Folk wisdom and the tyranny of the experts

[updated below]

VirginMaryBirth1 I’ve been thinking about birth a great deal lately. This is likely because birth in my family is just around the corner. Our second is due in July. In any case, all this birth-thinking and meeting with doctors and birthing experts and midwives and such has me pondering how we as a culture treat the act of giving birth.

I was reading an article yesterday from 1970 wherein the author discusses ‘new findings’ which show that the ‘traditional method’ of strapping a woman on to a bed on her back while giving birth is not in fact the best way to go about the birthing process. Indeed, it may even be harmful to the mother and baby as it cuts off circulation and raises blood pressure, and since it works against gravity, etc. More to the point, it may not even be traditional in any sense at all. ‘Primitive’ cultures birth squatting or on birth stools, the article notes, and in fact prior to the intervention of a clever French doctor in the 17th century, so did ‘civilized’ women. It turns out the doctor found it much more convenient to have the woman on her back, strapped down like some madwoman.

None of this was really new to me, but it was interesting to read it presented as big news, as some shocking medical revelation.

birth_of_venus

Modern medicine works like folk ways or folk wisdom used to work. Advances in medicine and medical technology and practice are built on the backs of failure and success, trial and error, and so forth. The irony, I suppose, is that so much of modern medicine is built in denial of folk wisdom and folk medicine. Certainly a great deal of our medicine is made from ingredients which were discovered looking at various potions and witch’s brews, but since the very beginning of modern Western medicine, the denial of the past has been very strong, and yet the process by which the experts in the medical field find continuous improvement is very similar, if far more formal, to the process of handing down remedies and recipes from one generation to the next.

Tradition is a funny thing. It’s often spoken about in the abstract. A great deal of the time it is invoked as something very conservative, immutable, unchanging – and of course, this is not at all true. A recipe handed down from grandmother to mother to daughter to granddaughter will inevitably change. It’s like that game telephone that you played in school, where all the children would sit in a circle and whisper the original message to one another and by the end the original had transformed into something else entirely. The grandmother’s recipe will have changed several generations down the line. The traditions of one generation may look in every outward way quite the same as the previous generation’s, but they have undergone some genetic shift, however imperceptible. Tradition evolves. Folk ways change.

2the-sargass-sea-bishop-by-jacek-yerka Then, somewhere along the line, people decided that to progress things had to change much faster. If it could not be seen, it must not be happening. All these silly traditions had to be tossed out entirely. This began with doctors strapping women to gurneys while they gave birth, and continued in one form or another for centuries, its pace ever quickening. The most profound effect of all this wasn’t the loss of this folk tradition or that, but the shift – the sea change really – in how humankind viewed progress, change, and tradition – indeed, how we viewed wisdom and the transference of wisdom.

The expert class rose up out of the wilderness and commenced in tossing the baby out with the bathwater. Psychologists, nutritionists, and various other professionals (once all considered ‘quacks’) began putting the folk traditions through the shredder. Little bits and pieces of these traditions were co-opted, cherry-picked for the self-help books or the new and expensive prescription drug. Drugs like marijuana which were too effective and too easily democratized (or popularized) were demonized. The folk culture was demonized as well, cast as backwards and bigoted and dangerous. The people of the past became the new savages – a convenient ‘other’ if ever there was one.

modern_medicine And pretty soon – long before I was born at least – much of the folk culture had been driven into hiding or expelled from the public consciousness. Now strapping a woman to a table to give birth had become the ‘traditional method’ and the only remnant of the way we used to do things was found in ‘primitive cultures’.

Suddenly whole generations of people were cut off from any real tie with the traditional world. Their mothers and fathers and grandparents had only vague, suspicious memories of the past. They could not pass it along to us. We were cut off, too, and handed over to the tyranny of the experts – the bureaucrats and physicians and self-help gurus. And not just to them, since many of us still distrusted them, but to a culture subservient to their way of thinking.

At some point we veered off course, and instead of building upon the back of tradition and traditional ways, we created a new starting point, a new vantage point, a new and selfish belief in our own ability to reinvent ourselves and the world at every turn. Our wealth and our technology comforted us in this belief, and comforts us still. Who needs the old ways when the new ways are so good? There is always a handy anecdote at hand to point out how bad the past was because much of it was very bad. Someday there will be people pointing out how backward and stupid our own time was.

The problem isn’t that the past was good and the present bad. On the contrary, I’d say much of the present is far better than much of the past. But that still doesn’t make birthing on your back any better. It doesn’t mean that mysterious and supposedly ‘nutritional’ power bars are any better for you, or that our world of diets and fast food has in any sense of the word actually improved upon the common sense eating of the past.

Tradition and progress have always occurred hand in hand. Some eras have seen the honest efforts of much needed change quashed in the tyranny of the traditional or the status quo; and some eras have seen the wisdom of the status quo trampled on by the tyranny of experts and progress. But most of the time the two work in tandem, as a civilizational tango, in an ebb and flow of trial and error and innovation.

Innovation is key to progress, but I think it is also key to tradition. That is what so many traditionalists and critics of tradition forget. Folk ways are nothing more than a long series of small innovations. So is medical advancement.

