What cases colds, exactly?
August 3, 2006 6:07 PM   Subscribe

Does being cold/wet actually have any affect on the contraction of the common cold?

Everybody "knows" that the common cold is caused by a virus. Yet it also seems like everybody "knows" that's it's also caused by being out in the cold or rain, going to sleep with wet hair, whatever.

I'm tempted to believe that this is one of those folktales that's been passed down for so long that everyone still believes it, but would being cold or out in the rain lower your immune response to the virus? Or is it just that the times when that's likely to happen are coincidentally cold season? I, personally, have never gotten a cold from anything of the sort, and I'm not very judicious about wearing warm clothing or bringing along umbrellas.
posted by borkingchikapa to Health & Fitness (34 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I vaguely remember something about being cold and wet making you more susceptible to disease, something about the body being "tired" from trying to keep up body temperature. Or something.
posted by MadamM at 6:15 PM on August 3, 2006

posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:19 PM on August 3, 2006

Or yes.
posted by hindmost at 6:28 PM on August 3, 2006

Yes. No. Maybe.
posted by MetaMonkey at 6:36 PM on August 3, 2006

As I understand it, coldness won't get you a viral cold but what I do find is that if I was cold overnight I'll be really sniffly in the morning. It goes away in a couple of hours and isn't a cold, just a runny/blocked nose and the odd sneeze that could be mistaken for the onset of a cold.
posted by polyglot at 6:38 PM on August 3, 2006

Its complicated.
posted by MetaMonkey at 6:46 PM on August 3, 2006

It would be all well and good if we could irrefutably figure out what does "cause" a cold, and quit doing that. Unfortunately, we (as a species) are not yet in a position to do that, apparently. More research is required. More research may always be required, on this topic.

What's really handy, given causitive uncertainty, are sure fire cures for the common cold. My medically approved and recommended non-traditional cure for the common cold is:

A hair dryer.

Cures any cold in the first 24 hours.
posted by paulsc at 6:47 PM on August 3, 2006 [3 favorites]

No, Because colds tend to appear in winter months, it is natural for people assume it would have something to do the cold but the reason for this is more sociological than biological.

colds are more prevalent in winter months because people are more usually inside together.. and thus in closer proximity to each other for viruses to spread. This coupled with people's lesser tendency to exercise and keep fit in winter (thus keeping the metabolism and immune system humming) will generally lead to people falling ill with a cold in these months
posted by TheOtherGuy at 6:48 PM on August 3, 2006

That hair-dryer trick is interesting -- any MeFites ever heard of it before, or able to testify?
posted by davidmsc at 7:04 PM on August 3, 2006

A cold is caused by a virus, as you said. It’s silly to say “wear your coat, or you’ll catch a cold.”

Any evidince that there is for being cold/tired/stressed/whatever weakening your immune system is beside the point. Firstly, because it’s still the virus causing the cold: you “caught” a virus, and that is unequivocally what got you sick (this may seem a bit like semantics, but see below). Secondly, we are only be talking about a modest increase in the possibility of a symptomatic infection.

Temperature/wetness does not give you a cold. It’s silly for people to keep saying it does, but there you go. I point this out to my wife and mother-in-law all the time and they look at me like I am from the moon. They’re otherwise intelligent people. Don’t discount the ability of a falsehood repeated for forever to make people believe.

But that is all there is here.

(And hindmost’s link does nothing to change that, really. It’s one interesting study, but other studies say “nah, no link.” It’s something really interesting to study further, but it’s rather artificial, and contradicted by other studies, so it’s no proof that “mom was right” as the CNN people want you to think).

Watch the CNN video: it’s fascinating to see the anchor working overtime to twist reality into her preconceived notion that cold “causes colds.”

