The rewards of folk science

The excistence of a science-based vernacular is a sign of success
By Stephen Jorgenson-Murray

Illustration by Jacob Stead

In 1897, HG Wells published The War of the Worlds. A potent combination of human drama, social criticism and the latest discoveries in evolution and astronomy, The War of the Worlds became a cultural phenomenon and almost single-handedly created an entirely new genre of fiction. Yet across the Atlantic, where copyrights on foreign books were seldom heeded, publishers regarded Wells’ work with envious eyes, and with astonishing speed, they rushed out their own versions.

Within weeks, the New York Evening Journal and the Boston Post were serialising a pirated version of WotW under the title of Fighters from Mars. Much of Wells’ scientific hypothesising and critique of imperialism was cut out, and the action was transplanted from the south east of England to the north eastern US – both New Yorkers and Bostonians got to see their own local landmarks blown up by the rampaging Martians. Artistically, this strikes us as a travesty – in a country on the brink of invading Cuba, Wells’ attacks on colonial wars could not have been more timely – but the pirated versions at least offered American readers something the original could not: a story with intense ties to the readers’ place and culture.

Thomas Edison occupied a similar place in American culture to Elon Musk today

If Fighters from Mars seems crass, its sequel Edison’s Conquest of Mars by Garrett P. Serviss is even more incredible. If it were published today, it would surely be considered fanfiction; not just of WotW but of Thomas Edison, depicted as an intrepid and trigger-happy (if not outright genocidal) genius inventor-turned-general. In the aftermath of the Martian downfall – “a proud day for America” – Edison almost immediately devises an arsenal of new weapons and flies off in his spaceship to strike a revenge blow against the Martians. Along the way, he discovers the ruins of of a race of giants on the Moon, learns that Martians built the Sphinx, and discovers that Martian women have beautiful complexions “no less brilliant than that of the women of Italy or Spain”. Little of Wells’ original idea remains beyond evil Martians.

As an inventor and entrepreneur, Thomas Edison occupied a similar place in American culture to Elon Musk today – popular, but by no means universally so, and with a damaged reputation. In 1892, a few years before Conquest of Mars was published, Edison was forced out of his own company by shareholders after his decision to use DC electricity instead of AC didn’t pay off. In fiction however, he could be stripped of his flaws and complications, and so take his place alongside Johnny Appleseed and John Henry in the pantheon of American folk heroes (where he has since been joined by his one-time rival, now meme star, Nikola Tesla).

In pirating The War of the Worlds, mutating it to fit better with local culture, and printing it in a cheap, truly mass medium, these papers heralded something new: science folklore.

The third branch of culture

Art, pop, folk. These are the three broad categories that most music historians divide their field by. Art music is usually composed by people with formal training, and places a heavy emphasis on technique. Most contemporary classical music falls into this category, but so too does prog rock, free jazz and experimental hip-hop. Popular music is produced to appeal to the masses for wide distribution. And then there’s folk music. In a historical context, folk means more than Bob Dylan and banjos: it’s all the music that originates outside the established artistic and commercial circles, which is transmitted by oral tradition and often has no canonical form. The concept of performance becomes blurred, as many types of folk music – work songs, nursery rhymes, mnemonics – serve practical everyday purposes.m

The same model can be applied to science fiction. But if art sci-fi means authors like Le Guin, Vonnegut and Shelley, and popular sci-fi is Star Wars and Marvel Comics, where is the folk sci-fi? Just as you won’t find nursery rhymes on stage, you won’t find science folklore in books.

One of the comprehensive libraries of modern folklore is Although now best known as fact checkers of the endless stream of social media fake news, the site was originally founded by Barbara and David Mikkelson as an extension of their activities in the alt.folklore.urban Usenet group. The site contains countless examples of what are essentially short stories –  plagues of genetically modified insects blanketing Florida, pharmaceutical executives who confess to Satanism on chat shows and sheds full of eight-legged mutant birds that KFC is legally prevented from calling “chickens.”

Folklore crosses genres in a way that art and popular fiction seldom does. The widely-repeated story about a Nasa scientist who, while investigating irregularities in orbits, discovered conclusive proof that the Bible was literally true shows a fascinating blend of Christian fundamentalism and faith in the scientific method to uncover the truth. The myth that scientists (usually godless Soviets, for that extra layer of irony) accidentally drilled into Hell is no less eclectic in its combination of tropes from science fiction and religion.

True, the stories rarely hew especially closely to scientific fact, but then Snopes also catalogues many tales of law seldom make much sense in terms of real legal systems, unless there’s a detail in the law of New York City I’m missing that would allow its mayor to fine people for living in a city with homeless citizens. Meanwhile, the theology of the guardian angel who let a girl who didn’t pray be raped  seems incredibly distant from any actual Christian teaching. Just as these stories reflect trust in the rule of law and religion, the proliferation of science folklore tell us is just how deeply scientific concepts have become buried in culture.

Away from urban legends, science folklore manifests itself in many other forms. Seventy years after it was published, long after Serviss had faded into obscurity, Erich Von Daniken would publish Chariots of the Gods?, suggesting that aliens had visited early human civilisations and helped build the pyramids of Egypt. Von Daniken’s book would sell over 16 million copies and become the seed around which a new subculture of New Age believers and conspiracy theorists would nucleate.