A207_016i I suppose the trick now is to restore some of what has been lost. I think this is a worthy conservative project. 30% of American women have c-sections instead of vaginal births – a number far higher than in Europe or elsewhere around the globe. Most women opt for an epidural to numb the pain (and can you blame them – especially since so many still are instructed to lie on their back to give birth?). Virtually all women go to the hospital rather than have home births – partly because this is now the ‘traditional’ way but also because most insurance companies don’t cover midwife services or home deliveries. Somehow it is far cheaper for most Americans to go to an expensive hospital with expensive doctors than to have their babies at home. Many of the wonderful technologies we have developed really do save lives, but that doesn’t mean they are always necessary or beneficial in most cases.

And of course birth is hardly the only area where scientism has displaced (or perhaps forcibly overthrown) conventional wisdom. The coup d’etat of folk or conventional wisdom has seeped into innumerable aspects of our life. Indeed, I am suddenly reminded of John Schwenkler’s excellent essay on food tradition, wherein he writes:

The modern diet is only one of a range of cases where the wisdom of convention has been forcibly displaced by our fascination with the new and allegedly scientific: think, for example, of the excitement over the return to classical principles of urban design that is non-ironically referred to as the “New Urbanism,” or of the growing recognition that the interfering presence of hospital technology can be a hindrance rather than a help in a safe and happy childbirth. The ways we raise our children, too, are subject to similar pressures: our culture has begun to turn the corner on the values of breastfeeding in contrast to the allegedly superior qualities of laboratory-developed infant “formulas,” but as Ann Hulbert shows in Raising America (2003) we remain thoroughly in thrall to the dictates of parenting “experts” who are ever-prepared to supplant parental intuition and familial custom with costly tools and half-baked techniques drawn from the latest fads. Hence parenting, like cooking and shopping and eating, seems to us less a natural and age-old human activity than a peculiarly modern challenge in which instinct and custom can provide no real help at all. And so does science assign itself, as if in the place of God, the task of making into foolishness the wisdom of the world.

The problem is that ‘familial custom’ has been all but erased. Our families are as dependent on the experts as we are. We no longer trust our ‘parental intuition’ and we’re constantly reminded that we shouldn’t – and again, there are enough good examples of disastrous parenting to make the parenting experts claims seem true. This ignores the fact that many of the current problems with child-rearing stem from a general loss of community, extended family, and so forth just as many of our modern ills are given modern remedies which tend to treat symptoms rather than root causes. Nor can we really remember why walkable ‘new urbanist’ communities make so much sense. Those few places where such communities have been built are still not really the organic, sensible communities that used to be the status quo, but rather expensive and very well groomed communities for the modern upper crust. The organic, the natural, the common sense and practical, all have fallen under the scalpel of modern expertise.

It will be a much longer project to restore them. We will have no self-help books to guide us.

Update.

Steven Donegal writes in the comments:

I’d would love to know where and when this status quo existed.  I’m about 60 years old and grew up in a small town in the Midwest.  My parents and their friends didn’t walk anywhere they could drive.  I really find this fascination with the glories of the past very peculiar.   It is a romanticized version of pleasant memories without recognition that the unpleasant and unhealthy parts were an integral part of the social and cultural package.  It’s fine to rail against the de-personalization of much of medicine, but when if you’re giving birth at home with a midwife and your wife starts to hemorrhage, the benefits of giving birth in a hospital start to become more apparent.

I think this both misses my point and helps enforce it.  First of all, I am not romanticizing the past. I am pointing out that the attitude toward the past can be destructive to those bits and pieces of wisdom that come with folk traditions. I am not advocating some glorious ‘good ol’ days’ that never were, and I have made pains to point that out. In case I did not make it clear enough in the original post: I think the past is a mixed bag, full of hardship but also the wisdom that comes from hardship. (To North’s point, yes often scarcity demanded people eat whatever they had, but again from scarcity can come a certain time-tested wisdom in how we eat. Certainly the nutritionist culture of diets and artificial foods is one we should look at with skepticism.)

Second, Steven mentions he is 60 and the past I describe was nowhere to be found in either his life or that of his parents. This is exactly what I mean by being cut off from history. We have several generations which have been effectively cut off from folk ways either in medicine, food, or community structure. This makes it hard to revitalize those paths.

And lastly, of course the benefits of hospital birth exist. I never claimed otherwise. My first child was born and couldn’t breath and was placed immediately under an oxygen hood, and its quite likely without hospital care she would not have lived. I am well aware of the benefits of hospital birth – but less certain about the benefits of strapping a woman on her back to actually push the baby out. Mixed bags you see.

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39 thoughts on “Folk wisdom and the tyranny of the experts

  1. “It doesn’t mean that mysterious and supposedly ‘nutritional’ power bars are any better for you, or that our world of diets and fast food has in any sense of the word actually improved upon the common sense eating of the past.”

    I’m going to quibble with this part. People didn’t have common sense eating in the past. They ate whatever they could (and tried to eat some things they couldn’t) because that’s what they had.

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  2. “Those few places where such communities have been built are still not really the organic, sensible communities that used to be the status quo,”

    I’d would love to know where and when this status quo existed. I’m about 60 years old and grew up in a small town in the Midwest. My parents and their friends didn’t walk anywhere they could drive. I really find this fascination with the glories of the past very peculiar. It is a romanticized version of pleasant memories without recognition that the unpleasant and unhealthy parts were an integral part of the social and cultural package. It’s fine to rail against the de-personalization of much of medicine, but when if you’re giving birth at home with a midwife and your wife starts to hemorrhage, the benefits of giving birth in a hospital start to become more apparent.

