As I've been reading, sad to say, I have come across some answers that don't leave me feeling particularly enlightened. I feel like some, honestly, too many, of these top-ranked answers are relying more on emotional appeals and fuzzy feelings rather than backed-up, reasoned evidence. That is, they are relying on "folk wisdom"; stuff that sounds right to the ear, that may or may not be correct, but is full of vapid reasoning and not backed up any cites whats0ever.

Here is one such answer, from the question, When is physical punishment appropriate?

I'm trying to think of a case, and I can't. So: Never?

Why does this answer have 14 upvotes, as of this writing? Would a response of "spare the rod, and spoil the child", have garnered the same number? After all, both responses are equally pithy; both are equally "common sense." But only one is fashionable in 2011; its counterpart would have been just as vapid, and fashionable, in 1811. In my view, the perfect answer to this question would have had cites to scientific studies, or case studies of the life-trajectories of spanked children; an at least above-average answer would have tried to examine, through a perhaps a thought experiment, how the child would logically respond to spanking. ("You aren't teaching a child how to think through the implications of bad behavior if you beat him, only teaching him to avoid the punishment." Or something like that. I don't personally know the answer to the question.) This kind of answer certainly doesn't deserve so many upvotes.

Here is another answer I don't like, to the question, Which breeds of dog are safe to have around a toddler?:

Any breed of dog can be perfectly safe or extremely dangerous. You have to test out the dog for aggressive behavior and educate your toddler on appropriate dog handling.

For example, I stress to my kids that they should not bother the dog while she's eating. At the same time, our dog doesn't have any food issues -- they can stick their hands in her dish and not get bit or mauled.

The second paragraph of this answer is possibly useful; I can't evaluate it. But the first part is again, fashionable fluff -- easily refuted by cursory looks at the data. Sure, lots of people believe it; it may even be correct. But it's not the kind of thing one should claim without evidence or extensive anecdotes, and it certainly shouldn't be the kind of top-ranked answer we have here.

To contrast, here is a very useful answer to the question, Is there any science in favor of co-sleeping with children:

A quick search will yield many articles and studies that show infants benefit from touch. With co-sleeping, infants are touched while falling asleep and often all through the night. Among other things, touch helps to increase the parent-child bond.

Parents get much better sleep because they don't usually have to get up and fully wake if the baby wakes during the night. Babies get better sleep because they don't have to wait for a parent to come get them for feeding. Note that this isn't just being lazy; well-rested parents can better care for their child during the day.

According to pediatrician Dr. William Sears, a leading proponent of attachment parenting (of which co-sleeping is a fundamental part), falling asleep in the arms of a parent helps infants learn that going to sleep is pleasant. It also helps to establish trust and reduce separation anxiety.

This is the best kind of answer. It ties in both personal experience, and established scientific constructs outside of that experience ("attachment parenting"; "separation anxiety"). I can reason through a logical chain in my head that shows me why sleeping with a baby would solve certain needs of his, and mine, and read through paradigms of parenting theory later on; it isn't just a "duh!" or "works for me!"

Other answers I enjoyed were the couple to this one, What is a good strategy for a 5 year old to finish dinner before dessert?

Whenever we have "dessert" it's something well after dinner, so it's not associated with the meal. If we ever have something after the meal, it's orange slices or some other fruit.

Cancel dessert altogether. When the children learn that food is just a test to pass on the way to dessert, they'll cheat, lie and steal to pass the test.

What makes them good answers is that they draw on a well-established principle outside of personal experience, operant conditioning -- I understand why their techniques might work, even if I don't actually agree, or wouldn't use them for my children. This is much better than a "works for me!" answer.

I'm tiring quickly, so I'll just end with this: I think it's crucially important for this site to vote up answers that reasoned and well-supported, in favor of those that are "folksy" and "common sense" in tone, even if you disagree with the answer. Only that will allow this site to have a comparative advantage and become a valued resource compared to other parenting sites on the web. On pretty much all the StackExchange sites, you can be sure that you are getting a considered response to the most subjective of questions, if they were allowed to be asked -- that needs to be doubly so in so emotional as subject as parenting. Please downvote fluff answers.

  • 2
    +1 good post about keeping up the quality here
    – hawbsl
    Commented Apr 7, 2011 at 21:31
  • 2
    -1 It is unclear exactly what problem the OP is trying to address here (she/he talks about "folk wisdom" but goes on to give examples of anecdotal information and unsupported statements, not folk wisdom). Additionally, the second example is, ironically, countered with the same sort of unsupported statement that the OP seems to feel is inappropriate for SE !
    – HedgeMage
    Commented Apr 8, 2011 at 23:05
  • A bit of folk wisdom from Sweden here: "As you ask, so you get answered", meaning if your question wasn't good, you won't get a good answer. Commented Apr 9, 2011 at 8:55
  • @HedgeMage If you don't know what the definition of folk wisdom is, perhaps you should look it up in a dictionary. "Anecdotal information" and "unsupported statements" are EXACTLY the components of folk wisdom.
    – Uticensis
    Commented Apr 9, 2011 at 8:56
  • As I explain in my answer, not every subject in the universe has been (or can be) treated with scientific rigor. Large aggregations of anecdotal evidence (i.e. folk wisdom) are not the same as an individual anecdote, nor are they the same as scientific rigor. Folk wisdom is not unsupported, or we'd call it "conjecture". We have a duty to present our best answers, and to explain clearly upon what they are founded so that readers can decide for themselves what weight they wish to give the advice.
    – HedgeMage
    Commented Apr 9, 2011 at 14:30

3 Answers 3


First of all, I'm not sure whether you are really objecting to "folk wisdom" (that is, methods tried over generations that may not have received rigorous scientific evaluation, but have been tried hundreds if not thousands of times and passed down because they work) or "anecdotal information" (that is, "this works for us but I don't have any data on it"), or "unsupported statements" (that is, "this is true" with no info on why or how the answerer came to that conclusion).