It’s important to say, again and again and again, a virus causes colds. At best, the moderate stress of being cold makes it (somewhat) more likely that a virus, already caught, will be very symptomatic for you. But stress comes in many forms. For instance, worrying about your nagging mom yelling about a needless coat, when you plan on running around outside at 90 mph (and thus generating plenty of body heat to stay warm), might also weaken your immune system ;-) Also note that the doc’s assertion on CNN’s (plausible, but unproven) that reduced nasal blood flow is the primary cause of the increase in symptoms he saw in his study: that is actually a major problem for mom’s folk wisdom — ever spent any great amount of time outside? It’s really hard to not have reduced blood flow in the hands, the nose, and such when it’s cold and you’re out for awhile. Most people are unwilling or unable to wear the kind of clothing that the doc seems to be suggesting would be needed. So in a very real sense, if he is right (and I think that needs to be greatly stressed), it would seem that there is very little you can do at all about the stress winter might cause on you body, aside from living somewhere where there is not winter. Obviously, sleeping outside naked in January in Canada is going to majorly stress your body. But that’s not what the folk wisdom is talking about. It’s always talking about minor stress: it’s always a nag not to do something that you were otherwise going to do. It’s a nag about not being cold in a way that probably was not going to greatly bother you.

Not eating right. Not drinking enough water. Not getting enough sleep. All of these things can weaken your immune system. Yet no one tells you “go to bed early, or you’ll catch cold.” That’s why this is more than just semantics. The idea that cold causes a cold is very deep seated, and people don’t want to let it go, even though it is obviously wrong. When folks say “wear a coat, or you’ll catch your death of pneumonia” or “put on a hat, or you’ll catch cold” they are not saying anything rational, nor are they trying to make a point about keeping your body unstressed, generally. They really are just repeating a bit of superstitious folks nonsense that has survived for millennia in the human psyche.

Which is why I correct Mom and my Wife.

Cold weather == catching a cold is a myth. But people badly want to believe it (even doctors), because they’ve been told it so many times. Those that answer “yes” to the query, “does cold cause a cold?” are ultimately falling prey to that. It’s very interesting to find what circumstances make it more likely for a virus to foul up your body, but it’s important to remember it’s the virus doing the fouling, and things are much, much more complicated than just “putting on a hat.”

For instance, how much does simply washing your hands reduce any effect that the very mild stress of a cold day might have on your body? Etc, etc.

Sorry, I babble.

A cold is caused by a virus. Period. Many, many things can weaken your immune system, making that virus's job easier. The idea that cold is the primary driving factor behind colds is, at very best, pretty weak. In reality, it's likely a minor factor, if it's a factor at all.
posted by teece at 7:11 PM on August 3, 2006 [5 favorites]

Yes, viruses, not rain, cause colds. However, centuries long ideas about healthcare often turn out to be true when the science catches up with them. They are based upon thousand of anecdotal experiences. If you want to argue science, do you have any double blind studies, or any studies at all, which examine whether exposure to wet and cold conditions does or does not correlate with subsequent colds. Could it perhaps not make one more susceptible to infection from a virus which is prevalent in one's environment? Metamonkey's linked article shows that the science is basically lacking. I think it is premature to draw any conclusions.
posted by caddis at 7:26 PM on August 3, 2006

It's interesting to compare this to Fan Death.
posted by aubilenon at 7:35 PM on August 3, 2006

They are based upon thousand of anecdotal experiences.

Anecdotal evidence is nigh on worthless, caddis. People believe many things based upon anecdotal "evidence," and almost all of those beliefs are either completely wrong, or sort of right by accident. Once in awhile there will be some bit of folk wisdom that has real validity: but there is no way to know which bit of folk wisdom is right, within the framework of folk wisdom. That's why it's crap.

If you want to argue science, do you have any double blind studies, or any studies at all, which examine whether exposure to wet and cold conditions does or does not correlate with subsequent colds.

Yes, there is at least one study referenced in the links on this page which made a pretty strong case that cold did not cause colds. It would be interesting to reconcile that with the one linked to on CNN.

One last thing to think about: stress can weaken the immune system. It's an interesting possibility to me that the primary cause of cold temperatures increasing the chance of a virus knocking you down, if indeed it is a cause of increase at all, is this: what if it's not the temperature that is the primary causal factor, but the stress of being cold? By stress, I mean mental stress. It's a fascinating idea, to me. And of course, the mental stress has to have some mechanism in your body that makes it easier for an infection to take hold, but it could be that physical thing that is the cause, rather than the physical symptom that cold temperature induces.

That is, of course, 100% speculative, and right out of my ass.

