Folkways and knowledge

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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50 Responses

  1. bearing says:

    Let me preface this with my relevant credentials. I hold a doctorate in chemical engineering. I am also a mother of four, and that is my full-time work.

    In discussions like this, it is helpful to distinguish between science, i.e., what we can know) and technology or engineering (i.e., what we can do), as well as recognizing the third relevant endeavour — call it religion, morality, or philosophy, take your pick — i.e. what we ought to do.Report

  2. ED – you should try to check out The Foxfire Books.

    I think they highlight that sometimes the old ways were better.Report

  3. greginak says:

    Well I’ll bite as one of those pro-science people. Science can’t, doesn’t nor ever has “done” anything. Science is a method or a tool. People do stuff. Blame hubris or snobbery. Certainly wisdom is different from scientific knowledge.

    Science is a bit more then just trial and error. The scientific method includes the possibility of failure and being wrong. Do folkways really accept that the procedure in question might turn out to be completely worthless? And does it get dropped after proof of it being useless?

    “This has occurred not only in the scientific realm, but in the realm of ‘self-help’ as well as the realm of government, which has increasingly demonized the small town, the rural and so forth in favor of the national. How can we trust local communities, after all, when there was once slavery in this country?”

    Your verging on “darn those coastal elites for looking down on real America” here. At the least I think you are mixing in other issues of the role of government or idealized memory or a few other things. If anything the small town is idolized in this country as some bucolic nirvana as opposed to the brutal big city. Neither is true.

    I’ll give you this though, if science fiction has taught me anything its that a fully charged phaser is a good thing and to be wary of monsters from the Id.Report

  4. Jaybird says:

    Back in my youth, my mom regularly gave money to a handful of missionaries who worked in, I want to say, Uruguay. When they came back to the US for a year or so, we’d have dinner with them and they’d bring back native stuff for us and they’d tell stories about how they brought Christ to the Heathen.

    One of the things that sticks out for me was hearing about the malnutrition out there in the jungle while there were cultural taboos about eating certain bananas found in abundance within walking distance. Pregnant ladies were severely malnourished… and they were taught to not eat wonderful, nutritious food a stone’s throw from the village.

    The missionaries told stories about how difficult it was to overcome cultural taboos that were actively harming people.

    Now that I’m older, I have no idea how to feel about this.Report

    • Madrocketscientist in reply to Jaybird says:

      Any idea why the taboo against bananas was in place? It’s always helpful to learn why we do something before we try to fix it.
      Still, as scientists, we can all look back at our history and say, “Was that a good idea? If not, why not?”.Report

    • Kaleberg in reply to Jaybird says:

      Every society has all sorts of weird ass rules about what pregnant women should or should not eat. Some of it makes some sense as pregnant women probably should avoid certain toxins. Some scientists think that morning sickness is a result of increased sensitivity to various foods as part of a protective mechanism, but it might just be an artifact of being pregnant. Pregnant women often have food cravings. When I grew up, they supposedly just had to have pickles. Needless to say, a lot of the foods craved were put on the taboo list just because. Those bananas seem to fit the pattern.

      What we feed children is just as arbitrary. When I grew up, children weren’t supposed to eat spicy food, but Indian and Pakistani immigrants start their kids on curry as soon as they can handle solids. I suppose this kind of folk knowledge is pretty harmless. If you were raised on fiery green curry, and you turned out just fine, thank you, there is no reason you shouldn’t be feeding it to your little ones.Report

  5. Steven Donegal says:

    I don’t take any issue with your view that progress without wisdom can be a dangerous thing or the notion that people give too much credence to experts at the expense of common sense. I would suggest, however, that this is not a modern phenomenon and has always been thus.

