Folkways and knowledge
I was a little disappointed to see that the conversation on my ‘folkways’ post went the direction it did. 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. Instead that post was generally met with hostility. I must be yearning for the ‘good ol’ days’ – the mythic harmonious past. I must be attacking science or modernity or whatever. That’s not my point at all, actually.
Essentially, my point in my folkways post was three-fold:
First, folkways and science are not incompatible, 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. The popular acceptance of this belief is on display in the comments of the original post. 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? (Or so the thinking goes, to one degree or another. Don’t you know those small town hicks are all racist! How can we leave them to their own devices?)
Second, much of modern medicine (as well as other things like modern urban planning, etc.) rely on similar processes as traditional folk wisdom did – trial and error, essentially – but at vastly increased speed. Progress has become, therefore, somewhat more reckless than before. This has had mixed effects. We have created wonderful vaccines and terrifying weapons, magnificent technologies that allow us to blog and update our statuses endlessly, and instruments of quick execution like the guillotine and its offspring. Such is the modern world and I accept it for better or worse, and offer up these observations on folkways as a way of suggesting means to improve upon modern times, not relinquish them to the past. Progress without wisdom strikes me as a dangerous project, and one we’re endlessly engaged in.
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. The example of birthing is one such area where this is true, and there are others. This in no way diminishes the advances of modern medicine – it simply points out that modern medicine (and science) in its effort to find the ‘best’ solutions to whatever problem may not always identify the problem itself quite correctly.
Is the problem that the woman is not having a safe birth? Or is it that her position is inconvenient for the doctor and so she must be moved to make the doctor’s work easier and more convenient? Doctors for centuries assumed that if it were better for the doctor than surely it must be better for the patient. This is a fairly ludicrous assumption upon which to build a body of medical work and knowledge. 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.
The usefulness of folkways in relation to science (or community planning, or food, or government) is to help us understand which are the correct questions to ask in the first place. The science of birth has taken on a decidedly anti-human nature until very recently. Sure, c-sections save lives, but they also get the job done quickly and many doctors want to get the job done quickly. After all, insurance will pay up either way, might as well do a c-section and get home in time for a good night’s sleep rather than spend hours on one of those silly ‘natural births’. The myth that home births are ‘very dangerous’ is slowly being revealed as utter nonsense.
There is more than one kind of knowledge, and science and reason are both valuable in their own right, but they are less valuable on their own. If science fiction has taught me anything it is that without wisdom, all the science and technology in the world will lead only to destruction in one form or another. Often wisdom is better understood in which question is asked rather than which answer is given, or in what one does with the answers one is given. Science is not an end unto itself, after all.
In the comments people kept referring to the very poor chances people had – especially children – in the middle ages. People died all the time giving birth. Kids stood a lousy chance at survival. This is all very true, but it doesn’t really change the point I’m making. Death was part of the process. It was one way people came to understand what it meant to be human. Once upon a time, people buried their own dead.
P.S. Ironically, this is one area where I have found a great deal of common discourse in real life. Me and the hippies and granolas and the crunchies, we can all see eye to eye here.