However, centuries long ideas about healthcare often turn out to be true when the science catches up with them

Just as often, nay, more often, centuries old ideas about everything turn out to be complete bullshit, too.
posted by teece at 8:22 PM on August 3, 2006

That is, of course, 100% speculative, and right out of my ass.

posted by caddis at 8:46 PM on August 3, 2006

While we're trading wacky theories, here's mine:

Colds have evolved into a kind of symbiotic relation with humans. We use them as a regulatory/feedback mechanism to force us to rest when our lifestyle is stressful, physically or mentally. Not that this relationship is perfect, but basically it provides some evolutionary advantage, and is also why the common cold is unlikely to be cured.

posted by MetaMonkey at 8:47 PM on August 3, 2006

Stay away from toadstools, too. Those'll sick you right up.
posted by kookoobirdz at 9:24 PM on August 3, 2006

My understanding was that the increase in colds during cold weather is more of a result of the fact that everyone tends to spend a lot more time indoors (instead of outside where it's uncomfortably cold). Thus, more people packed into enclosed area = higher incidences of virus contraction.
posted by Stauf at 9:52 PM on August 3, 2006

The hair dryer trick has a number of advantages:
  • Relief of stuffy nose and drippy sinus is immediate
  • No drugs involved, so it works for everybody, with no side effects.
  • Can be used on children and elderly persons effectively.
  • Requires no special equipment, except the hair dryer.
  • In situations where a hair dryer or power isn't available (camping, sailing, etc.), I've used a modified technique to inhale air warmed by a camping stove or other heat source, with good effect.
The hair dryer trick works on a number of levels. First, rhino virus (one of the virus families that causes about 35% of common colds in adults) grows best at temperatures around 91° F, and dies above 105° F. So, raising the temperature of your nose, and nasal and sinuses to 104° F for a few minutes can kill a lot of virus. Second, warming your nasal membranes and sinuses this way immediately dries them, and can shrink them, relieving headache pain and pressure. Drying the nose and sinuses temporarily also inhibits the growth of virus, and transmission of virus through nasal drip, tissues, and sneezing. Third, drying the nose and sinuses interrupts the natural histamine reactions that cause tissue swelling and sensitize you to other allergens.

Use a bit of lotion on your nose and face to keep from drying the skin unduly, set the hair dryer on low heat, low airflow settings (or higher, if you can take it), and breathe warm, dry air for 3 to 5 minutes at time, or until you can feel your nose and face are thoroughly warmed and dried. You can repeat as often as needed, but doing this 4 to 6 times in the first 24 hours of feeling drippy or stuffy will reliably stop a cold in its tracks, and will provide substantial symptomatic relief of on-going colds in later stages.

And of course, you can use this technique in conjunction with your own proven, time tested remedies, too! Personally, I typically hydrate with liberal quantities of Scotch whiskey, in addtion to using the hair dryer, and for particularly vengeful upper respiratory distress, I add some butter toast and orange marmalade to my regimen for a few days. Of course, the Scotch and orange marmalade are completely unscientific and purely pallative, but colds are a great excuse for drinking and eating comfort foods, and we shouldn't cure 'em too quickly, lest we lose our opportunities.
posted by paulsc at 12:03 AM on August 4, 2006 [23 favorites]

Ben Franklin is reported to have sussed out the lack of connection between cold air and the common cold. When in his 70's he shared a room (and the bed!) with John Adams. Adams was fearful of opening the window, but Franklin was convinced. They argued about it until Franklin wore him out and Adams went to sleep.
posted by cptnrandy at 5:45 AM on August 4, 2006

I used to catch colds constantly, and someone told me he always left the house with a wet head because he never caught colds that way. Out of desperation, I tried it. I immediately cut the number of colds I got to nearly nothing, and I leave the house in the winter like that when it's so cold my hair freezes stiff before I get to the car. Hair apparently freezes at something below zero.
/ totally unscientific experiment with no control
/ your mother would be appalled, mine is
/ not dead yet

They used to make an appliance for the specific purpose of blowing hot air up your nose. It had a place to put some sort of aerosol drug that turned out to be nose drops, and you could get addicted in one shot, so I never used it. Can't say it did much, but scientifically, it's supposed to.
posted by unrepentanthippie at 5:47 AM on August 4, 2006

My biology teacher always said this: The best way to never catch a cold is to stand in the middle of the arctic naked. You're naked in freezing weather so everyone assumes you have a death wish and will stay away from you, and the arctic probably has the fewest people living there as compared to elsewhere (apart from, I suppose, the antarctic). Fewer people and more distance to them = not catching diseases.