    Where I probably part company is with this statement:

    “Third, because science began with the assumption that the folkways were wrong-headed it has ignored thousands of years of trial and error which could have assisted it in growing more sensibly and more humanely. ”

    I don’t think science started with this assumption at all. Science tests the folkways to see if they are valid and if valid, how they can be improved upon. I don’t think it makes value judgments about the folkways at all. If your point is that belief in the efficacy of science leads people to a more materialistic and less holistic view of humanity, and then we should pay more attention to the intangibles, that I agree with. But that doesn’t tell us to disregard the science. It only tells us to think more about the science is used.Report

    • Madrocketscientist in reply to Steven Donegal says:

      @Steven Donegal,

      That depends on the science in question. Science does not always test the “folkways”, many times it just ignores the “folkways” entirely and goes off on it’s own, or, like E.D. birth example, does what is convenient at the time. This is not necessarily due to arrogance, laziness, or conceit; but rather due to expedience, efficiency, or efficacy.Report

  6. Francis says:

    On a purely abstract level, science would say that folkways provide interesting hypotheses, some of which may deserve further examination.

    Blending cultural anthropology with modern obstetrics sounds, to me, like an interesting grant proposal. Is anyone doing it? Who would fund the research, NCCAM? I have no idea. But you, ED, should before you accuse “science” of failing to adequately respect tradition.

    It’s also worth noting that during the runup to the vote on the healthcare bill there were lots of articles about the inadequacies of evidence-based medicine. Medicine is, still, far too much practiced as a craft rather than a systematic discipline. Do doctors have to take Continuing Medical Education classes to keep their licenses, the way that lawyers do? I have no idea. But it seems to me that requiring every doctor to take 12 hours of classes per year on Medical Best Practices within their specialty would do a lot to push doctors to justify why they treat their patients as they do.Report

  7. Rufus says:

    This discussion reminds me of my father, who is a lobsterman in Maine. All the fishing there is highly regulated by state agencies to try to avoid overfishing. Naturally, this is done on the advice of experts, and naturally, my father resents those experts. His argument is that the men who have been fishing their whole lives are better able to judge the stocks than the scientists, and they don’t think the stocks are declining at all. In fact, they’re hauling more than ever, but the regulations require them to throw most of what they catch back. To be honest, it’s hard for me to come down on the issue. He’s got a good point. Unless he’s wrong.Report

    • Steven Donegal in reply to Rufus says:

      @Rufus, I’m pretty sure the cod fishermen thought the same thing.Report

    • North in reply to Rufus says:

      Rufus, my home wasteland of Nova Scotia was the same way about Cod, Haddock and Herring back in the 70’s and 80’s. Who did those pointy headed pencil pushers think they were saying that sweeping the seas clean with bottom destroying dragnets was bad. Look at the jobs. Look at the fishermen. The men in the boats know what the sea can handle, not some librul scientists.
      …40 years later the entire ecosystem has changed. The cod are no more. The herring are scarce and the haddock are luxuries. The great trawlers and empty fishing banks stand as mute monuments to the fleets and industry that once swatted aside the scientist naysayers.
      Meanwhile the lobster fishermen, and the shellfish harvesters, firmly restrained over the years by those pointy headed liberals, continue to pull catch after catch out of the ocean and grumble that they’re not allowed to take more and follow their deepwater fishing collegues into oblivion.Report

      • Rufus in reply to North says:

        @North, Yeah, I know about the cod. This is why I used the example and the ironic coda. My point is that it’s not impossible to understand why someone who has worked his whole life doing something for a living might be resentful when a government agency tells him that he has to greatly curtail that activity because an outside expert somewhere else says so. I mean, the fishermen will follow the regulations, and it will likely help them. But, of course, they’re going to grumble about it.

        And maybe it’s an unfair example anyway. Sometimes innovations are adopted and mandated simply because they’re novel. This happens in education every few years. No child left behind, for instance, was a bold and innovative government plan to make teachers more efficient and effective. Educational experts come up with these ideas constantly and politicians often adopt them. The last one I heard about was a proposal to conduct classrooms with everyone on computers- then the students could email questions, instead of raising their hands. According to the advocates, it would increase student learning greatly. Step with me now, into the future!