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  3. Congrats Erik!

    I don’t have time to read the whole thing right now (I’ll do that when I’m not at work), but I just wanted to send my best wishes to you and yours as you welcome another “yours”.

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  4. I thoroughly agree with the premise of this essay, since the end result of “scientism” has been disempowerment of the people and dismantling of the folk wisdom that sustained humankind in the past. I do not think that all folk wisdom is better than all science, or that we should be trying to live like indigenous peoples a hundred years ago, but there is much to be learned from them.
    The scientific revolution of the seventeen hundreds, the witch hunts of the Inquisition, the current dogmas of “Standard of Care” in medicine have all served to empower the fraternities of (mostly male) medical doctors and the drug companies they serve. No alternatives are permitted without a fight, no food or herb can be admitted as beneficial. As stated in the article, even breast milk, the perfect food for human babies, has been vilified and discredited. How dumb is that! Just as dumb as thinking a pill can substitute for proper diet, or the body can function normally without exercise.
    I just published a book called Good Medicine: A Return to Common Sense, that tries to marry the best of conventional medicine with traditional methods. Neither is all good or all bad. Keep the baby and use the bathwater to water your garden.

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  5. Two things: I suspect that folkways are just as likely to be tyrannical as science. Second:

    “… many of the current problems with child-rearing stem from a general loss of community, extended family, and so forth just…”

    Fair enough. But I am interested: Which problems are you talking about? I have four kids, and I am as nervous as the next guy. But most of the problems I have right now involve things like the kids won’t sleep when I want them to, won’t listen to me ever, won’t east what I want them to, won’t stop whining, etc.

    Sure, I guess the existence of Spongebob (etc.) and the realities of school busing (etc.) are concerns. But as “problems of child-rearing,” these elements of modernity seem like small beans compared to, say, ear infections.

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    • @Sam M, True enough, Sam. But then again, the rise of the parenting self-help book didn’t happen for no reason at all. My point is not that our material or social concerns are somehow greater today than they used to be, but rather that our approach to solving problems has drastically shifted and is continuing to shift away from conventional or handed down wisdom to one beset by easy fixes and pulp non-fiction.

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  6. Well, yes and no. There is certainly a culture of arrogance among doctors; they survived med school and you didn’t. But the campaign against breast milk is largely attributable to Nestle. And the alt medicine groups haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory. Just how many herbs have proven safe and efficacious in clinical trials? Not to mention the war on vaccines.

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    • @Francis, It’s not really about alt-medicine vs modern medicine. A good deal of alt-medicine is just more snake oil after all. The experts have infested that field to be sure. Lots of so-called alt-medicine gurus out there peddling an alternative to western medicine. But a lot of that is phony and we’re suckered in. It’s like druidism. Pretty much all that was once druidism is lost almost entirely but we have pop-druidism which rose up in its stead. It’s not the same thing – more of a fantasy or wishful thinking really.

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  7. If only there were some process or method by which we could determine which medicines and techniques worked. A process by which we could challenge old traditions and build new ones on the basis of evidence and reason.

    Has anyone heard of such a thing? Perhaps we could even train people in this method?

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    • @ThatPirateGuy, Hmm. I wonder if anything along those lines was in my post?

      Modern medicine works like folk ways or folk wisdom used to work. Advances in medicine and medical technology and practice are built on the backs of failure and success, trial and error, and so forth. The irony, I suppose, is that so much of modern medicine is built in denial of folk wisdom and folk medicine. Certainly a great deal of our medicine is made from ingredients which were discovered looking at various potions and witch’s brews, but since the very beginning of modern Western medicine, the denial of the past has been very strong, and yet the process by which the experts in the medical field find continuous improvement is very similar, if far more formal, to the process of handing down remedies and recipes from one generation to the next.

      You see, what I’m doing here is accepting that this is how the scientific process functions, but questioning not so much the process, but the starting point and starting assumptions.

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      • @E.D. Kain,

        > You see, what I’m doing here is accepting that
        > this is how the scientific process functions,
        > but questioning not so much the process, but
        > the starting point and starting assumptions.

        And that’s a fair cop when looking at anybody who professed to do science prior to the 1930s (particularly in any field other than physics and chemistry), and still a reasonable charge to level at many scientists up until today, although it’s becoming continually less frequent.

        At the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, lots of initial conditions were chosen poorly, and you’re looking at about 500 years between Copernicus and Bohr. That’s a lot of time for people to do poor science, particularly given that you can measure planetary mechanics pretty easily once you get a decent telescope, but measuring social structures is only just now becoming a really descriptive science, let alone a predictive one.

        The first Gallup poll worked great, until it didn’t. Nowadays no single poll is a good predictor of election returns, but people who are good at analyzing this sort of thing are orders of magnitude better than their 1970s brethren.

        I could go on. I get your point, E.D., and I’m not disputing that what you describe doesn’t still happen, but as time goes on this becomes less systemic, not more. Not as quickly as we’d like, generally, because organizations are filled up with people, but they *do* get better.

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  8. Tradition evolves.

    But how is the crucial point. The scientific method systematizes the process of evolution you describe and sets particular boundaries for ways of knowing the world. Trial and error may be a shorthand way of describing the scientific method, but there’s more than that – the hypothesizing before and analyzing after. Tradition may evolve, but depends more on the appeal to authority, often deep ancestral knowledge or instinctual knowledge.

