NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Half-Baked Science

May 22, 2003

Who needs science when you've got basic human intuition? Before setting science aside, though, it's worth asking how good humanity's track record with intuition and "common sense" is.

For example, Europe in the Renaissance faced the very real threat of the Black Death (bubonic plague). As a result, frightened people made stuff up, often based loosely on ancient Greek ideas about illness being caused by imbalances in bodily humors, to explain the chaos surrounding them.

  • Blaming the plague on evil vapors, they kept fires burning all day to ward off the disease, reportedly burning down such huge swaths of forest and choking the air with so much smoke that birds fell from the sky.
  • Women, lepers and Jews were sometimes scapegoated as the causes of the infestations.
  • Occasionally, doctors themselves were blamed for causing the plague and were chased from town.
  • Some families began their day with trips to the town latrine to breathe deeply of the noxious fumes, on the theory that this would keep other, more dangerous fumes out of the lungs.

Similarly, the pseudo-scientific claims of our own day -- whether from anti-chemical scaremongers or alternative medicine promoters -- are rarely presented as completely at odds with mainstream science. Rather, they are presented with just enough of a scientific veneer to make people feel comfortable switching off their skepticism and running on intuition and instinct -- figuring out what "sounds plausible" instead of what is true.


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