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Mind

My Breakfast With "Scientism"

NeuroskepticBy NeuroskepticDecember 17, 2012 8:16 PM

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One morning, I awoke convinced that science was the only source of knowledge. I had developed a case of spontaneous scientism.

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The first challenge I faced was deciding what to eat for breakfast. Muesli, or cornflakes? Which would be the more scientific choice? I decided to go on the internet to look up the nutritional value of the different cereals, to see which one would be healthiest.

My computer was off. So first I'd need to turn it on - but how? From past experience, I suspected that pressing the big green power button on the front would do it - but then I remembered, that's merely anecdotal evidence. I needed scientific proof.

So I made a mental note to run a double-blind, randomized controlled trial of "turning my computer on" tomorrow.

Lacking nutritional data, I decided to pick a cereal by taste. I like muesli more than cornflakes. At last, a choice! Muesli it is, I thought - until I realized that I didn't actually know which one I preferred more. I had a gut feeling I liked muesli, but that's not science. What if, in fact, I hated muesli? Science couldn't tell me, at least not yet.

Another mental note: conduct cereal taste preference study, day after tomorrow. No breakfast for me, today.

By now, I was hungry, confused and annoyed. "This is getting ridiculous!", I tried to exclaim to no-one in particular - but then I realized - I could not even speak because I knew next to nothing scientific about the English language.

Sure, I had vague intuitions about how to put words together to express meaning, but that's just unscientific hearsay that I'd picked up as a child (no better than a religion, really!) In order to communicate, I'd need to study some proper science about semantics and grammar... but, oh no, how could I even read that literature?

Faced with the impossibility of doing anything whatsoever purely guided by science, I decided to go back to bed... yet with no scientific basis for controlling my own muscles, I collapsed where I stood, bashing my head on the breakfast table as I fell. 

Luckily, the bump on the noggin cured me of my strange obsession, and I lived to tell the tale.

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Many peoplewill tell you that "scientism", the belief that science is the only way to know anything, is a serious problem, a misunderstanding that threatens all kinds of nasty consequences.

It's not, because it doesn't exist - no-one believes that. If they did, they would end up like the unfortunate narrator in my story.

Everyday, we make use of many sources of information, from personal experience and learning to simply looking at things, whether they be right in front of your eyes or on TV. This is knowledge, and no-one thinks that we ought to replace it with "science", if that were even possible.

"Scientism" is a fundamentally unhelpful concept. Scientists are often wrong, and sometimes they're wrong about things that other non-scientists are right about. But each such case is different and must be judged on its own merits.

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