    It is unclear what is admissible as evidence for tradition – dreams, omens, crows flying in the sky, the way a crystal moves, tea leaves – we have a surfeit of possible things to interpret. Too much fits under these words: “The organic, the natural, the common sense and practical” It is unclear how we are to distinguish between competing claims and arrive at truth according to tradition. Additionally, how do you pin tradition down? Whose tradition? What class? What continent? What time period?

    The scientific method, at least, yields provisional truth and an explanation of how it got there. Folk wisdom and conventional wisdom are fundamentally less complete forms of knowledge when they can’t also answer key questions of causation. The germ theory of disease unlocks advice about numerous circumstances. Folk wisdom of merely quarantining the sick, draining toxic humors with leeches, and burning the witch, less edifying.

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  9. “Nor can we really remember why walkable ‘new urbanist’ communities make so much sense. Those few places where such communities have been built are still not really the organic, sensible communities that used to be the status quo, but rather expensive and very well groomed communities for the modern upper crust. The organic, the natural, the common sense and practical, all have fallen under the scalpel of modern expertise.”

    Buncombe.

    Housing in new urban communities is sold at a premium — and that is a market response to the appeal of these places — but the premium usually is in the range of 10 to 20 percent. Considering there is a wide variety of housing types in new urban communities — from small apartments to large single family houses and everything in between — it can hardly be described as only for the “upper crust.” Then again, the lower transportation costs in new urban communities partly, and in some cases more than entirely, make up for the higher housing costs.

    A longitudinal study at Orenco Station, a new urban community in Hillsboro, Oregon, shows why people are willing to pay a premium. Ten times as many people in Orenco Station walk to the store than a comparison conventional suburb. That means more exercise, less hassle, less traffic congestion, and less cost. Also, Orenco Station residents engage in double the number and higher quality group activities than the comparison communities.

    Orenco Station was designed with common sense planning principles, in opposition to the conventional wisdom of the experts of the day. They have genuine appeal and offer a choice that was not available in the market. The criticism that they are not “natural” or “organic” is a hoary one. With more than 500 new urban developments underway, the suggestion that they are not “practical” seems moot.

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  10. While scientism is open for many lines of attack, and the modern hospital has hardly covered itself in glory in terms of treating the process of childbirth with dignity (as you note in your update), just looking at the drop in the incidence of child and infant mortality that modern medicine has brought about quickly crushes any serious pretensions of equality that folk wisdom has with modern medicine in terms of outcomes.

    For example, in the Middle Ages, childhood mortality was something between 30% and 50%. Not all of that was from disease (we’ve gotten a little more paranoid about looking after children), but enough of it was. Compare this to what we enjoy now under modern medical care. How many of you even know someone who has lost a child under the age of 5? I suspect that it is rare enough to be notable.

    There may be some things that modern medecine can learn from folk wisdom, but they are few and far between.

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  11. From what I know of the history- really to do with the 19th century in particular, is that we’re talking about the legitimization of the medical profession by the state and part of that process involved official condemnation of folk superstitions. A colleague actually just finished a dissertation on this, so I’ll ask her though.

    I’ve said before that I think “progressive” thought often takes a monocultural and inevitable view of progress that is uniquely given to coercion. However, I should note that a lot of what you’re talking about here agrees with the work my wife is doing in her therapeutic practice. She’d agree with you and she’s pretty far from conservative.

    And then of course there’s Christopher Lasch, who said it all better and earlier: ” The history of modern society, from one point of view, is the assertion of social control over activities once left to individuals or their families.”

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  12. The problem with the modern scientific approach is that it is results oriented. Ditching the traditional methods of childbirth meant a lot more babies and mothers surviving and healthy. It also means a lot less pain. Back in the 1970s, when a number of folks started espousing the wonders of natural childbirth, birthing stools and so on, I expected to hear about all the changes in the process. What we got were fetal monitors, ultrasound, and an even lower infant mortality rate. Why aren’t birthing stools more common? I heard all the arguments, and they made some sense. I seriously doubt it is just patriarchy in action. Some hospitals may even still offer the option for all I know, but I never hear about it. Maybe women are more comfortable lying down when they give birth? After all, labor can go on for hours, and we westerners are chair and bed people. Squatting is just plain uncomfortable, if only by reason of unfamiliarity.

    Also, I agree that Lasch has a point with “The history of modern society, from one point of view, is the assertion of social control over activities once left to individuals or their families.”, but all I can say is “Hallelujah!” The tyranny of just about every traditional society is by far worse than anything any of us in the west can even imagine. It was stifling, suffocating, brutal, mind crushing, anoxic, toxic, coercive and repressive, and it was worse if you were a woman or belonged to an out group.

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  13. “This is exactly what I mean by being cut off from history. We have several generations which have been effectively cut off from folk ways either in medicine, food, or community structure. This makes it hard to revitalize those paths.”

    You make it sound as though something was done to the past, that the people who actually lived it had no agency in the matter. My point with the story of my parents was not that they had forgotten the past–they remembered the past very well and told stories about it. They just thought that they way they lived in their present was preferable to way they had lived in their past. Now maybe you think those generations made some bad decisions and maybe they did, but that doesn’t mean that the old ways are more valuable. The past wasn’t static and neither is the present. Traditions didn’t go on unchanged for generations and then all of a sudden were discarded. Things change over time.

