Musings of an Amateur Mythographer I: Islands of Certainty in a Sea of Confusion

If that's the sea of confusion, I'll be floating in it for a while. (Wikipedia - Mokoli'i)

If that’s the sea of confusion, I’ll be floating in it for a while. (Wikipedia – Mokoli’i)

I’ve been doing a lot of reading recently on the classification of knowledge, the development of scientific thinking, the ways different cultures approach learning, and the relationship between myths and science. Now, some of you are probably wondering why I can’t watch “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” like a normal person but others of you have already started to shift uneasily because I’ve talked about a relationship between myths and science, as if we do not consider science to be the natural successor to preceding myths. Well, let me go further. I’m about to start drawing on thinking on myths and science and even how the myths that teach us about the importance of evidence, the foundation of science, but for their own purposes.


Because much of what we face as opposition in educational research are pre-existing stereotypes and misconceptions that people employ, where there’s a lack of (and sometimes in the face of) evidence. Yet this collection of beliefs is powerful because it prevents people from adopting verified and validated approaches to learning and teaching. What can we call these? Are these myths? What do I even mean by that term?

It’s important to realise that the use of the term myth has evolved from earlier, rather condescending, classifications of any culture’s pre-scientific thinking as being dismissively primitive and unworthy of contemporary thought. This is a rich topic by itself but let me refer to Claude Lévi-Strauss and his identification of myth as being a form of thinking and classification, rather than simple story-telling, and thus proto-scientific, rather than anti-scientific. I note that I have done the study of mythology a grave disservice with such an abbreviated telling. Further reading here to understand precisely what Lévi-Strauss was refuting could involve Tylor, Malinowski, and Lévy-Bruhl. This includes rejecting a knee-jerk classification of a less scientifically advanced people as being emotional and practical, rather than (even being capable of) being intellectual. By moving myth forms to an intellectual footing, Lévi-Strauss allows a non-pejorative assessment of the potential value of myth forms.

In many situations, we consider myth and folklore as the same thing, from a Western post-Enlightenment viewpoint, only accepting those elements that we can validate. Thus, we choose not to believe that Olympus holds the Greek Pantheon as we cannot locate the Gods reliably, but the pre-scientific chewing of willow bark to relieve pain was validated once we constructed aspirin (and willow bark tea). It’s worth noting that the early location of willow bark as part of its scientific ‘discovery’ was inspired by an (effectively random) approach called the doctrine of signatures, which assumed that the cause and the cure of diseases would be located near each other. The folkloric doctrine of signatures led the explorers to a plant that tasted like another one but had a different use.

Myth, folklore and science, dancing uneasily together. Does this mean that what we choose to call myth now may or may not be myth in the future? We know that when to use it, to recommend it, in our endorsed and academic context is usually to require it to become science. But what is science?

Karl Popper’s (heavily summarised) view is that we have a set of hypotheses that we test to destruction and this is the foundation of our contemporary view of science. If the evidence we have doesn’t fit the hypothesis then we must reject the hypothesis. When we have enough evidence, and enough hypotheses, we have a supported theory. However, this has a natural knock-on effect in that we cannot actually prove anything, we just have enough evidence to support the hypothesis. Kuhn (again, heavily summarised) has a model of “normal science” where there is a large amount of science as in Popper’s model, incrementing a body of existing work, but there are times when this continuity gives way to a revolutionary change. At these times, we see an accumulation of contradictory evidence that illustrates that it’s time to think very differently about the world. Ultimately, we discover the need for a new coherency, where we need new exemplars to make the world make sense. (And, yes, there’s still a lot of controversy over this.)