        My point is that, when outsiders come in to tell other people how to do their jobs better, it’s going to be a tough sell. Not that they’re wrong, necessarily, but that people will grumble.Report

        • Bob Cheeks in reply to Rufus says:

          @Rufus, I love you Canadians…can I say Canucks or should I wait until the Pittsburgh Penguins kick your butts?Report

          • Rufus in reply to Bob Cheeks says:

            @Bob Cheeks, See, I’m only a permanent resident now, which I think makes me 3/5ths of a Canadian. And since I was born and raised in the US, I’ll always be 3/5ths American. During the Olympics, I would both root for and boo the Canadian and American teams alike. It’s a schizophrenic existence, admittedly.Report

            • North in reply to Rufus says:

              @Rufus, holly hannah! I’m 50/50 Canada/American by breeding so I totally know what you mean about the schizophrenia. Mutt power! *high five*Report

              • Rufus in reply to North says:

                @North, Yeah, it was funny. I was at a party in Toronto the other night and was suddenly floored by the realization that everyone there was Canadian and had been their whole lives. I should say this was not a 4/20 party…Report

        • North in reply to Rufus says:

          @Rufus, Fair enough Rufus, I didn’t mean to sound like I was jumping down your throat. The issue of the Atlantic fisheries is a highly personal one for me. My grandfather was a fisherman but his family and all of the other families chose to send their children to college instead so now the ancestral island (East Ironbound in Saint Margaret’s Bay) is deserted and my Father and uncles are teachers and geologists and the like. Come to think of it that might make an interesting guest post about communities.Report

          • Rufus in reply to North says:

            @North, Well, it was sort of an unfair example- I was trying to get at the tensions when experts are trying to change a way of life with state regulations, but probably are right. The irony with Maine is that surrounding states don’t have the same level of regulations, and the schools don’t actually hang out in the same spot all year, so Maine’s tough rules might not accomplish much.

            Maybe a better example would have been something to do with education. When I was a child back in the 70s there were these fads that would last about a year. I remember one aimed at not criticizing us for reading “wrong” because who can say what’s wrong, and what about our self-esteem? The result was they had to come in the next year and work twice as hard because half the students had no idea how to read.

            So, my point is just that the grumbling isn’t always reactionaries who had liberals and eggheads, although sure, it can be that too.Report

  8. Rufus says:

    And you know E.D., it might not get at “science” as much as “civilization”, but we could talk a bit about the Canadian Residential Indian Schools…Report

  9. Jason Kuznicki says:

    You know, I try really, really hard to imagine some other time in history when I would prefer to have lived. I can’t think of a one, even if I assume that I’d live there as an upper-class male.

    Classical Greece, the Italian Renaissance, Paris during the French Revolution, and Victorian London would all be fascinating places to visit, and I’d probably enjoy about a year in each, if I lived that long. But I sure wouldn’t want to live there permanently.

    If I were lower class and/or female, the answer would be even easier. There has never been a better place to live as a woman, or as a member of a lower class, than in an industrialized country in the last century.

    Romanticizing folkways is just dandy as a postmodern aesthetic choice. As an approach to the overall organization of society, or as a way of approaching welfare economics… I just cringe.Report

    • North in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      @Jason Kuznicki, Jason, I’m right there with ya. Those goshdarned materialists moved in on the culture making our lives longer and less filled with plagues, famines and pestilences and giving us the free time to worry about spirituality, self fulfillment and our fellow man. Hell in a hand basket I’m telling you, I’d shake my cane if I had one.Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      @Jason Kuznicki, the 90’s.


    • ThatPirateGuy in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      @Jason Kuznicki,

      Exactly, I’d love it if ED Kain would become familiar with the organized skeptics movement. Because as a member of that movement It feels like hearing fingernails on chalkboard to hear criticisms of science that lead to slagging the idea of science not the lack of its use.

      All of the examples mentioned weren’t problems with science they were problems with people NOT using it or using it poorly and unwisely. Skeptics shouldn’t disparage ancient cultures as they have some genuinely amazing accomplishments, especially in the area of monument building.

      The basic principle of science isn’t that ancient folkways deserve questioning, it is that EVERYTHING , especially new science-based ideas, needs to be put to the test. So instead of criticizing the idea of science you should be criticizing the failure to do science well.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to ThatPirateGuy says:

        @ThatPirateGuy, your point is well taken. Science is, absolutely, the best way to figure this stuff out.