Cause and Effect

What academics call “UFO religions” - which typically posit that Earth was settled by advanced aliens in the distant past or will be visited by an alien messiah – often showcase their supposed scientificness. The most influential, Scientology, even put it in the name. A company linked to another UFO religion, the Raëlian movement, caused a media frenzy in 2002 with spurious claims that it had successfully cloned a human. Less structured New Age movements draw on any and all scientific concepts that achieve salience in the popular imagination.

The resonances of this crystal emit fields that kill cancer. Quantum energy connects everything, so all of humanity is one. All life on Earth forms one great planet-wide ecosystem, Gaia, and you can worship Her. Fluoride has clogged the pineal gland in your brain with limescale, but if you can just decalcify it you’ll gain second sight. These claims are little more than free association of scientific terms to non-scientific concepts, but they would not catch on at all without public awareness of these terms. The pineal gland seems to have become a subject of New Age interest primarily because if you squint it looks a little like a bit like the Ancient Egyptian Eye of Horus, but whoever first noticed that must have still been looking at an anatomical diagram of the brain.

The immediate reaction of skeptics to these beliefs is to suggest that more science education is needed, but none of these pieces of science folklore could have taken root without effective, popular scientific communication. If Nasa hadn’t regularly released images from the Viking mission, the “Face of Mars” mountain would never have captured the public interest. Quantum entanglement would mean nothing to the general public if it weren’t for generations of outreach by quantum physicists. There wouldn’t be so many “tree-hugging hippies” if it weren’t for fifty years of dedicated work by biologists and climatologists worldwide to make the public realise the grave danger of environmental pollution and climate change.

Carl Sagan, host of the Cosmos documentary series and one of the all-time greatest science communicators, wrote a polemic against supernatural and pseudoscientific beliefs, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1996). Sagan drew a direct line from tabloid coverage of “alien abductions” and “faith healing” to the breakdown of the social contract in the United States in the 1990s. The book’s most famous quote is one you may have seen circulating Facebook (ironically enough, often so far out of context that  Snopes has fact-checked it ):

“I have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time -- when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.”

- The Demon-Haunted World, p. 25

But what’s less widely cited is Sagan’s solution, and the idea hinted at in his book’s subtitle.

Lighting the Candle in the Dark

“In all uses of science, it is insufficient – indeed it is dangerous – to produce only a small, highly competent, well-rewarded priesthood of professionals. Instead, some fundamental understanding of the findings and methods of science must be available on the broadest scale.”

- The Demon-Haunted World, p. 37

If science is to avoid becoming the priesthood that Sagan feared, its ideas and techniques need to break out into the general public. To mix Sagan’s metaphor with a much earlier one, scientists can light the candles, but they alone can’t keep them burning. Prometheus brought fire down from the gods, but it was humanity who kept it burning.

Physicists – myself included – tend to bemoan the fact that the average person’s idea of quantum mechanics boils down to a few fuzzy and inaccurate intuitions about things being in two places at once, but how incredible is it that we’ve even got that far? That we live in an era where “Schrödinger’s cat” is standard figure of speech is breathtaking. Quantum physics is not taught in schools, so however people are learning about it, it is not through formal routes.

Chaos theory is notoriously complicated, but almost everyone’s heard that a butterfly flapping its wings in China causes a tornado in Texas (actually, when Edward Lorenz originally presented his theory in 1972, his hypothetical butterfly was Brazilian ), but China presumably sounded more exotic, and so the parable mutated when it entered folklore). Genetics and DNA have become so much a part of our culture that the satirical magazine Private Eye collects examples of the “success is in our DNA” cliché to mock.

There are valid reasons to worry about scientific inaccuracies spreading through this kind of oral tradition. Acting on a faulty scientific belief can waste time and money, and in the worst case, as in pseudoscientific therapies, it can kill. Yet by trying to dispel all science folklore, skeptics throw away a valuable opportunity.

Anyone who believes that Nasa proved the existence of God must believe that science has the potential to answer questions about the universe and our place in it – otherwise, the story wouldn’t have any power to them. Persuading these people on the important scientific issues of today, from vaccines to climate change, may be difficult, but it means you have some vocabulary and ideals already in common. Certainly, there’s more common ground than with someone who believes that scientific proof of evolution was planted by Satan.

Beliefs drawn from science also offer support through the difficult times of life. Green funerals, with their focus on the environment and the circle of life, offer the same sense of continuity that religious beliefs do and give families the feeling that their loved one lives on as part of nature  – even if a skeptic might wonder whether there’s really anything special or meaningful about a few of the atoms that briefly constituted a human body later ending up inside a plant. Science folklore is a candle in the darkest times of all.

So next Halloween, when the streets fill with shambling partygoers dressed as Frankenstein’s monster, you’re seeing the end result of two centuries of dissemination of scientific ideas from art to popular culture to folklore; from the philosophical gloom of Shelley’s Creature, through the popular frights of the Universal movies, to the green monster named Frankenstein who dances the Monster Mash and bears the brunt of a thousand playground jokes. Long may he undie.

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