Of course, you'll probably end up hypothermic and then dead, but you won't have a cold.
posted by shepd at 5:55 AM on August 4, 2006

Viruses do not cause "colds".

Having the virus doesn't mean you have any of the symptoms of a cold, therefore, you don't have a cold because you have the virus.

When the immune system fails, the virus is able to dominate the body, and the symptoms for "a cold" emerge.

A drop in temperature can shock the body, and this shock can add stress to the immune system. The cold itself is an indirect cause of the cold, as is the presence of the virus.

But, work stress is an indirect cause also. So is poor nutrition.
posted by ewkpates at 6:13 AM on August 4, 2006

...almost all of those beliefs are either completely wrong, or sort of right by accident. Once in awhile there will be some bit of folk wisdom that has real validity: but there is no way to know which bit of folk wisdom is right, within the framework of folk wisdom. That's why it's crap.

See, this is why people dislike and distrust scientists and doctors. Your initial statement, "almost all of those beliefs are either completely wrong, or sort of right by accident," is true (it would be hard for it to be false), but your conclusion, that "it's crap," is arrogant and unwarranted. Your voice has the ring of the premodern doctor telling the patient to shut up and let himself be bled because medical science has proven that bleeding is the sovereign remedy. The two basic problems here:

1) You may be wrong (like the advocate of bleeding). Yes, you have all those scientific studies to back you, but you still could be wrong. Remember all those learned scientists who mocked the idea of continental drift? They were wrong.

2) Even if a folk belief is "right by accident," it's still right. I swear I sometimes think scientists/doctors would be happier for people to listen to them and die (for some reason science will later discover) than for them to abide by their stupid folk beliefs and live (later to laugh at the scientists who were so sure of themselves).

Don't get me wrong: I'm a firm believer in scientific method, and scientists are far likelier to be right than Random Granny. But likelihood is not certainty, and smugness is not a likeable trait.
posted by languagehat at 6:14 AM on August 4, 2006


But likelihood is not certainty, and smugness is not a likeable trait.

OK. But how hard was it to convince people that cold (or the wrath of God/evil spirits) did not cause their cold, but rather a tiny organism, they couldn't see, that was wreaking havoc with their body?

Answer: pretty hard. It's hard to convince some people of that even today. That pattern of thinking is dangerous.

A system of beliefs and cures that is wrong 99% of the time is crap by my definition, and I'm sorry if that offends people, but stuff like this should be examined. Should I use a word like "ineffective" or whatever? Who cares? I like to switch back and forth between "low-brow" words and "high-brow" words. "Crap" gets the point across. If I was doing something other than wasting time on the internet, and converting people to this way of thinking was my intention, I would certainly choose my language differently. But I'm just screwing around on the 'net.

caddis exemplified the danger in this belief perfectly when he/she said: However, centuries long ideas about healthcare often turn out to be true when the science catches up with them.

That's nonsense. But it's a really common belief, even among many very intelligent people. Most ideas about healthcare have been based on nothing relevant, rational, or empirical at all. For every time you see a story on CNN saying "aha, that ancient folk wisdom has some tangential validity..." there are a 5 stories not run which would say "ancient folk wisdom largely ineffective" and another 5 which would say "ancient folk wisdom proves completely baseless, yet again..." and a couple of stories which would say "ancient folk remedy actually makes things worse...."

Obviously, I just made those numbers up. But that's the trouble with folk wisdom: it's not based on any kind of empiricism. It makes no effort to eliminate the things like selection and confirmation bias that destroy the validity of "hey, I get a cold if I sleep with the window open" types of arguments. In short, there is no good way to know if any bit of folk wisdom is anything other than utter fabrication.

Hopefully most of those bits of wisdom are at least harmless, but not all of them are. Pointing that out is important to me, because I want to get past that part of human history. Some people are going to view that as smug, hostile, and arrogant no matter what. People don't like being told they are wrong (myself included), and they especially don't like being told that cherished beliefs about how to feel better in a time of stress, passed down from loving Granny Millie, are actually baseless, so having some people get annoyed is pretty much unavoidable. *shrug*

Next time I have occasion to talk/write about this, I'll try not to come off that way: it's not my intention (and I'm pretty sure if you ask my wife and Mom-in-law if I come off as smug and arrogant when I correct them on this cold = cold thing, they'll tell you no. In person, I'm one of the nicest people you'll meet, I'm told. My online persona is different: much more confrontational).