        Ignaz Semmelweis tried to get doctors to change their lab coats between visits from the autopsy ward and the maternity ward. Doctors were infuriated.

        I’m pretty sure that, in 100 years, we will look back at doctors being infuriated at certain things in the same light as we look back at those doctors.

        Science qua science is not the problem. Of course it’s not. I don’t see E.D.’s skepticism displayed here as skepticism of science *AT ALL*. It’s skepticism of scienticians.Report

        • North in reply to Jaybird says:

          @Jaybird, Absolutely, and there is a really pertinent point there too. The guerny example for instance. When that french doctor strapped his pregnant patient down on it he wasn’t doing science. He was doing junk science. It was convenience, not science involved. True science would accept and observe the superior nuggets of wisdom in folklore and relentlessly incorporate them into the system of modern medicine.Report

        • E.D. Kain in reply to Jaybird says:

          @Jaybird, You’re right, Jaybird. I never once expressed any skepticism of science only the attitudes and approaches taken by many people who consider themselves scientists (and other experts).Report

  10. Simon K says:

    Thanks Erik, this is very interesting. One of my favourite books is “Seeing Like a State” by James C Scott, which touches on similar ideas. His theme is that in order for bureaucracies to manage things they have to simplified so the bureaucracy can assimilate the information, but the process of simplification often destroys many good features of the thing itself, which then have to be painstakingly reassembled. He has many many examples from scientific forestry to city planning and medieval French weights and measures.

    Something similar happens in science of course, in that when we study something we have to simplify it so that we know precisely what the forces affecting it really are. I don’t think its so much scientific conclusions themselves that have tended to destroy traditional ways of doing things as this need to get the system under study under control before the process of doing science can even begin. Traditional ways of doing things tend to mix up what look to science like unrelated elements. For example traditional ways of handling childbirth naturally mix together what we’d regard as medical issues, religious rituals around the appearance of new life, civic processes around the introduction of a new individual to the community, and emotional support for the woman giving birth. For scientific medicine to get involved in the process the medical element has to be seperated out from the others, which is probably a lot of what that French doctor was doing tying women to gurneys.

    But of course this pre-requisite for “doing science” has deeply inhumane and questionably ethical consequences when the object of study consists of a person or people or affects them in some way. At some point in the 19th century we seem to have gotten this idea that you can apply science to people, and it wasn’t really until some time in the late 20th century that the inhumane consequences of doing this, especially when the process of “getting the system under study under control” was backed by the state became clear. We seem to be in the process now of trying to figure out a way of getting the huge benefits of scientific medicine and even of some social sciences without those inhumane consequences. Anthrolopologists are obsessed with this subject, so they’re probably the people to look to for answers if there are any to be had.Report

  11. Pat Cahalan says:

    @ E.D.

    > I was hoping some strong advocates of science
    > would recognize where science has erred, and
    > where the wisdom of the past could have helped
    > avoid those mistakes.

    I think I (at least) was pretty up front about errors in this history of science. There are plenty of them.

    > Instead that post was generally met with hostility.

    Well, dear sir, if you don’t want people to be hostile, it’s best not to start off framing a discussion in a way that many people will likely find downright offensive… “Folk wisdom and the tyranny of the experts”

    People love being called tyrants, why would they ever respond with hostility to a post with such a welcoming lead in? Whether you intended to equate “people who practice science today and now” with “people who have historically practiced what is now generally regarded as bad science today and now” and again with “people who claim expertise”, you sure did a bang up job of starting the conversation off on such a foot…Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

      @Pat Cahalan, any tendency of science types to react in the same way Young Earth Creationist types react tends to re-enforce the idea that science is nothing more than a “side” in a culture war.

      If E.D. is unclear on the concept, that’s an indicator that you need to put your white coat on, go up to the chalkboard, and explain it again.

