Cooking as science

In an e-mail I sent recently, I said that “cooking is prototypical science.” Then while trying an experiment involving caramelizing some onions (my hypothesis didn’t work out that well), I thought to myself: “That’s not quite right. Cooking isn’t prototypical science. Rather, cooking is science.”

Cooking is a branch of science. Why? Because it is a form of investigation of the natural world. Consider a standard definition of science: “systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation.”

Does cooking pass this test? Cooking involves observation (“my mushrooms are sticking to the pan”). It also involves large amounts of experimentation (“does a little bit of butter cause them to not stick to the pan?”). It is of the physical world (I can verify by sticking my hand on the pan). It can be, and is, systematized (personal cooking books, published cooking books, cooking schools, and so on).

Just because cooking involves “higher-level” entities (foods) doesn’t mean it isn’t science. Is chemistry not a science because it deals with higher-level processes than certain branches of physics?

It might be objected that cooking’s object isn’t knowledge of the universe, but rather that this knowledge is a mere by-product. Does one say that medical research isn’t science, because it’s object is to help people, and not first and foremost to gain knowledge of the universe?

Cooking is a particularly good science, because a) it can be done on a personal scale (no big bureaucracies required), b) experiments can be repeated and modified relatively easily (lots of trial and error rapidly and with little cost), and c) there is an immediate practical benefit to it (see Seth Roberts’ paper on science linked to here for a discussion of these sorts of factors).

I can be a little more precise. There is the experimentation, bold hypotheses, crushing failures, soaring victories, and increase in knowledge that is one part of cooking. Then there is the use of this knowledge to make meals, which is more technology than science.

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  1. Pingback: Charlton, a New Pragmatism, and the Philosophy of Investigation | Anthony Burgoyne

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