Thursday, August 07, 2003

In an interesting new story in Scientific American, scientists announce some interesting new conclusions about the Oracle at Delphi. The Oracle's chamber was deep in a cave, in which pneuma (vapors) "like expensive perfume" wafted out of a crevice. The Oracle would straddle the crevice, take a deep breath of the vapors, and "channel" Apollo like a New Age freakshow, offering prophecy and puns in equal measure. Of course, because other people could smell the smoke without suddenly bursting out into prophecy, the historians said that only a properly conditioned and pure woman could experience the full effects of the smoke -- which is about as plausible an explanation as anything that Benny Hinn has ever offered.

These scientists have recently found some evidence to support the hypothesis that the smoke was sweet-smelling ethylene, which would explain the various accounts of the Oracle's behavior. That is, the Oracle at Delphi was a glue-huffer.

What I find interesting about this story is not the story itself, which has the hallmarks of appropriate scientific restraint. The scientists offer nothing more than a possibility; a way that ancient myth could have had its origins in science:

"The primary lesson we took away from our Delphic oracle project is not the well-worn message that modern science can elucidate ancient curiosities. Perhaps more important is how much we have to gain if we approach problems with the same broad-minded and interdisciplinary attitude that the Greeks themselves displayed."

No, what I find interesting is the way that it has already been misrepresented by the media. This story has been soberly reported for a couple of years now, for instance in the Times and in National Geographic, but the story in The Guardian goes over the edge and almost takes it as gospel truth. In doing so, I am reminded of Charles Fort's mission to draw a sharp line between science that explains a mystery, and science that merely explains away a mystery. A scientific "coulda mighta" argument will never be proof.

For instance: if the Oracle was given to wordplay and puns while "under the influence," doesn't that run contrary to the "glue-huffer" hypothesis? How many glue huffers play ironic word games while stoned? Doesn't that tend to prove instead that these women quite simply saw something that their "clients" did not--that they were gullible?* Or, at the very least, all the "interesting" stories about the Oracle were nothing more than plot devices, and that the actual Oracle was a great deal less coherent than she was claimed to be?

* "Clairvoyant, n.: A person, commonly a woman, who has the power of seeing that which is
invisible to her patron--namely, that he is a blockhead." -- Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

This reminds me of the flap over the allegation that the hysteria that led to the Salem Witch Trials was caused by ergot, which is a naturally occuring fungus on rye grain that can be similar to LSD. Some scientists did intriguing research that suggested that an outbreak of ergotism could have caused the Satanic hallucinations that were so effectively dramatized in "The Crucible"--but it was only a suggestion, not proof. A search of the Internet shows a range of interpretations of this suggestion, from accurate reporting to people that use the ergot argument to spew invective against those that would attack Wicca.

An even better illustration was Garrison Keillor's very effective story about the Fourth of July picnic he supposedly attended as a boy, which was interrupted by a flurry of snow. The astonished adults were content to tell themselves that it was merely some sort of pollen from the trees, because it couldn't be snow, but the kids noticed that this "pollen" melted when it landed on their plates. They were more open to the fact that some phenomena cannot be explained away by "coulda mighta" arguments.

And yet, the same principle has a very nasty downside. The oil & gas industry is using the same arguments against the mounting evidence of global warming. "Scientists don't know for a fact that global warming exists," they might say, "they just think that it's likely. And that's not a good enough reason to cut our economy off at the knees." The problem seems to arise from the fact that scientific speculation about the Oracle at Delphi is just idle speculation, but people will be wagering billions of dollars on the global warming evidence. The sober restraint of science starts to look like prevarication, and reasonable people start to flinch at the cost of an error in either direction.

Again and again, humanity is forced to confront the limits of its own knowledge, and again and again those limits force humans to retreat to the comfort of their own presuppositions. And at times, I despair that we will ever get a clear vision of the Universe, and ourselves inside it. Einstein said that God doesn't play dice with the Universe, and he may be right. The problem is that humans are playing dice with the Universe, and that this is Man's natural state.

 9:42 AM

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