      Anybody can act like a YEC. It takes a scientist to act like a scientist.Report

      • Pat Cahalan in reply to Jaybird says:


        > any tendency of science types to react in the
        > same way Young Earth Creationist types
        > react tends to re-enforce the idea that science
        > is nothing more than a “side” in a culture war.

        Yeah, that’s true. Unfortunately or no, though, scientists still aren’t Vulcans, call them tyrants even by implication and they’re likely to get irritated 😉

        It’s probably unfair to tar E.D. with the brush of the anti-expert/anti-science narrative just out of hand, but there is definitely a growing storyline out there that uses precisely the terms he chooses in his previous post (note: anti-science is bipartisan but the more general anti-expert line is largely populated by conservatives) .

        Oh, and this one post as well, I’ll note, with lines like this one: “however science and the proponents of expertise (expertism?) have engaged in a centuries-long process of diminishing and/or demonizing folkways in order to create the popular belief that folkways were backwards and dangerous”

        Really, E.D.? Early science practitioners chose their hypothesis *just* to discredit and demonize folkways? All those claims to altruism are just a handy mask to enable nefarious experts to dismantle the folk wisdom, with no care for actual truth?

        You have any sort of reasonable evidence to imply causality here? Hanlon’s Razor moments existed in the history of science, that’s hardly sufficient cause to make such a bold claim.

        Maybe, just instead, up and coming new people in a field choose to challenge the previously held wisdom of their peers, and thus the first candidates for challenge are the folk wisdom beliefs that existed at the time?

        Can we not agree that this line is an utterly preposterous and *wildly* out-of-bounds claim without perhaps several dissertations’ worth of references, not to mention a thorough analysis of several alternative hypotheses… and may perhaps indicate that E.D. isn’t precisely being rigorous in his analysis and has a bone of some sort to pick, here?

        There’s an entire Institute of the NIH dedicated to folk/traditional/alternative medicine (National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine)… which to date has pretty much confirmed that a large swath of natural remedies do not operate according to folk wisdom claims. Translation: most folk remedies aren’t better than a placebo, and many of the ones that are (like, Tai Chi for osteoarthritis) can be explained using the, “Duh, targeted exercise of any sort is good for you.”

        ( is a handy graphic, or go straight the NCCAM here:

        @ ED:

        > And that’s precisely the problem with science.
        > It is a tool and a process, and if we ask the
        > right questions then science will lead us to
        > the right answers – but we don’t always
        > ask the right questions.

        That’s not a problem unique to science, though. That’s the problem with knowledge construction of any sort.

        This is opposed to the alternative, which is not asking the questions at all.

        Truth table exercise:
        * We can get to the right place by asking the right questions.
        * We can also get to the right place by asking the wrong questions, and finding out along the way that the questions were the wrong ones.
        * We can get to the right place by random chance.
        * We can get to the *wrong* place by asking the *right* questions and misunderstanding the data.
        * We can get to the wrong place by asking the wrong questions *and* failing to analyze the data properly.
        * Or we can get to the right place by *not* asking any questions… if we’re already in the right place.

        Science isn’t an axiomatic system, E.D. We don’t know what the basic rules are. We’re trying to *derive* them to an verifiable degree using observations. If you keep making observations and comparing them to the current understanding of the best model for the basic rules, you *will* find mistakes if you’ve been making them.Report

        • E.D. Kain in reply to Pat Cahalan says:

          @Pat Cahalan, Once again, this is not an assault on science properly understood, but in how western medicine and other areas of social science have gone astray, and one reason why and how this is. No, I don’t think most scientists went out of their way to purposefully demonize folkways, but I do think it was part of the story, especially when they came into contact with other cultures during the colonial days or in the New World. Rufus mentioned Indian Schools in Canada – they were here too. This is not something confined to science. It is the hubris of progress, in whatever form it takes, when that progress divorces itself from the past.Report

          • Pat Cahalan in reply to E.D. Kain says:

            @E.D. Kain,

            > Once again, this is not an assault on science
            > properly understood, but in how western
            > medicine and other areas of social science
            > have gone astray, and one reason why and
            > how this is.

