Much of science is folk science

“Folk Science” is usually thought of as the knowledge of science held by laypeople.

But any time a person speaks or writes about something they don’t understand in detail, it blends into a folk science level of understanding.  This applies to scientists as well.  When a scientist writes a technical paper in his/her field, some of the content is well-understood by the scientist.  But there are always portions of the paper that refer to knowledge outside the scientist’s field.  This is often signalled by the nature of references to the literature. If the reference is to narrow and technical material within the scientist’s field, it is solid scientific knowledge.  Topics more distant from the author’s expertise are often signalled by references to review articles, or older ‘classic’ papers or books.

This phenomena has a graded structure:  The further from the author’s domain of expertise, the more general and/or older the literature referred to.

If a historian is writing about early nineteenth century culture, references to biology might only go so far as referring to Darwin’s Origin of the Species, or a book or paper that attempts to explain the nature of the understanding of biology that existed during that period. The historian would rarely, if ever, refer to some highly technical paper of the earlier era, or a contemporary research paper explaining abstruse details of DNA sequence comparisons of extant or ancient recovered DNA that adds to our scientific understanding  of the complex genetic and molecular aspects of evolution.  So the historian’s understanding of biology is at the level of folk science.

The ideas above are important to me as I work on detailed analysis of the content of biology research papers.  The text components range from highly technical details to more general statements about ‘distant’ topics.

For example, in a paper about malarial parasites, we find the following,

In both vertebrates and yeast, one intron harbours single snoRNA gene but in plants, there are reports of clustered snoRNA genes present in a single intron [35,40]. Plasmodium falciparum has a cluster of two snoRNAs, viz PFS15 and PFS16, which are present in the same intron of PF 14_0027 (Fig 3).”

The red-highlighted sentence refers to material that is presumably outside the authors’ central expertise. It is signalled by references to two papers, one of which is broad in scope, “Plant snoRNA database”.  

The aqua-highlighted material doesn’t refer to secondary sources – it is at the core of the research done by the authors and explained in the technical portions of the paper. It refers to the detailed presentation of the authors’ own data in their figure 3.

A friend of mine, some years ago had an interesting metaphor for this phenomenon:
Consider the light coming from distant stars.  If a star is 1,000 light years away, the light from it shows us what it looked like 1,000 years ago.  The more distant the scientific field is, or the more distant the star, the older the information about either.


About heartandmindandme

Husband and father. Wise and droll wife and three wonderful kids. Scientist all my long life - Physics, Biology, Computer Science, and more. Washington, DC and Leesburg, VA public schools. MIT bachelor's and PhD. Faculty member of U. of Illinois and Northeastern U. for 25 years until recent retirement. Member of Marine Biological Lab, Woods Hole, MA. Like: Classical music plus instrumental folk and old jazz, or just sit and watch the sky, trees, birds, rain, wind, and snow.
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