    Maternity care is actually a pretty good example of the way culture and in this case medicine advances. Home births were dangerous–modern medicine moved the birth to the hospital for safety reasons. Modern medicine then depersonalized the experience (the strapping down on the back) and women reached back to the days when birthing was a more personal, human experience and brought many of those ways forward to the present. Most modern hospitals have birthing rooms, doctors and nurses are open to alternative birthing methods and prospective parents have more choices as to the kind of birthing experience they will have. Life changes and so it goes.

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    • @Steven Donegal, Absolutely – I think something was done to the past. Not that the people of the past had no agency, but that there was a concerted effort to ‘progress’ away from folk wisdom toward a society more governed by the experts whether those were doctors or government bureaucrats. Has this had many benefits as well? Of course. Is it sustainable in its current form? I don’t think so.

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  14. E.D.

    Speaking as a scientist, a former mathematician, and an armchair philosopher, I have to say that the term, “scientism”, grates on the nerves somewhat.

    Science progresses primarily by falsifying hypothesis. It has certainly come to pass (many, many times in the past) that someone wearing a white lab coat, formally trained as a doctor or an engineer or a physicist, has rejected folk wisdom *without* proper trial and experimentation, for exactly the reasons you allude to here. They’ve come up with an alternative hypothesis, failed to validate it properly, and it has become part of the assumptions of practitioners for a period of time before someone revisited the assumptions, found they were based on bunk, formulated a new hypothesis and validated *that*.

    That don’t have nuttin’ to do with scientism, and everything to do with science. Because the actual revisiting of the conventional wisdom, the validation of it… that was done by another expert, who was more careful than their predecessor. Doctors might be good doctors but not good medical researchers, just like medical researchers might be good biologists but not good general natural scientists, and a good natural scientist might be hung up on empiricism and be a terrible philosopher.

    They’re probably all terrible mathematicians. And most of them are humans and therefore capable of error.

    But the process of science eventually leads to the rejection of what is empirically incorrect. It’s a human procedure, so it may oscillate for a while around the verifiable, but the period is decreasing. Medicine is a hard case, because the standard of care (at least nowadays) is that which is legally defensible, not that which is necessarily scientifically valid.

    Which is one major reason c-sections are so prevalent. Because doctors in the U.S. are fairly well trained at them, and getting a baby out removes all sorts of p0tential complications that many, many doctors just want off the radar as things that can go wrong.

    There’s nothing wrong with having enough skepticism to want to validate someone’s claim to real expertise. If your point is that people generally are poor consumers of scientific literature, I’m inclined to agree with that.

    But the attitude that you’re pointing out, a general tendency to reject “conventional wisdom of the past” occasionally leading to the unjustified discarding of bits and pieces of factually correct folk wisdom, is actually far, far, far more likely to produce the opposite.

    Because 99% of folk wisdom is utter bullshit, of zero empirical value except as a cultural artifact. Not that cultural artifacts have no value in and of themselves *inside the context of culture*, but if you just lined up all the folk wisdom you ever heard of on a sheet of paper and went down the line, for every bit and piece of real wisdom you discarded (like, giving birth in a crouching position is probably a damn good idea), you’re discarding tens of thousands of chunks of dreck. Hell, you can fill fifty pages just with folk remedies for warts, and if you find one that actually works better than a placebo out of those fifty pages, that’s hardly a successful ratio.

    Most folk wisdom is actually based upon cultural expertise: gramma was the matriarch of the family and gramma always said foo.

    Being a matriarch doesn’t mean that you actually know anything about foo. Someone who studies foo might be wrong, but put all the empirical experts up against all the grannies out there, and the experts whip the grannies’ collective hind ends, 143-2.

    Yeah, that 2 points on the safety is pretty impressive when it happens (and it absolutely does happen). Generally, I’ll take the experts and the over.

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    • @Pat Cahalan, Okay, fair enough. And I think I can see how a scientist would have a problem with stereotypes about scientism. Because, speaking as someone who studies the early modern period in some historical depth, some of these sweeping stereotypes about the brutal, benighted, superstitious folkways are equally grating. It’s a very popular stereotype, to be sure- the poor, miserable peasant whose only joy in life was burning women suspected of being witches- but it’s also a gross generalization. I can find you books written by French farmers in the 16th century that will tell you with great wisdom and accuracy how to run a small farm, manage your money, make your own clothes, the intricacies of agriculture, the basics of child rearing and hygiene, and essentially how people managed their own lives before there were experts. Absolutely, they didn’t know everything, and medical science has made great advances. But to say that common wisdom was 99% bullshit before, you know, scientists came along to teach them how to live their lives is just bad history.

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      • @Rufus,

        > Because, speaking as someone who studies
        > the early modern period in some historical
        > depth, some of these sweeping stereotypes
        > about the brutal, benighted, superstitious
        > folkways are equally grating

        I’ll absolutely grant you that. It’s undoubtedly a very common attitude among anyone who is learned in anything other than the early modern period, because people have a tendency to accept a negative stereotype about a subject with which they lack familiarity. (for example, most scientists make terrible theologians). People think “16th Century”, they probably think of either Robin Hood a-la Errol Flynn or Robin Hood a-la Patrick Bergin, ’cause that’s the first mental image they’re going to summon if they don’t actually study the period.