Let me attempt to bring this all together, finally. We, as humans, live in a world full of information and some of it, even in our post-scientific world, we incorporate into our lives without evidence and some we need evidence to accept. Do you want some evidence that we live our lives without, or even in spite of, evidence? The median length for a marriage in the United States is 11 years and 40-50% of marriages will end in divorce yet many still swear ‘until death do us part’ or ‘all of my days’. But the myth of ‘marriage forever’ is still powerful. People have children, move, buy houses and totally change their lives based on this myth. The actions that people take here will have a significant impact on the world around them and yet it seems at odd with the evidence. (Such examples are not uncommon and, in a post-scientific revolution world, must force us to consider earlier suggestions that myth-based societies move seamlessly to a science-based intellectual utopia. This is why Lévi-Strauss is interesting to read. Our evidence is that our evidence is not sufficient evidence, so we must seek to better understand ourselves.) Even those components of our shared history and knowledge that are constructed to be based on faith, such as religion, understand how important evidence is to us. Let me give an example.

In the fourth book of the New Testament of the Christian Bible, the Gospel of John, we find the story of the Resurrection of Lazarus. Lazarus is sick and Jesus Christ waits until he dies to go to where he is buried and raise him. Jesus deliberately delays because the glory to the Christian God will be far greater and more will believe, if Lazarus is raised from the dead, rather than just healed from illness. Ultimately, and I do not speak for any religious figure or God here, anyone can get better from an illness but to be raised from the dead (currently) requires a miracle. Evidence, even in a book written for the faithful and to build faith, is important to humans.

We also know that there is a very large amount of knowledge that is accepted as being supported by evidence but the evidence is really anecdotal, based on bias and stereotype, and can even be distorted through repetition. This is the sea of confusion that we all live in. The scientific method (Popper) is one way that we can try to find firm ground to stand on but, if Kuhn is to be believed, there is the risk that one day we stand on the islands and realise that the truth was the sea all along. Even with Popper, we risk standing on solid ground that turns out to be meringue. How many of these changes can one human endure and still be malleable and welcoming in the face of further change?

Our problem with myth is when it forces us to reject something that we can demonstrate to be both valuable and scientifically valid because, right now, the world that we live in is constructed on scientific foundations and coherence is maintained by adding to those foundations. Personally, I don’t believe that myth and science have to be at odds (many disagree with me, including Richard Dawkins of course), and that this is an acceptable view as they are already co-existing in ways that actively shape society, for both good and ill.

Recently I made a comment on MOOCs that contradicted something someone said and I was (quite rightly) asked to provide evidence to support my assertions. That is the post before this one and what you will notice is that I do not have a great deal of what we would usually call evidence: no double-blind tests, no large-n trials with well-formed datasets. I had some early evidence of benefit, mostly qualitative and relatively soft, but, and this is important to me, what I didn’t have was evidence of harm. There are many myths around MOOCs and education in general. Some of them fall into the realm of harmful myths, those that cause people to reject good approaches to adhere to old and destructive practices. Some of them are harmful because they cause us to reject approaches that might work because we cannot find the evidence we need.

I am unsurprised that so many people adhere to folk pedagogy, given the vast amounts of information out there and the natural resistance to rejecting something that you think works, especially when someone sails in and tells you’ve been wrong for years. The fact that we are still discussing the nature of myth and science gives insight into how complicated this issue is.

I think that the path I’m on could most reasonably be called that of the mythographer, but the cataloguing of the edges of myth and the intersections of science is not in order to condemn one or the other but to find out what the truth is to the best of our knowledge. I think that understanding why people believe what they believe allows us to understand what they will need in order to believe something that is actually, well, true. There are many articles written on this, on the difficulty of replacing one piece of learning with another and the dangers of repetition in reinforcing previously-held beliefs, but there is hope in that we can construct new elements to replace old information if we are careful and we understand how people think.

We need to understand the delicate relationships between myth, folklore and science, our history as separate and joined peoples, if only to understand when we have achieved new forms of knowing. But we also need to be more upfront about when we believe we have moved on, including actively identifying areas that we have labelled as “in need of much more evidence” (such as learning styles, for example) to assist people in doing valuable work if they wish to pursue research.

I’ll go further. If we have areas where we cannot easily gain evidence, yet we have competing myths in that space, what should we do? How do we choose the best approach to achieve the most effective educational outcomes? I’ll let everyone argue in the comments for a while and then write that as the next piece.

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