Week 29: Ask what different types of evidence can do

 Lots of types of evidence you'll find are like this Japanese porcelain feeding bottle. Beautiful, seemingly perfect, but poorly suited to its purpose and impossibly messy. |  Wellcome Collection

Lots of types of evidence you'll find are like this Japanese porcelain feeding bottle. Beautiful, seemingly perfect, but poorly suited to its purpose and impossibly messy. | Wellcome Collection

Need some distraction from the aches and pains of the third trimester? Let’s talk about research papers.

When you hear “five-paragraph essay,” what comes to mind? Maybe you’re thinking about thesis statements. Perhaps topic sentences. Introductions and conclusions?

Most of you are probably thinking about finding credible sources. As a result, maybe you’re thinking that leg pain isn’t so bad now, or that it’s not so annoying when your pregnant partner’s bathroom trips wake you up every few hours.

In my doctoral research, I studied how different groups of people understand “research.” The students I interviewed tended to see sources as “proof” of their points: a source can either back up or take down a claim.

Their teachers, however, viewed sources much differently. Sources could sometimes act as proof, sure, but they could do much more. For starters, sources can show relationships. If I include a link to this article on a pain-free pregnancy, I’m not just providing “proof” of different pain relief techniques. I’m also aligning myself with Gwenyth Paltrow’s particular brand of science-ish health advice.

Sources are like jade eggs. Their helpfulness depends on how you use them. Thinking about how sources function within parenting articles can change the way you read them.

“My parents did that with me and look how I turned out”

Anecdotal evidence abounds in parent-land. We co-slept and my baby is now a happy, well-adjusted kid. We sleep-trained and my baby is now a happy, well-adjusted kid. I left my preschooler alone in the car for five minutes and she was fine! I left my preschooler alone in the car for five minutes and I’m sure she was nearly abducted! Stories like these are often used in arguments about what all parents should or should not do with their children.

Anecdotes are a great way to get practical advice from other parents. It’s fine to use other parents’ anecdotes when you’re looking for ways to keep your child busy during a car trip or avert a grocery store meltdown. Anecdotes also offer a way for parents to feel less alone. If you are experiencing a difficult pregnancy complication, reading the stories of other women who have dealt with it can be helpful.

But anecdotes are also dangerous in that they stick out. We remember the story of the IKEA near-abduction, and that influences our behavior during our next shopping trip. You shouldn’t run far away from IKEA, but you should flee any article attempting to “boost” your awareness with anecdotal evidence.

“Now I know what it’s like”

A close relative of the anecdote is the interview or profile of a parent with an unusual experience. Interviews can give us insight into what it’s like to be a parent experiencing a particular issue.

It’s good for us to cultivate empathy and use interviews as a way to see the world from different perspectives. It’s bad for us to make decisions based on the unlikely outcomes presented in a single interview.

“I can’t believe she did that”

This mom getting shamed for putting baby on the floor at the airport. This mom covered in bees. Moms being shamed for public breastfeeding. Moms being shamed for not public breastfeeding.

Photos are often used to shame moms for their bad behavior. Your response to these photo-based articles about bad parents should be disbelief.

Photos are definitely powerful storytelling tools, but they rarely tell a whole story. The photos are poor evidence for what really happened. That’s bad enough for the individual moms in question, but it’s arguably even worse for moms as a group, who start to change their (completely reasonable) parenting behaviors out of fear of what others will think.

The best strategy here is simple: don’t click on any story with the words “mom” and “unbelievable photo” in the headline. If you do inadvertently end up reading such a story, ask yourself what might have been happening right out of frame. What couldn’t we see, and how might that have changed the story?