        > I can find you books written by French
        > farmers in the 16th century that will tell
        > you with great wisdom and accuracy how
        > to run a small farm, manage your money,
        > make your own clothes, the intricacies of
        > agriculture, the basics of child rearing
        > and hygiene, and essentially how people
        > managed their own lives before there
        > were experts.

        I’m not a student of 16th century history, so I have no grounds to dispute you even if I didn’t believe you (which, actually, I do, at least on the book part). However, there was no period before there were experts.

        Someone who could write such a book was *in fact an expert*. They likely held a position of standing among the community. They would be regarded as a source of reference. People would turn to them for advice.

        The fact that 100 years later someone else might not consider them an expert is taking an odd view of expertise, and conflating an error on the part of a contemporary with a refutation of the concept of expertise. Being an expert means you’re highly linked to your problem domain, that’s all.

        Many current fields of study have poor metrics for measuring expertise, I’ll grant you that as well, outright. Just because an institution claims to grant expertise on an individual doesn’t mean that this claim is true. It can be terribly difficult for a layman to be able to judge expertise, and this label can be applied via social norms to people who don’t deserve it, even though they’ve got a piece of paper that sez they know what they’re doing (cough, cough, Andrew Wakefield, cough, cough). People still think a black belt meant you knew karate, when a black belt has only ever meant “you can now start learning without falling down too much”.

        *Generally*, though, *inside* the context of many fields (medicine certainly being one of these), true expertise isn’t measured by the possession of an M.D. The medical research community isn’t impressed by the fact you have a license to practice… that’s the bare entry requirement to get into the community to begin with. The people who judge expertise inside a particular community studying a particular problem domain are generally brutal critics of themselves and their peers. Respect in a research field is difficult to obtain.

        Admittedly, the inner circles of very specific fields often don’t communicate this outside the field itself, which is why the *general public* oftentimes attaches an “expert” label on anybody in a white coat, or from a particular university or think tank, or what have you. The media is particularly horrible at enabling this: someone who looks good on camera and has a popular book out is an expert on T.V., even if every person in their field thinks they’re a jackass.

        So I’ll also grant you that what it actually means to be an expert is often mis-applied or characterized in our nice little modern society. Denigrating the term “expert” by lumping in false experts with real ones doesn’t help in the slightest, it just turns the public from an uncritical consumer of false expertise to an uncritical rejector of real expertise. Don’t toss away the term “expert”. Get rid of the false perception of expertise.

        For every uber-competent individual in modern society, there are thousands of people who can’t manage their money, have black thumbs, can’t sew, etc. Some of them are actual experts in their problem domain; I’m not a salesman and I never will be but one of my college roommates was a natural born one and he will always be able to sell anything to anybody. This makes him successful. It makes him an expert in sales. The fact that he can’t manage his own finances doesn’t make him not an expert, it just makes him a limited one. I would absolutely turn to him for advice on sales, but there’s no freaking way I’d manage my household the way he does :)

        > But to say that common wisdom was 99%
        > bullshit before, you know, scientists came
        > along to teach them how to live their lives
        > is just bad history.

        That’s not what I said. What I said was, 99% of common wisdom is bullshit. Which, in fact, is a blatant exaggeration and hardly an empirically valid measurement (particularly given that I’m not a student of the history of common wisdom)…

        …but common wisdom today is predominantly bullshit, too… so I see no reason to presuppose that common wisdom wasn’t predominately bullshit in every previous age.

        Common wisdom is very often wrong (pop quiz: ask the average Joe what’s more likely to get them killed in south central Los Angeles, driving a Mercedes and wearing gang colors or a heart attack). This doesn’t mean that there isn’t exceptional wisdom. This also doesn’t mean that exceptional wisdom can (and did) exist in any age. But what people commonly hold to be true is usually based upon a wild number of crazily off-beat assumptions that have no basis in actual fact.

        And that’s true today, just like it was true in the good old days.

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        • @Pat Cahalan, I see what you’re saying. I think we’re conflating a number of things here. Much of what I consider to be “wisdom” literature is not common wisdom in the sense of being common opinions, but just trial and error rules of thumb. I think this is what Kain is talking about. At one time, it was common for the average person to have a great number of skills just in order to live their lives. So a lot of wisdom literature isn’t bullshit or superstitions- it’s maybe banalities; I’ve certainly read dozens of variations on “put a large part of your harvest in storage for the Winter”. But, because people had to do just about everything for themselves, they developed all sorts of skills that most of us lack. I can’t roof a house with natural materials, for instance. I don’t know how to construct a plow, or make a table. I don’t have to. But this doesn’t mean that my society is smarter or more advanced- it just means we organize labor differently.

          There are certainly plenty of areas in which science has improved our understanding. I’m currently reading the letters of a prominent French politician and author in the 1800s, who tried to treat his daughter’s tuberculosis by building her a stable outside her window so she could “breathe the stable air”, a supposed treatment. She died. So science has certainly improved on that count.

          I think what Kain is bothered by are attempts to apply the insights of science to every aspect of life. This is usually done, I think you’ll notice, by people who are not scientists and who often don’t understand how science works. In the early 1800s, especially, there really was a belief that all of human life could be perfected if only society was fully “scientific”. Comte, the Saint-Simonians, Marx, and others come to mind. Part of this mindset was a belief that nearly everything pre-industrial people did was foolish and rooted in superstition. What it lead to directly was the “scientific organization” of labor, and then a belief that similar principles could be applied to schooling, child rearing, family life, and basically every other endeavor. The backlash against these assumptions, in my opinion, came with the hippies.