And sure, some of folk wisdom is truly right. Great! St. John's Wort, for instance, seems to be in this category. When they're right, it's good to know. That doesn't make anything else right, and it's not at all the kind of thing that shows that science is still "catching up" to ancient ideas on healthcare. That's just patently wrong.

Your voice has the ring of the premodern doctor telling the patient to shut up and let himself be bled because medical science has proven that bleeding is the sovereign remedy.

Oh, absolute nonsense. That's not my voice at all.

But likelihood is not certainty

Not really making that claim at all. Not sure what you're talking about, even. Do you mean that is likely that a folk remedy is invalid, but not certain? Sure, I said that. If not, what?

Viruses do not cause "colds".

Now that's playing a semantic game. Without the virus, you are not getting a cold. Presence of the virus does not make symptoms a certainty, but it's still a clear causal relationship between virus and cold with symptoms (assuming we define cold as the symptoms, which seems reasonable. But I guess you could also say a cold is having the virus, and that a cold may be symptomatic or not, in which case it's true by definition that a virus causes a cold).

Man, I can babble.
posted by teece at 7:53 AM on August 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

A cold is caused by a virus. Period.
... a tiny organism, they couldn't see... wreaking havoc with their body

It is really not that simple. If it were, pretty much everyone would constantly have a cold, since we would pass the virus around constantly. When you catch colds, you don't have to smear yourself in someone's mucus or anything - you can apparently pick it up in the air or off of surfaces. But you can also be around people with colds without ending up with one. Clearly the presence of the virus is not the only factor. We say that the virus can be dormant on someone's hand or the bathroom sink, so maybe the virus can be dormant within us for long stretches of time. Maybe the guy who goes to naked to the arctic already has the virus, and it does get activated by a sudden change in temperature or something.

To claim science has this one all sorted out and the folk info is entirely false is getting a little ahead of ourselves. Medicine is complicated this way; very little is simply due to a gene or virus or bacteria, but rather, it tends to be about 'significant correlations'. and I don't think it's unreasonable to look into how sudden temperature changes affect things (- people seem to get sniffles or sneezy from intense air conditioning when they come in after being in the super hot air outside... not a cold, but seems analogous)
posted by mdn at 8:19 AM on August 4, 2006

But that's the trouble with folk wisdom: it's not based on any kind of empiricism.

Yes it is. It's based on a million years of human experience. You think "savages" in jungles just randomly go around slapping things on wounds and eating whatever they see because they don't have scientists around to tell them what's what? If you found yourself in that jungle, you'd do well to follow their lead, or else you wouldn't last a week. You just don't get it: you're so steeped in the triumphalism of science you can't see there's any other basis for human knowledge. Yes, folk beliefs are often wrong, but that doesn't mean all folk belief is crap, and if you think that, you're only fooling yourself.

And what mdn said.
posted by languagehat at 9:35 AM on August 4, 2006


It is really not that simple.

Never claimed it was simple. The virus is still the proximate cause. It's quite fascinating why some people will have major symptoms, while others will have none and still have the virus, but that does not change the fact that it is the virus causing the problem. This is not an autoimmune thing, nor is it a genetic disease: a virus gives you a cold.

To claim science has this one all sorted out and the folk info is entirely false is getting a little ahead of ourselves.

Never made anything like that claim, please don't make up straw men and call them my claims.

I don't think it's unreasonable to look into how sudden temperature...

Neither do I, nor am I claiming it is unreasonable. But if you look at the folk wisdom surrounding cold temperature and colds, you'll not find much rationality there.

Clearly the presence of the virus is not the only factor.

The presence of a virus is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for someone having the symptoms of a cold. I get that. You folks can quit telling me that like it's some fashion of revelation. You (and others) don't seem to understand what I'm saying, I must not be saying it well.

You can put a stick of dynamite and a lit match together in a closed box. Sometimes, the dynamite will blow up. Sometimes it won't. If it does blow up, the fuse for the dynamite was lit by the match (assuming for simplicity in this thought experiment that the match doesn't burn through the dynamite itself, bypassing the fuse). You would not say "the match did not cause the dynamite to blow up, because sometimes it doesn't blow up when the match is put in a box." If you want to really quibble, you can say we don't know that the match lit the fuse, as we closed the box, and that's fine, but there's not another reasonable explanation for why the dynamite blew up, in all likelihood.