            If that’s your message, it’s really clouded, is again what *I’m* saying. Who is your audience for this piece? Are you writing for people who are already leaning towards “science is just another religion”? They will look at your piece as confirmation. Are you writing for scientists? They’re going to look at this piece as the same overgeneralized, broad attacks against science that the “science is just another religion” people write. Are you writing in the sense that an academic writes, aiming less for an audience and more to illustrate an existing problem? Then you should be much more precise in your language. You need to acknowledge the fact that while what you’re talking about was certainly a historical problem, in many ways this is being addressed by the various research communities. You need to talk about what they’re doing, why it does or doesn’t suffice to cover the problem you’re illustrating.

            Progress doesn’t divorce itself from the past, E.D. It divorces itself from the *present* (and yes, I agree this can cause problems). Death divorces us from the past.

            > I do think it was part of the story, especially
            > when they came into contact with other
            > cultures during the colonial days or in the
            > New World.

            It absolutely was part of the story during the colonial period. Men of God used “we’re making their lives better” as an assumption for their work. Of course, in the colonial period, “we’re making their lives better” wasn’t limited to the pagans, E.D. *That was the operational goal of the Church*. That was the way that missionaries had acted since Paul put on sandals and went out to convert the Gentile.

            If anything, what you’re showing with that particular example isn’t “the hubris of progress” at all. You’re showing how one organization (the Church), steeped in its own traditions, acted when it applied those traditions to a previously unknown people. Sure, the missionaries are thinking that they’re bringing progress to the heathen, but what they’re actually doing is bringing their context to the heathen, and claiming that it’s progress. That’s not “progress vs. the way things are or were”… that’s “MY way of the ‘way things are’ vs. YOURS”… which is a battle that isn’t limited to progressives or any particular ideology.

            One can easily make the case that this is the hubris of the conservative movement as well, using exactly the same examples you’re using.

            “Look, an unchanging organization (the RC Church) reached a new scenario… and they responded to it by *not changing at all*, and trying to operate their missions exactly as if they were operating their church back in Naples or Barcelona, except with people who weren’t like the peasants they were used to dealing with. Of course they considered them stupid and backward, they were blindly assuming that peasants were the same the world over, and these natives weren’t reacting the same way the peasants back in Spain and Italy were reacting! If only the Church had been able to change in response to this new context…”

            The Roman Catholic Church is the single most conservative organization in the history of the world, when it comes to the structure of the organization itself. It changes several orders of magnitude slower than any other organization I can think of off the top of my head, and has outlasted scores and scores and scores of other organizations. To bring up anything the Church has ever done and state that it is a good example of the hubris of progressiveness is a very, very odd way of looking at progress.Report

  12. Pat says:

    I didn’t get a chance to post on the original post, but I do feel that you should know the numbers on home vs hospital birth.Report

  13. Kaleberg says:

    I’ve always found materialism to be very liberating and comforting. All that other stuff seems to just be a big burden one has to carry around like a penalty weight. I always say that religion is about talking to god, but science is about listening to god. It is our way of connecting. Materialism can be very spiritual when you think about it.Report

  14. Nob Akimoto says:

    I have to admit, I’m a bit baffled at the tone and content of both the first post and this one.

    First, what exactly is your thesis? From your comments and your closing (with its reference to sci-fi futurist dystopias that are exceedingly couched in “reason”) it appears to be that “progress sans wisdom is bad”. Yet the structure of your posts seem focused entirely upon a notion that “science” (the definition of which is disturbingly simplistic) is somehow complicit with “experts” to destroy the fabric of folkways that are somehow considered the accumulation of thousands of years of “wisdom”. What exactly is the point here? Is it that we need some sort of cultural thread to unite progress with our past? That science is just another ideology? What? It’s extremely unclear and honestly this just comes off as a rant against the pointy-headed experts.

    Second, why are you so intent on constructing a weak strawman of “science” being some sort of wrong-headed monster constructed on nothing but empiricism and a disregard for “folksy tradition”? What exactly is folkways anyway?

    Of what culture? From what period? Where, when and how?Report