          Like I said, and wrongly attributed the attitude to you, there is still a mindset that I’d call “presentist”, which tries to paint “the past” with the same sort of brush. I think where this comes from is assuming that, when we change the way we do things, it’s proof that our new way is “better”, when it just might be different.

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          • @Rufus,

            “But this doesn’t mean that my society is smarter or more advanced- it just means we organize labor differently. ”

            I am genuinely curious; do you think that it is possible to describe one society as more advanced than another, or is such a comparison inherently invalid (or at least only possible from within one’s own cultural standpoint, and thereby not universal).

            You certainly have to grant that our society is more efficient in terms of our use of labour, although that is admittedly a quantitative distinction that doesn’t take into account the things that make living worthwhile.

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            • @Mopey Duns, Well, I think you can say that one technology is more effective or efficient than another, or that different social organizations are more productive. And you can say that certain technologies make tasks easier. But, to go from that to saying the society as a whole is wiser or more enlightened or the quality of their lives is simply and objectively better just seems a stretch to me. I think of it in terms of trade offs. My grandfather was raised to know how to make furniture for the farm. It’s easier and less time-consuming for me to buy it. Nevertheless, he had a skill that I lack, and the table he made in the 1950s is still being used by my mother, while the one I bought three years ago has already started to fall apart. Compared to, say, his grandfather, I own a lot more things. On the other hand, his grandfather owned more land and actually worked fewer hours per day than I do.

              When you read histories of the early modern period- that pre-industrial, agrarian past- their tasks are more labor-intensive, but they have to produce a lot less, so they work less hours and they don’t have to worry about being fired. Life is harder in some ways and easier in some ways. Certainly, it’s more stable in many regards. Overall, it’s different.

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              • @Rufus,

                > But, to go from that to saying the society as
                > a whole is wiser or more enlightened or the
                > quality of their lives is simply and objectively
                > better just seems a stretch to me.

                I would state pretty baldly that overall I would regard quality of life (by several reasonable metrics) to be better now than it was in the 19th century, in some cases by orders of magnitude. You don’t typically die of cholera anymore in the first world, anyway. I worked in a slaughterhouse, I know what really hard physical labor is, and I don’t find it particularly compelling as a career choice. I wouldn’t find it compelling or fulfilling as a career choice 30 years ago, either.

                However, I do agree with the tacit principle that you’re skating around but not mentioning directly: the quality of life isn’t as relevant a measure of societal “worth” as is the rate of *consumption* of that quality, and on that basis we’re not such hot stuff.

                If someone wants to run a farm like great-grandpa ran it, that capability exists right now today. Maybe not on the same land that great-grandpa had as a farm, but you could do it, I know people that do.

                Most people buy into the commonly held perceptions of success that actually keep people from enjoying the quality of life they do have. I don’t have credit card debt. I live in a tiny house because it’s the only way I could afford to live in the area I live without guaranteeing that my wife and I both have to work full time constantly to keep our heads above water. I don’t have an HDTV, a third of my music collection is old jazz 33 records. I don’t buy new computers or game systems, I pick up used old ones or build my own. I don’t buy new fashions. I don’t buy tables that fall apart in three years, I pick up hand-me downs and used stuff for nothing until I can save up enough to buy tables that will last 5o. Quality is out there, it’s just not available at Walmart. I earn about 25% less than I might, otherwise, because I work outside the commercial sector, so that I have freedom for family time.

                Typically, I’d say that the potential quality of life right now (at least, in the U.S. of A., international mileage may vary) is hugely more awesome than it was even 20 years ago… but that most people don’t actually consume the quality of their lives; it’s unrealized potential.

                If you bust your ass off for 50+ hours a week so that you can come home and play Wii for an hour before you watch a netflixxed movie and collapse on the $3,000 leather couch you financed, yeah, you might find your quality of life to be unfulfilled. Most people, from what I’ve seen, fit into that box. In that sense, society isn’t better off on the whole than it was 30 years ago. That’s not a structural problem with the way we advance, it’s an organizational behavior problem with what we do or don’t do with the advances.

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              • To be honest, I think the frequent references to typhus and other diseases are stacking the deck a bit. Nobody, as far as I can tell, would like to bring back the old fashioned treatments for contagious disease, and nobody is saying that they want to go back to the 1700s. What we’re talking about is simply not drawing a bold line between Now and Then and saying stay away from everything that they did back then because it was terrible. So, I’ll grant you of course that we treat diseases better now and have many more options for fulfilling careers. But the lives of people back then was more than the plague and grinding misery. I actually enjoy physical labor, and most of the small farms I’ve studied worked until the mid afternoon and were done for the day. Their needs were less, so they weren’t facing the same stresses. As a result, they tended to be in pretty good shape, they ate well, you don’t read about them having nearly the same kinds of mental illnesses, and certainly not panic disorders, for instance.

                I mean, certainly, you can replicate the good parts of that life now, if you so choose, and they didn’t have that option. For sure, my parents, back in the 70s, raised us on a small farm where we produced and canned our own food, and so forth, and it was definitely worthwhile. I think that you’re agreeing with my point in a lot of ways here- it’s not that the old ways were necessarily better, just that they weren’t necessarily worse.