We don't know exactly what acts as the "fuse" when a virus ("match") is stuck inside your body ("box") [although we do have an idea], but when the full-blown, symptomatic cold shows up ("dynamite explodes"), we do know that the virus caused the explosion, with a fair degree of certainty (a degree of certainty that is orders of magnitudes greater than that for the "cold makes you get a cold" claim).

The folk wisdom surrounding colds and cold temperatures and chills is something like this: it's like saying that going out in the cold without a coat or with wet hair is equivalent to putting the dynamite and lit match in the box, but also filling the box with tinder, as well (or hell, the way some people tell it, going out with wet hair is equivalent to just putting the match right to the fuse). That is, the cold is quite likely to make the cold manifest (well, not that long ago it was just that the cold caused the cold, not just made it more likely). And that's just not true -- at best, it might be like putting some bits of paper in with the match and dynamite.

But in any event, the idea that the cold temperature makes you get a cold was not based on any particularly valid empirical evidence, or even any convincing empirical reasoning. If there is any link between the stress of cold temperature, and your likelihood of getting the symptoms of a cold from the virus, it is completely by accident that the folk wisdom had any validity. That is very important to remember, so as to not reinforce the notion that you can just make shit up, and expect the universe to conform to your beliefs. Which is what a lot folk wisdom is (most, I'd say, but certainly not all). It's making up stories about the universe, rather than empirically trying to understand the universe. Even when it's right, there is not any particularly reliable way to make another bit of correct folk wisdom: it's very much hit or miss.

You can see that in the CNN piece linked above -- the anchor woman is very noticeably gleeful that her stories are found to have some, very slight, scientific validity. But it's completely lost on her, it seems, that that validity was completely by accident. It reinforces the idea that just making shit up is a valid method of trying to understand things, to gloss over that fact, and just say "Mom was right," which is why I'm babbling on at great length.


Take a deep breath, please.

You just don't get it

No, you just don't get it. This:

You just don't get it: you're so steeped in the triumphalism of science you can't see there's any other basis for human knowledge. Yes, folk beliefs are often wrong, but that doesn't mean all folk belief is crap, and if you think that, you're only fooling yourself.

contradicts things I've said in this very thread, so you're obviously not even paying attention to what I'm saying. You are missing my point completely, so you'd do well to try and understand it, or just drop the attitude. Someone was just talking to me about smugness and arrogance: kettle, meet pot.

It's based on a million years of human experience.

When you say this, I see you miss my point completely. It's very, very easy for "human experience" to lead us to believe something that is complete nonsense. It has, on many occasions. The whole framework of folk wisdom has absolutely no way of dealing with that. That is the problem. That it is right by accident sometimes is not important. The whole system has no way to try and ferret out what's right and wrong, or even any reliable way to find out what is right and wrong.
posted by teece at 9:46 AM on August 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

That it is right by accident sometimes is not important.

It's not "by accident." But we're obviously talking past each other and there's no point continuing. Selah.
posted by languagehat at 10:07 AM on August 4, 2006

It's not "by accident."

Well, if that's your assertion, we're obviously using different definitions for what constitutes folk wisdom.
posted by teece at 10:30 AM on August 4, 2006

Here's a thought: science and folk wisdom use different means to arrive at the same end - identifying trends of cause and effect. The difference is that science uses a small amount of measurable, analysed data, while folk wisdom uses a large amount of unmeasured, loosely aggregated data. The guys who built boats before math weren't just randomly sticking things together, they had experiential knowledge that evolved over time through trial, error, observation and communication, not merely by accident, the same with herbalists, and so forth. Similarly, though folk wisdom may not explain the actual causal agent of a cold (viruses), it may identify underlying trends, such as that being cold makes you more likely to catch cold.

In this particular instance, science appears to have succeeded in explaining the cause of colds, but it has not been able to draw solid conclusions on the factors which cause the virus to manifest as a cold. Meanwhile, millennia of experience suggests being cold makes you more likely to get a cold. This may not turn out to be right, but in the absence of conclusive experiments, it doesn't hurt to err on the side of caution.

