On some occasions, the hubris of the modern intellectual serves to obfuscate simple truths long known by different classes. One group of man, scholars from antiquity, followed closely many of the scholarly tenants that modern researchers practice. Science is an imperfect process in constant need of refinement; Euclid's fudged math needed modern tinkering, but there have been cases of new ideas popularly trumping the old simply for the virtue of being newer.
In logic, this is a fallacy called an argumentum ad novitatem, an appeal to novelty, and has crept into science on occasion. Perhaps the root cause is a casual understanding of natural selection. Many see Darwinism deterministically, that mankind is on an evolutionary path toward utopia. The result is often a bias against any orthodoxy held for a considerable length of time. Because of this institutionalized fallacy that man is deterministically on a linear climb toward utopia, new ideas aren’t always put through the proper rigors of the scientific discipline before supplanting established concepts.
One prominent example is Adolphe Paul Oppe’s “debunking” of the traditional explanation for the Delphic Pythia’s psychosis.
Surviving first-hand accounts of the Oracle of Delphi are plenty. The most extensive ancient recording of events from the temple came from Plutarch, the most respected biographer of his age. The biographer recorded the presence of a sweet vapor rising as in the air or in the water. Pliny, Diodorus, Plato, Cicero, and Strabo all recorded similar events. As time progressed, scholars consistently noted that the gases were fading to a trickle.
Then, at the dawn of the twentieth century, the Englishman Adolphe Paul Oppe, visiting a French excavation site at Delphi, found no evidence that a chasm for releasing gases existed below the Temple of Apollo, nor did he find any emitted gases. He chose to make some bold statements in refuting over two-thousand years of convention. First, he made the broad statement that no chasm had ever existed beneath the temple, and no gases could have ever been emitted from the site.
Aided with hindsight, perhaps one should judge Oppe so harshly. After all, scientists of the time had ample reason to believe the Earth was a static place. Geography didn’t seem to move that much in the Mediterranean, after all. Ancient cities still stood, and Alfred Wegener wouldn’t popularize the theory of continental drift until 1915. On the other hand, two years after Oppe wrote his article, Mount Pelee, situated on the Caribbean island of Martinique, completely obliterated the coastal city of St Pierre. The Earth was very much active in changing its landscape in Oppe’s time.
Oppe also claimed that no gases existed that could cause the symptoms listed by Plutarch. Again, at the dawn of the twentieth century, coming to such a conclusion seemed reasonable. The pharmaceutical industry as we now know it was in a it’s nascent stage.
Finally, Oppe pointed out a seeming contradiction in Plutarch’s depiction of events. Yes, Plutarch did indeed narrate an account that deviated from the norm. However, this and other discrepancies can now be accounted for.
The return from fallacy started in the 1980s, when the United Nations dispatched a survey team to map fault lines in Greece. Jelle De Boer mapped fault lines to the East and West of the temple. It turns out that the Kerna Fault and the Delphi Fault intersect beneath the Oracle Chamber, where a drain for a water spring rests. The research team De Boer put together discovered a limestone layer filled with spring water. The layer produced different petrochemicals. They were methane and ethane.
They then took water samples from inside the temple, and discovered a mixture of methane, ethane, and ethylene. The last of which had the odor described by Plutarch. In researching the possibility that ethylene could account for the trance states of the temple’s seer, the team found the papers of Isabella Herb, who had conducted ethylene experiments on subjects. Her reports read like Plutarch’s. Given a low mixture, subjects babbled in trances. She had also witnessed that discrepancy mentioned earlier. Plutarch wrote of one Pythia going into derangement after inhaling the gas, flailing about until collapsing and dying. Herb recalled a similar incident, where a subject had rampaged until suffocating on his own vomit. The ancient accounts appeared to comport with scientific findings. Adolphe Paul Oppe, one can conclude, has been debunked.
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