The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer The official site of bestselling author Michael Shermer

Folk Science

published August 2006
Why our intuitions about how the world works
are often wrong
magazine cover

Thirteen years after the legendary confrontation over the theory of evolution between Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (“Soapy Sam”) and Thomas Henry Huxley (“Darwin’s bulldog”), Wilberforce died in 1873 in an equestrian fall. Huxley quipped to the physicist John Tyndall, “For once, reality and his brain came into contact and the result was fatal.”

When it comes to such basic forces as gravity and such fundamental phenomena as falling, our intuitive sense of how the physical world works — our folk physics — is reasonably sound. Thus, we appreciate Huxley’s wry comment and note that even children get the humor of cartoon physics, where, for example, a character running off a cliff does not fall until he realizes that he has left terra firma.

But much of physics is counterintuitive, as is the case in many other disciplines, and before the rise of modern science we had only our folk intuitions to guide us. Folk astronomy, for example, told us that the world is flat, celestial bodies revolve around the earth and the planets are wandering gods who determine our future. Folk biology intuited an élan vital flowing through all living things, which in their functional design, were believed to have been created ex nihilo by an intelligent designer. Folk psychology compelled us to search for the homunculus in the brain — a ghost in the machine — a mind somehow disconnected from the brain. Folk economics caused us to disdain excessive wealth, label usury a sin and mistrust the invisible hand of the market.

The reason folk science so often gets it wrong is that we evolved in an environment radically different from the one in which we now live. Our senses are geared for perceiving objects of middling size — between, say, ants and mountains — not bacteria, molecules and atoms on one end of the scale and stars and galaxies on the other end. We live a scant three score and 10 years, far too short a time to witness evolution, continental drift or long-term environmental changes.

Causal inference in folk science is equally untrustworthy. We correctly surmise designed objects, such as stone tools, to be the product of an intelligent designer and thus naturally assume that all functional objects, such as eyes, must have also been intelligently designed. Lacking a cogent theory of how neural activity gives rise to consciousness, we imagine mental spirits floating within our heads. We lived in small bands of roaming hunter-gatherers that accumulated little wealth and had no experience of free markets and economic growth.

Folk science leads us to trust anecdotes as data, such as illnesses being cured by assorted nostrums based solely on single-case examples. Equally powerful are anecdotes involving preternatural beings, compelling us to make causal inferences linking these non-material entities to all manner of material events, illness being the most personal. Because people often recover from sickness naturally, whatever was done just before recovery receives the credit, prayer being the most common.

In this latter case, we have a recent scientific analysis of this ancient folk science supposition. The April issue of the American Heart Journal published a comprehensive study directed by Harvard Medical School cardiologist Herbert Benson on the effects of intercessory prayer on the health and recovery of patients undergoing coronary bypass surgery. The 1,802 patients were divided into three groups, two of which were prayed for by members of three religious congregations. Prayers began the night before the surgery and continued daily for two weeks after. Half the prayer recipients were told that they were being prayed for, whereas the other half were told that they might or might not receive prayers. Results showed no statistically significant differences between any of the groups. Case closed.

Of course, people will continue praying for their ailing loved ones, and by chance some of them will recover, and our folk science brains will find meaning in these random patterns. But for us to discriminate true causal inferences from false, real science trumps folk science.

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6 Comments to “Folk Science”

  1. Brian Champness Says:

    A model of succinctness and good sense. It should be on every young person’s reading list.

  2. David S. Says:

    Brilliant article — well put, and hopefully well received. One criticism: your assumption is that the only effective result of prayer is healing. While the average congregant may have such a “magical thinking” approach to prayer, I suspect you’d be hard-pressed to find any properly-representative theologian who believes the entire reason for praying is for empirical, physical results. Common rationalizations aside (“it wasn’t God’s will” — “he didn’t have enough faith”, etc.), prayer serves many more purposes than physical healing, many of which are theologically more significant and important.

  3. Richard Baldwin Says:

    Again, Michael Shermer clarion call for critical thinking and evidential reasoning clarifies a major problem for the scientific community is spreading its findings through the masses: the prevalence of “folk science” with little or no understanding of the scientific method.

    By the way, David S., just what are those theologically and more significant and important purposes of prayer that the “properly-representative” theologians (whose relevance has waned to insignificance since at least the last half century) have to offer?

  4. Peter Irvine Says:

    I think of prayer, not for empirical results, but for its simple act of thinking of (paying attention to) another. These thoughts can sometime lead to good for both the pray-er and the pray-ee in both small and large ways.

  5. Reinier Battenberg Says:

    During the war in Europe my father prayed fervently one weekend when there was no food in the house. In the afternoon a package with a loaf of rye bread arrived.
    After the war I heard my father emphatically tell a friend that he was “CONVINCED” that that time during the war god had heard (and rewarded?) his prayer.
    What about the fervent prayers of the other 11 million
    hungry Dutch people?

  6. Bo Says:

    I wonder if anyone really, really, ponders over the percentage of their prayers which are answered and those which are not? How many times does one pray for anything for themselves or for others? How do leaders of the many forms of religion respond to the questions asked by those with prayers that go unanswered. I think I know what the common answers are, tho’ I truly wonder how the pray-ers rationalize the seeming lack of consideration given to their pleas. How can someone accept, time after time, the reply that their prayers were not this or too that or maybe were said with the wrong whatever?
    I can’t understand.
    And often it is the true and sincere need or hope that is being prayed for which goes nowhere.

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