                As a fellow vinyl enthusiast, you have to know what it’s like to have people tell you that the new technology is simply better and that there’s something naive and foolish about not replacing your records with MP3s, while having the evidence of your senses tell you that they’re just plain wrong.

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          • @Rufus,

            > I think what Kain is bothered by are attempts
            > to apply the insights of science to every aspect
            > of life. This is usually done, I think you’ll
            > notice, by people who are not scientists and
            > who often don’t understand how science
            > works.

            I’ll go you one farther and state that a lot of scientists think that rational empiricism is the cat’s pajamas… to the extent that they try to measure things for which there is currently no reasonable method of measurement. In other words, scientists make this error all over the place themselves, too. Scientists don’t necessarily make great philosophers ;)

            > In the early 1800s, especially, there really
            > was a belief that all of human life could be
            > perfected if only society was fully “scientific”.

            Sure. It’s not until Godel and Heisenberg blew holes in that theory that people began to realize that no formal framework can be consistent, complete, and correct… and that includes science. Lots of people still don’t believe it, there’s cranks galore out there that think that Platonic ideals can be realized, if we just try a little harder. That said, there’s a lot of methods of inquiry that we *can* measure now with much greater precision and accuracy than the first pseudoscientific progressives could measure anything.

            To condemn the misguided thinkers of the 1800s because their underlying principles were broken or limited is misleading, and framing it as “the tyranny of experts” gives expertise a bad name. People in the 1800s weren’t social scientists. They were social pseudoscientists. They had the overriding principle somewhat correct, but their operationalization of it was limited, largely by the context in which they lived and the available knowledge and tools that they had.

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            • @Pat Cahalan, Right, but it should remind us to be skeptical about our own assumptions. My wife works as a therapist and we often joke that the field is a bit like a banana republic where every few years there’s some new leader and all of the knowledge has to be rewritten. Certainly the current psychiatric tendency to vastly over-prescribe psychoactive drugs is better than lobotomies, but it doesn’t mean that it’s the best of all possible worlds. Part of my problem with the presentist mentality is that it encourages status quo thinking- let’s not study the past, since it was terrible; and let’s be satisfied with the way things are because it’s “never been better”.

              It’s possible that human beings as such are just very flawed as a species and we’re doing all sorts of things now that we will realize in 50 years were a mistake. Similarly, it’s possible that we will recognize that we threw out practices that were worthwhile in haste- this is why we’ve had so many cultural revivals and renaissances over the centuries. I’m actually holding out hope for a revival of widespread book-reading.

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              • @Rufus,

                > Right, but it should remind us to be skeptical
                > about our own assumptions.

                One would hope that this is a pretty ingrained response for the average empiricist, but this is plainly not the case, so yeah, reminders aren’t a bad idea.

                > My wife works as a therapist and we often
                > joke that the field is a bit like a banana
                > republic where every few years there’s some
                > new leader and all of the knowledge has
                > to be rewritten.

                Part of this, I think, is that there is a major struggle in some fields as to whether or not they’re actually scientific fields, or how scientific they actually are. In many cases, I think this is a healthy debate.

                The line between science and art gets blurry when you’re talking about therapeutic fields in particular. In many ways, this has to be the case because of the constraints we rightly put upon ourselves when it comes to dealing with human subjects.

                You’ll never be able to rigorously test rape therapy under experimental conditions. You’d have to figure out a way to get a number of test subjects within a very small delta of personality variation, apply the negative stimulus uniformly, and then try different therapies. Aside from the fact that this is logistically an enormous problem, forced personality molding followed by rape in the name of science is morally right up there with genocide on the repugnance scale.

                So in order to validate therapies for this sort of event, you have to do a lot of indirect observation (surveys, interviews, embedded observation, etc.) From the standpoint of precision, this is all less accurate than experimental methodology. Cap it with generalization problems, and as a result, it takes a long time to acquire a sufficient evidence to say anything descriptive, let alone predictive.

                It’s not like Newtonian mechanics, where you can dump an experiment into a crucible and the scales of evidence tip obviously and immediately onto one side. You have to assemble all different kinds of evidence (the body of which is always growing) and sort it according to confirmatory vs. contradictory and weigh the evidence as it comes in. Since we’re again talking about therapy, this itself is decoupled somewhat from practice because practitioners are rightly primarily interested in getting the patient off the table and healthy (or, if you like to be cynical, they want to get paid and move on). Therefore there’s a lot of quality evidence that never gets collected and returned to the research community; the doc don’t have time to write it all up. Practitioners typically do not have time to read and weigh all the outstanding evidence themselves, which is why this gets abstracted up to the organizational level, and this of course occasionally means that practitioners will accept suboptimal or invalid methods as their standard of care until that body of evidence gets overwhelming enough that the next round of doctors comes along with the new knowledge already embedded in their toolkit.

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  15. If we take away the romanticism and the tradition for tradition sake from your post all we have is exactly what you accuse psychologists and nutrionists of doing.

    The past contains truth. Let’s not throw out past truth just because we don’t want to live in the past.

    in other words put “folk traditions through the shredder. Little bits and pieces of these traditions were co-opted, cherry-pick” truth.

    Sound good, now can we stop pretending that tradition and the past has some unique special connection to truth that we’ve lost. It’s not as if every single generation has had pop phenomena and people bitching and moaning about how the past was bad/good.

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