Week 30: Don't do anything because science

Scientists rarely get it right on the first try,  because science . |  Wellcome Collection

Scientists rarely get it right on the first try, because science. | Wellcome Collection

I’m all for the ever-changing nature of the English language, but one phrase I really hate is “because science,” as in:

You should listen to your pregnancy cravings, because science.
You should let mom sleep in, because science.
Throw our all your Teflon, because science.
Vaccinate your kids, because science.
Buy a T-shirt, because science.

First, it’s just mean. Often italicized for emphasis, because science is a typographical invitation to roll your eyes at the creationists or anti-vaxxers or alternative medicine practitioners.

Second, scientific literature can’t tell you what to do. Many parenting articles reporting on medical research draw huge conclusions from that research. They take a question that was explored for doctors by doctors and turn it into advice for how to avoid a particular condition. But science can’t tell you what is right or good or best, because “right,” “good,” and “best” are not scientific terms.

Take the hair tourniquet example we reviewed back in Week 8. The researchers were discussing best practices for treating a hair tourniquet, which is an important piece of information for doctors who encounter toe tourniquets to have. The doctors were not advising the public about whether or how to prevent toe tourniquets from happening in the first place. They certainly weren’t advocating that parents vacuum more regularly, wash the baby’s laundry separately, or cut their hair, but suddenly that was the advice for all parents of babies.

Third, scientific claims, like all claims, are rhetorical. Let’s look at the because science’s less snarky sibling, “research shows.” We think of that phrase as a statement of fact, as in “research shows breast is best.” But statements like these ignore the fact that real people—wonderfully complex, opinionated, flawed, human people—were behind that research.

Breast milk is darn near miraculous. It’s been claimed to cement the bond between mother and child, raise a child’s IQ, prevent illness, and ward off obesity. “If one takes the claims seriously,” writes Emily Oster for Five Thirty Eight, it is not difficult to conclude that breastfed babies are all thin, rich geniuses who love their mothers and are never sick a day in their lives while formula-fed babies become overweight, low-IQ adults who hate their parents and spend most of their lives in the hospital.”

Those looking for scientific evidence for breastfeeding can certainly find it: there’s plenty of papers that make sweeping claims about the advantages of breastfeeding. The problem, Oster claims, is what many of the researchers ignored, namely, “that women who breastfeed are typically different from those who do not.” Wealthier, more educated women are more likely to breastfeed their babies than poorer, less educated women, so the differences between breastfeeding and bottle feeding might be better described by differences in wealth. Enroll a group of mothers to test the link between IQ and breastfeeding and you’ll run into complications because maternal IQ is already one predictor for child IQ.

The best study, Oster claims, would be a randomized controlled trial in which women were randomly assigned to breastfeed or not. The next best thing would be a sibling study that enrolled children from the same family who were breastfed or bottle fed. Oster rounds up these two types of studies and evaluated what they had to say about infant health, child health and behavior, and IQ. She found a slight reduction in eczema and diarrhea for breastfed infants, and no evidence that breastfeeding benefits future child health or IQ. Her conclusion? If breastfeeding ends up being a pleasurable activity for your family, go for it. That’s reason enough to do it without the scientific claims about the benefits of breastfeeding.

If you are planning to breastfeed, you probably already know that your health insurance must cover the cost of a breast pump. But if you know you’ll be taking long road trips to see the grandparents, consider a manual pump, which is quieter and much more “portable” than the motorized pumps and their accompaniments.