasure.  A change from the normal was taken to herald bad events forthcoming, which was quickly taken to be the God’s displeasure... not unlike the position of Churches through the ages. Given that God was in those un-secular times viewed as the source and end point for everything on earth (and previously and presently in polytheistic religions numerous deities) it seems sensible that activities in the natural world would be applied to a supernatural being. 

Mythology and tradition are not things to be lampooned however; after the disastrous eruption of Lake Nyos, Cameroon, in 1986 resulted in 1700 locals dead as deadly carbon dioxide suffocated people and livestock as they slept. Traditional mythology and stories told by the elders ethnic groups of surrounding villages stated that houses should be built on stilts, advice that proved to save many a life.

So, what does this mean towards communicating geoscience?  It's no coincidence that TV programs and books popularizing geoscience (Fortey's brilliant Earth and Neil's great Super-continent) tell geology in terms of a story, beginning with the Earth's formation and ending up, after many an extinction, orogeny and a dinosaur with man. TV programs are fairly similar, following scientists discoveries (Men of Rock; BBC) or the manner in which the geological puzzle was unraveled (Earth Story, BBC and How the Earth was Made, History Channel); both are provided in a manner that relates it to people; exactly like a myth. 

How then, are we to communicate the big pressing Climatic Issue? via stories of people? - this assumes that we are going to let millions loose land and livelihood in flooding, and hurricanes tear up cities in order to provide those stories. Simply humanizing predictions does not have the same affect as stories of past devastation nor does presenting people with dry facts is neither inspiring or interesting - there needs to be body, life and excitement in a story, aspects which aren't always present in climate science