Of course a lot of folk wisdom is nonsense, but that does not invalidate all of it, just as science has erred and will continue to indefinitely. Folk wisdom is subject to a basically similar process of self-examination and correction as science, just without the rigor or structure, and over a much longer time period.
posted by MetaMonkey at 10:48 AM on August 4, 2006


Folk wisdom is subject to a basically similar process of self-examination and correction as science.

Yeah, see, so this is really just semantics. The thing I have in my mind when I say folk wisdom is not subject to any meaningful self-examination and correction, so my term is too broad and offending you all.

How to build a boat or make a chair or make the sting go away when you cut yourself, these things are fairly immediate, and straight-forwardly verifiable things like that are not what I have in mind when I mean folk wisdom. The empiricism is built right into the process, there. If you don’t build a boat right, you drown. The aloe vera you put on a sunburn makes the sting go away, or it doesn’t. See, the empiricism is built right in. Now, what we today think of as the (loosely defined) “scientific method” is not that old, and there are many pitfalls to “knowing” something with this kind of empiricism that we’ve learned. So we can find out that some of that stuff was right on (aloe), others, not at all (butter on a burn). We can find that long-cherished beliefs about the best shape for a boat are wrong, or that an ancient shape of a long-abandoned design for a canoe turns out to be super efficient, but the craft of boat-making is still not the kind of thing I had in mind.

What I’m thinking of is the either made-up, or just plausible, explanation that is never subjected to any test. This kind of folk wisdom is more like religion than anything else, and that’s why I say if it is right, that that it is by accident. Trying to decide if the temperature correlates with the incidence of colds is not straight-forward empiricism. For much of human history, the tools and thought processes required to really answer that question have not existed, let alone the massive groundwork needed to begin to understand the human body . As such, the answers that have existed tended to, at best, be plausible to semi-plausible guesses, and at worst utter nonsense, sometimes even harmful. And with mental processes like selection bias and confirmation bias at work, it’s not hard at all to convince yourself and others that a completely made-up story is indeed a description of the causal method of the universe. That stuff is not generally subject to much of a falsification process.

That’s the stuff I have in mind: you’ll catch your death of pneumonia if you sleep with a window open; a fan in a closed room will suffocate you [well, that seems so obviously wrong...]; red hair correlates with angry people; leaches suck out sickness; feed a cold, starve a flu; stuff like that.

If you want to call the knowledge of how to build a boat, or grow corn, or whatever, folk wisdom, OK. I’m not trying to define folk wisdom in a negative way, that’s just not the stuff I was thinking of. If you open the definition up to stuff like that, the ratio of right to wrong probably goes up. That’s fine.

It’s just not what I was thinking about. I was thinking about the stuff that is really no more than superstition, where to test the hypothesis in question would have required a kind of empiricism that hasn’t been around that long, and where most such claims are never subject to any meaningful test, they are just accepted as given. There’s lots of this out there, and people of all stripes buy into it. I’m not claiming some kind superiority or triumphalism, as some have said. Far from it. I’m sure I succumb to some of it myself, and I’m also sure that had I lived 20,000 (or even 200) years ago I wouldn’t have understood any better than anyone else what caused colds.

My beef is buying into the idea that humans have really figured it all out, and that science is just catching up, that superstition/folk wisdom/common sense is more often right, or at least just as good. Hell, science is often wrong (the same faults that lead us to accept bogus folk wisdom are there in scientists, too, it’s just that the whole process is more aware of them, and more amenable to diminishing them), and it’s built on a much, much better foundation, so to me that idea is patently ludicrous. caddis really seemed to be saying something like this to me.

I meet well-meaning leftists all the time that really buy into some of these notions: that anything old, folksy, and “natural” is right and good, and that modern “science” stuff is bad, conspiratorial, or even downright evil. That our “common sense” is better than science (assuming that we have something real in mind by the nebulous term, “science”). Ironically, this view some leftist’s hold is very similar to the view of their arch-enemy, religious fundamentalists and reactionaries.

In my experience, the way the universe works is such that your common sense can lie to you as often as not, and a testable method based on empiricism is the best way to try and understand this place. Which is not to say at all that “science” is perfect: simply better than the alternative. Better by a long shot. And please reread that last sentence if you’re about to fire off a missive telling me science is fallible and difficult; I know this. Better than the alternative does not mean perfect, and I’m making no such claim. Neither am I making the claim that folk wisdom, as I’ve tried to define it here, is never right.

