darkskywatcher (darkskywatcher) wrote,

The Oracle. By William Broad.


This is going to be a very difficult review to write, for two reasons. First, it has been quite a while since I’ve been this wrong about a book. I started it off, and the prologue did not give me a lot of confidence that the author knew what he was talking about, or had done any serious study. That turned out to be dead wrong, and I think I ended up liking the book quite a lot. Second, the main point of the book is in the background for almost all of it. It is discussed directly only in the prologue and in the very last chapter, the rest being a gathering of the ancient accounts of the Oracle of Delphi, and then a history of the early scientific attempts to learn about the Oracle, followed by the story of one particular set of scholars who collaborate to reveal one secret of the Oracle, which is roughly 40% of the book.
As it turned out, the author has certainly done his homework, and I was able to recognize many of the ancient citations of the Oracle from the other source I know it best from, The Cartoon History of the Universe. Beyond cartoon history, however, Broad holds the story up by some of its threads and asks us to examine it more closely, which highlights many amazing things about the Oracle.
The temple grounds of the Oracle became richly decorated because many different city states would offer devotions to Apollo for correct predictions related to the great questions that concerned city states: war and peace, freedom and slavery, colonization and empire. Note first that it is many different groups of Greeks: Delphi, as open to all, helped reinforce a sense of a shared Greek culture.
But why was the Oracle so popular for answering the questions of the day? There was no shortage of people in the Greek world that claimed divine inspiration or birth, not to mention places believed to be sacred to the gods, and all of them attempted to grant prophecies to those seeking divine wisdom. The Oracle of Delphi became the most prominent and celebrated because it had a long tradition of giving clear, correct answers. Yes, the responses were often given in verse and there could be some ambiguity, but not much. That reputation is why the Delphic Oracle was given the most difficult questions to ask.
Of course, this makes it all the more ironic that perhaps the most famous prophecy of the Oracle of Delphi was the one given to Croesus, the “If you attack Persia, you will destroy a great empire”, by which the Oracle (presumably) meant Croesus’ own empire, Lydia. That pronunciation is full of Oracular doublespeak that would have been quite typical in those days, and Broad describes how the aftermath of Croesus’ fall cast doubts upon the ability of the Oracle to correctly prophecy the future, something which the temple priests spent years trying to remedy.
For these and other good questions, Broad had me drawn in by the end of the first chapter. That kept up as I moved along, past the point where the Oracle had faded into history. From there, the scholarly story unfolds, and I did find it interesting. Broad gets into the politics of the early investigations at Delphi, and into how a scholarly consensus in Archeology was developed despite being based upon shoddy science at the beginning. He does a good job of mentioning that cultural and national pride had a large impact on the initial excavations and conclusions that were drawn, as well as some of the pushback both at the beginning and subsequently.
The story of the recent discoveries is likewise interesting, but here I think I benefit from a bit of inside knowledge. The story is spread out of over years, as it primarily involves the research of a pair of professors in different fields who have to do their research and collaborations when they have time amongst their other academic commitments. Given my knowledge of that process, I can easily imagine how that process happened, but Broad doesn’t spell it out, and does occasionally mention how many years the research takes.
Throughout the course of the book, I found myself naturally arriving at the conclusion that Broad clearly intended: while the scientists were able to use an interdisciplinary approach in order to understand one aspect of the Oracle, they had not uncovered the central mystery of how the Oracle was so frequently correct. Before I dive into that conclusion, I have to commend Broad on some exceptional persuasive writing for taking me from skeptical to anticipating his conclusion just from how he has laid out the story.
The last chapter concerns itself almost exclusively with this conclusion, and is in general a discussion of scientific reductionism and its limits. Broad claims, and I have to agree, that even though the team’s findings showed that the Oracle’s setup and location meant that the Oracle was mildly high on ethylene while giving prophecies; ethylene highs don’t explain prophecy, as more users of ethylene have never claimed prophetic knowledge.
Where Broad goes with this is to posit a general sense that there might be more to the universe than scientific reduction can tell us. That not all problems and mysteries will condense down to equations. That, to quote a quote of the Oracle, a boat might be more than the sum of its boards and nails. I find that conclusion to be pretty agreeable, especially how it is presented. Broad is quick to point out that this doesn’t mean science doesn’t teach us a great many very important things, but just that it can’t teach us everything. It isn’t a magic bullet that will fix all of our epistemological problems.
So, why was I so worried at the start, when Broad made it clear that his ultimate conclusion was going to be a statement about the limits of scientific endeavor? I think it has a lot to do with the rest of our cultural conversation about science and its proper place in the world. For starters, my default assumption is that those who oppose science are effectively creationists. Right-wing evangelicals are increasingly well funded and influential in the national political and cultural discourse, and they frequently attack science and scientific procedures, to public detriment. Just to use a recent example from an article I was reading, Michele Bachmann claimed that the HPV vaccine was “dangerous”. Public claims like this have been shown in the past to lead to very real drops in vaccination rates, which in this case will mean more cases of genital warts in both genders and cervical cancer in women. That threat is real enough and severe enough that science does need to be defended from many of its enemies. In that, I know that Broad would be on the scientific side, and he certainly is grateful for the wonders that science has done.
At the same time, I think he is right that there are some within and around science that tend to view the scientific way as the only way. That trend, to view anyone skeptical of science or its conclusions as ignorant, superstitious rubes that don’t know a good thing when they see it. For example, Richard Dawkins hosted a show called The Enemies of Reason. There was no purpose to the show except to use scientific methods to run down other beliefs in favor of hard-nosed scientific reductionism.

So, The Oracle left me with the feeling that I was caught between two larger ideological movements that are both at least somewhat detrimental, in addition to whatever benefits they provide. I can definitely recommend to those that like learning about ancient Greece, enjoy a story about scholarly collaboration, or who are interested in a well-written critique of scientific excess. I'm definitely glad I read it.
Tags: books

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