Science and the touch of celebrity fallacy

Science is great, and when something’s great, this often results in enthusiastic proclamation of it as the One True Answer to pretty much anything. Which is unfortunate because science isn’t. Not all true knowledge is scientific knowledge, on the contrary, scientific knowledge is only a small fraction of what we know.

Most of our daily lives run on very un-scientific but still knowledgeable questions and answers, such as ‘what did you have for breakfast?’ and ‘what’s the news this morning?’ These are not questions which can be addressed by a scientific methodology because science is largely about hypothesis and repeatable experiments and there are no repeat experiments for one-off events such as what you were chomping at 8:02 this morning. These questions are answered simply by observing (looking, listening, smelling, etc.), an activity that science crucially depends on but which has been in active use since long before anyone thought of science. They could also be answered by asking someone who knows, which is probably our number one source of knowledge throughout our whole life. But that isn’t at all scientific, even when it’s a scientist whom you’re asking. Even when you’re asking a ‘scientific’ question. But if you go and set up the experiment for yourself, that’s science.

You may be tempted to think that ‘what I ate for breakfast’ can be scientifically analysed by shipping you off to a forensic lab for analysis of your stomach contents. And this is what I mean by the “touch of celebrity” fallacy. Because labs are full of sciencey things like test tubes and white coats and mass spectrometers, we somehow feel that whatever information comes out of such a lab has the aura of science about it; it’s scientifically proven.

This is a mistake.

Yes, a lot of science did go into developing mass spectrometers, and test tubes are often used by scientists. A forensic examination of your stomach is in that sense ‘applied science’, putting to use the body of knowledge acquired by the scientific method. But the experiment of you eating breakfast this morning was a one-off. In that sense the forensic analysis is no more scientific than a mate poking their fingers down your throat so that they can then carefully inspect your stomach contents on the table.

Not all true empirical knowledge is science. Sometimes it’s just stuff you know. I had pancakes for breakfast this morning. I know because I was there.

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