Sorry for the unexpected hiatus, hopefully it won’t be quite so long between posts from now on!
We received a question wondering how flour works to prevent burns accompanied by Suzanne’s experience with the remedy.
Short answer: it doesn’t.
Shenanigans has been officially called on the e-mail Suzanne refers to by snopes.com amongst others. And I would like to add categorically that in the event of burns or scalds, run copious amounts of cool water over the injured area for 10 minutes, and seek medical attention for any deep burn, or burns larger than a postage stamp. Cool water, you will note, is also usually available in the kitchen and, unlike flour, is not a source of fuel (don’t try this at home!).
With that out of the way, this question raises a deeper issue: differentiating evidence from experience. There’s no immediate reason to doubt Suzanne’s story, but it is just a story. Scientific experiment attempts to winnow out facts by using tightly controlled circumstances to analyze very particular hypotheses. If it’s done well, causal relationships may be elucidated. Real life is rarely so cut-and-dried. Too many confounding effects surround natural events to be able to draw a conclusion like “flour prevents burns.”
In this case, Suzanne is guilty of a “Post hoc ergo propter hoc” logical fallacy. She assumes that since event 2 (no burn) follows event 1 (applying flour), it must be caused by event 1. Legions of poor, obscure scientists work diligently to identifyand eliminate these types of assumptions. It’s not necessarily easy to do, considering that if special relativity applies even stating that event 2 followed event 1 is an assumption that must be addressed.
We may seem guilty of this too, given that we like to show an experiment to accompany the explanations. Why is our single experience more valid than anyone else’s? It isn’t! If we were trying to establish a new scientific relationship our down home approach would definitely not be sufficient. What we call “experiments” are truly just demonstrations of sound scientific principles already discovered by much, much more rigorous scientists.
Don’t forget to read critically, especially on the internet, and remember “The plural of anecdote is not fact.”