There’s this tradition in Indonesia among the Javanese people of Indonesia where a “spiritual guardian” will “talk” to the “spirit” of a volcano in order to find out how the volcano is doing, its music preferences, what kind of celebrities it follows, whether or not it’s going to erupt and kill off a large chunk of the surrounding human population, that sort of thing. It’s a lot like volcanology except that it’s a ridiculous superstition which does not work.
The volcano’s very own Anne Sullivan in this case was a guy named Maridjan (who became so famous that he endorsed an energy drink, for whatever that’s worth), and his deaf and blind volcanic Helen Keller is Mount Merapi. Volcanologists were warning the local government to evacuate the local area because it looked like there was going to be a major eruption. But Maridjan felt differently because the volcano told him so itself.
In the modern news media narrative, this would be the two sides of the story where the reporter should teach the controversy in order to avoid accusations of bias. On the one side you have relevant experts using seismic data, measurements of gas emissions, temperature changes, and stratigraphic analyses – and on the other you have some guy claiming that he’s talking to the volcano. That’s the fair and balanced way of framing the issue.
As you may have guessed from the use of past tense earlier, this whole ‘talking to a volcano about its feelings’ thing didn’t work out too well for our man Maridjan. From NPR:
KUHN: Yes. Well, volcanologists actually predicted this eruption before it happened. So they managed to evacuate large numbers of people. I also went to a stadium yesterday where the refugees are living. But, you know, not all the residents heeded the warnings.
And one reason for this is they have this so-called spiritual guardian of the mountain who didn’t think the eruption was going to happen. And a lot of people listened to him. So, you know, as we were going out to the volcano today, we passed farmers cultivating their rice paddies, just about oblivious to this huge volcanic activity going on right to the north of them.
INSKEEP: What happened to that spiritual leader, Anthony?
KUHN: He, himself, became a burned offering to the mountain, you could say. He was found in his home, burned to death in a prayer position. The appointment of the next guardian is up to the local sultan. There’s a selection process in progress right now.
Yes, Maridjan, the poor mountaineer who could barely keep his family fed, was one day shooting at some food, and up from the ground came some bumbling molten rock from the Earth’s crust which then burned him and his most devout followers alive.
So now the Javanese people are in the market for a new spiritual guardian of the volcano since that seems to be such an important and worthwhile position. But on the positive side, they want Indonesia’s chief volcanologist, a man named Surono who initially warned of the imminent Merapi eruption, to be the new spiritual guardian.
Surono doesn’t share his would-be predecessors’ beliefs, but maybe it’d be for the best if he accepted that title. Of course the best possible outcome would be for people to stop believing that we can communicate with volcanoes, but short of that it’d be much better for the Javanese to accept true things even if it’s for bad reasons. It’d be not too different from the way the government removed thimerosol from the MMR vaccine in order to appease antivaxers into getting their children vaccinated even though thimerosol hasn’t shown signs of being dangerous at such low levels. I guess that’s progress. Kind of.