Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Science, Science, SCIENCE!

In this country, we don't get that all decisions present trade-offs, and we especially don't get it when it comes to decisions about raising children. If there's something you can do that will give your child even a slight better chance of being safe or successful, you're supposed to do it, no matter the cost.

Our obsession with child seats is one example. When I was growing up, I'm pretty sure it was still okay for kids to ride in the back of a pickup truck. Now It's absolutely unacceptable to take your kids in the car without the exact right weight-rated seat for your child, installed by a certified expert.  A few years ago, I scandalized my co-workers by telling them I took my then 5-year old to school buckled in, but without a booster seat. This was wildly dangerous. Never mind, that the school was less than a mile away and the speed limit was never more than 35 mph. Am I really supposed to believe that I'm being reckless by taking this tiny risk? Am I supposed to believe that my kid is really in significantly more peril if he gets into a 25 mph crash with no booster seat than he would be in  a 70 mph crash with a booster seat?

Our cult-like belief that good mothers must breastfeeding in particular bad in this regard.  My wife felt particularly guilty for not being able to breastfeed our kids without supplementing them with formula. Then we had twins. After a couple of sleepless days because our crying babies were not getting enough food, she broke down in tears in the lactation nurse's office. (Yes, we have nurses who specialize in teaching breastfeeding to a mother of four, in Oregon anyway.) To preserve our sanity, we started supplementing their diets with formula almost immediately, and really it got to the point before too long where they just refused breast milk so we gave up.

As I said she felt guilty about it, but I didn't because I was pretty sure it didn't matter. Yes I know there are studies that show breastfeeding leads to better outcomes for children. And you know what? I haven't even bothered to read any of the studies! So I must be anti-science. I just figured, it was pretty unlikely that my otherwise healthy, well-fed children with a fixed set of DNA and the same environment they would otherwise have, were really going to turn out much different based upon whether they were breastfed. And it also just seemed to me that breastfeeding is probably highly correlated with a number of other factors that could be driving the result, unrelated to whether the children were actually getting better nutrition from breastfeeding. Whether a mom stays at home, the father's ability to earn an income that allows the mother to stay at home, and the physical health of the mother to be able to breastfeed are all variables that could be driving this correlation. It just seems to me that is was very unlikely those studies had actually isolated the effect of breast milk.

On top of all that, I'm generally pretty skeptical of our ability to suss out the effect of one variable on outcomes that are the result of multiple causes, especially when we are not performing controlled experiments, but instead performing regression analysis. Who knows what "outliers" were thrown away, or how many regressions were performed before the "scientist" got the results that showed statistical significance.

So I was glad to see this article confirms some of the skepticism I've long had about the benefits of breastfeeding. Turn out when you do the study comparing kids from the same families, there is no difference between kids that are breastfed and those that weren't, other than the ones that are breastfed seem to have a higher rate of asthma. Take that, you uppity soccer moms who claim the mantle of science because your friend read some Yahoo! article saying breastfeeding is better than formula. Science is on my side now!


Brett said...

I’m totally with you on child seats. There was a section in one of the Freakonomics books about how all these new safety standards are largely driven by the child seat industry. I also like how child seats have expiration dates. I’m pretty sure mine are all expired.

Sorry to hear about your wife’s struggles with breastfeeding (or not breastfeeding). Lindsey’s has a sister had a somewhat similar struggle. She didn’t have twins but had complications that made breast feeding very difficult and she struggled with guilt over it. I always felt the same as you. If you can’t breastfeed you can’t breastfeed. The kid will be ok.

On regression analysis, I agree it can be a tricky research approach, and that it can only identify correlations not causation, but it can be argued that the same is true for all of science. And doesn’t the article that confirms your breastfeeding skepticism come to that conclusion through regression analysis. You can’t celebrate a finding right after berating the method used to come to that finding.

Ryan said...

Yes, the conclusion flies right in the face of what I was writing. It was meant to be hypocritical in an obvious, ironic way.