With regard to folk wisdom, I'm absolutely in favor of posting it (and if it's good, upvoting it) as long as it is clearly labelled as such. My ancestors were using aspirin, ginger root, and so on long before they were "discovered" by modern science. There are many such cases.

With regard to anecdotal information, I'm in favor of it when it either illustrates a point more clearly, or when it is the best information available.

For example, if someone rattled off symptoms of CAS (Childhood Apraxia of Speech) observed in their toddler, and I jumped in with anecdotal information about my son's experiences, that anecdotal information would be the best info available. CAS is relatively rare to begin with, and very few CAS children (too few to do any kind of study and thus have non-anecdotal information available) are diagnosed before elementary school age.

With regard to unsupported statements, I think we should avoid this wherever possible. If there is really a situation in which there's no research-backed information, no tried and true folk wisdom, and no anecdotal examples... it's good to try to offer some answer. HOWEVER, we should be careful in wording things in a way that makes it clear this is a "best guess" answer only.

I downvoted this one for poor application of logic:

I'm trying to think of a case, and I can't. So: Never?

...but with regard to:

Any breed of dog can be perfectly safe or extremely dangerous. You have to test out the dog for aggressive behavior and educate your toddler on appropriate dog handling.

We could certainly find individual examples of any breed dog being aggressive and/or dangerous. We could certainly find examples of dogs commonly assumed to be dangerous who are not only safe, but loyal protectors and playmates. The point that every individual dog should be evaluated for its particular behavior, rather than assumed to be "safe" or "unsafe" based on breed is so obvious and logical. Certainly it should be supported better in the answer (that's why we have the ability to edit).

However, your declaration that it is "fashionable fluff -- easily refuted by cursory looks at the data" begs for you to do the same -- go ahead and refute it if you think you can. Statements that agree with your preconceptions aren't less in need of rational analysis.

  • Perhaps you did not see the report I linked to in the comments. Did you read all the thread? Trust me, I'm a big follower of the "back-it-up" principle.
    – Uticensis
    Commented Apr 9, 2011 at 7:32
  • @Billare: I have now. Just because you found something called a "report", that doesn't mean it's backed up by reliable information. Part of providing reliable information is being skeptical.
    – HedgeMage
    Commented Apr 9, 2011 at 14:09
  • "or when it is the best information available" the problem is that people are terrible in judging whether what they want to say is the "best information available" (read: they always think it is). I'm not completely against anecdotal information, but formulating advice based on anecdotal data is definitely harmful.
    – BartoszKP
    Commented Oct 16, 2016 at 22:13

In the UK there's a game show named 'Q.I.' where commonly-held beliefs and definitions are discussed and points awarded for knowing the real origin versus the urban legends or folk wisdom. This is an example of where people just accept the commonly-held belief or folk wisdom until someone with deeper knowledge steps up and explains why that's wrong/inaccurate.

There are plenty of similar situations on all the other SE sites I peruse and until someone steps in with detailed reasoning, scientific evidence for-or-against, or a selection of citations adding weight to their argument, we're stuck with the 'knowledge of the crowd'.

..but this is how (the) community works, right? If everyone is comfortable with the situation, then no need to question it until such time that someone feels there must be a better way/answer.

  • What's interesting, coming to this later, is that a large number of the answers to Q.I. questions have been proved to be wrong. They were the best information available at the time. Do you think there's a way we can account for this kind of scientific flux (especially in the softer sciences?) Commented Dec 4, 2013 at 16:14

What I'd like to know is, how exactly is this any different from Serverfault.com?

On Serverfault, people respond with their personal experiences for what worked for them. Now, the problem is that software is vastly different from wetware, and the only way you can get any serious results in psychology (or biology) is by trying your method with thousands of people and analysing the statistics on what worked for how many people. Even then, what works for most people doesn't work with everyone, mostly because of the genetic variation that keeps species alive.

So we're basically back to "this worked for me. It may not work for you. It's worth a try though, because it did work for someone. Try methods A, B, C, and P until one works."

That's called folk wisdom and anecdotal evidence.

  • As you've noted yourself, your analogy is invalid. We are not "basically back to "this worked for me"". Statistical evidence is still much better than anecdotes. If not data exist, educated guess from experts is your best go (directly, or by quoting books for example). Only after considering these sources it may make sense to post some anecdotal information (still, not advice based on anecdotes).
    – BartoszKP
    Commented Oct 16, 2016 at 22:17

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