And let me just say, yet again, this:

Of course a lot of folk wisdom is nonsense, but that does not invalidate all of it,

Is not my position. If that’s what I led folks to believe by saying it was crap, that was my mistake. I meant to get across that the method by which folk wisdom is arrived at is crap, and I did try to elucidate that. And again, I don’t seem to be using nearly as broad a definition of folk wisdom as others are. Nor am I trying to say that modern people have got it all figured out, and that people from the past were clueless, or that your dear Aunt Millie was an idiot. Empiricism is a great way to figure out how the universe behaves (and as far as I know, the only way that we have that actually works to any significant degree). But that doesn’t mean that science has all the answers. The thing we generally refer to as “science” today is built upon empirical and logical roots that stretch back millennia. We’ve just been getting better at it with time.

We know what causes colds, more or less. It’s a virus. While the exact mechanism is not entirely understood, we have a broad outline. The folk wisdom on this issue was more or less completely wrong: the name even shows it so: cold. It really was believed that it was the cold temperature itself that made you sick. So if, many years later, after we learn what is really happening there, we find some evidence to suggest that a chill can make you a bit more susceptible to that real cause, it rubs me the wrong way to somehow see that as giving credence to the incorrect folk wisdom that has persisted to this day. It’s not any vindication at all for that belief: first of all, the evidence is weak, and at least one other study directly contradicts this one, but further, that idea does not need defending. It was wrong. If there is a small correlation, it is just as likely that accident led to believing cold was the cause of a cold, as it was astute powers of observation. Indeed, I strongly suspect that the fact that cold weather can make your nose run, which mimics one of the symptoms of a cold, is the reason people associated the two, and not some keen observation of a temperature and cold symptom correlation. Of course, I can’t prove such a claim, and that could very well be wrong, but it’s my hunch. I’d also love to see a study about the mental stress that cold weather might cause, to rule out that as a factor, because it is also known that mental stress can make one more susceptible to illness, but that is neither here nor there.
posted by teece at 12:58 PM on August 4, 2006

Ah, OK, I get where you're coming from now, and I basically agree. But you're going to have problems if you insist on using words in ways that make sense only to you—you then wind up having to elaborately explain what you mean. You're basically defining "folk wisdom" to mean "false superstitions" and then proclaiming that folk wisdom is wrong. Well, yeah, if that's what you mean by it, but that's not what anybody else means by it. May I suggest that you recalibrate your approach?

However, I still have a disagreement. Folk wisdom is empirical; it's sloppy, unscientific empiricism full of logical holes, but it's still empirical. People didn't do things because The Gods Told Them To (though they frequently made up such stories after the fact), they did them because generations of ancestors had decided through trial and error that that's how they should be done. Yes, we have better ways now, but that's not the same as saying we invented empiricism.

But you do say "Nor am I trying to say that modern people have got it all figured out, and that people from the past were clueless," and I appreciate that. I think we're on the same page.
posted by languagehat at 1:44 PM on August 4, 2006

So am I abusing the term "folk wisdom," languagehat? It was suggested to me by the phrasing of the question, and I lazily grabbed onto it without defining what I meant by it.

But I can't really find a succinct definition. Don't see it in the OED, not much of great import came up on the first few pages of a Google search.

But terms like "folk psychology" and "folk science" and "folk etymology" all use a similar structure to the one I used in a pejorative light, as I was using "folk wisdom." So my usage is not entirely without precedent.

But is there a really positive use of the term? Online seems to split it between meaning something like "proverbs" (not appropriate here), unsubstantiated beliefs that would really be unWisdom (like I was using it), and as a contrast to some definitely bad "folk X," whereas "folk wisdom" was at least NOT bad. This last one sort of contradicts my usage, but it's not a ringing endorsement of folk wisdom as a positive thing. It seems to be used neutrally, as something to be treated with skepticism, it its most positive usage, and completely negatively in a noticeable portion. At least in my 3 minute bit of "research."

Just curious. But, of course, if we use the same term to mean different things, meaningful dialog is hard to have ;-)
posted by teece at 2:25 PM on August 4, 2006

Yeah, it's a very vague term, and I think your summary of usage is fair. All I'm saying is that the more clear and specific you make your statements, the easier it is to have a meaningful dialog; "folk wisdom is crap" is punchy but unhelpful. But you've already acknowledged that.
posted by languagehat at 3:12 PM on August 4, 2006

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