May 28, 2014 I Tom Head

How Axl Rose’s Voice Demonstrates the Limits of Scientific Knowledge

Earlier this month, I wrote about controversial remarks that astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson recently made about the relevance of philosophy as an academic discipline—he doesn't think it's especially relevant, and many people (myself included) still think it is. But I think Tyson and I would agree on one point: science can't tell us who the greatest vocalist of all time is.

I'm referring to what various media outlets have referred to as a study proving that Axl Rose is "the greatest vocalist of all time." My colleague Martin J. Clemens has been on a roll lately when it comes to calling out questionable science reporting, and this is an obvious case in point because the very fun and utterly harmless little web page from Concert Hotels that ranked the Guns N' Roses lead singer's five-octave range first in a list of of pop vocal ranges didn't actually say that he was the greatest, just that he was among the greatest (basing that designation on his inclusion in Rolling Stone's controversial and unapologetically subjective list of the 100 Greatest Singers of All Time, where he ranked #64). But let's pretend Concert Hotels they did say he was the greatest, because that's what everyone else seems to think they're doing, and ask ourselves a logical question: does superior range, or any other measurable quality, make you the greatest singer of all time? Can a scientific study prove that you're the greatest singer of all time?

If you say no, you're getting close to what Stephen Jay Gould referred to, in his Rocks of Ages (1999), as the idea of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA)—the position that there are some domains that belong to our subjective or communal experience of the world, and can't be productively reduced to quantitative data. Gould was talking about religion and spirituality, but the truth is that most of what we experience in our day-to-day lives can't be handled with any kind of scientific rigor. Peer-reviewed studies can't tell you why you should prefer the taste of tea to the taste of coffee, or why you should adopt a dog instead of a cat, or which musicians you should enjoy the most, or what the color blue means to you, or who you love and why.

As we fumble our way through this blurry world, is there still a place for academic philosophy? Is there still a place for subjective music criticism? And how do we distinguish the irrelevant from the merely—and necessarily—unscientific?

Tom Head

Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.

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