Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Phenomenon of "Mommy Myths"

“Mommy myths” is my shorthand for pseudo-scientific notions that seem to be largely passed along and promoted by networks of middle- and upper-class women.  These women tend to be college-educated, mostly progressive in their politics, and moms, as many of these notions relate to child-rearing.  Good examples of the mommy myth phenomenon include fear-mongering about the “danger” of immunizations [long disproven per CDC and other leading authorities] and hysteria about the danger of fluoride, especially fluoridated water [good Aussie government fact-check sheet here.]  

We had our own water fluoridation controversy here in very progressive Portland, Oregon, a few years back.  Opposition to fluoridating Portland water was led by extremely progressive folks who bizarrely asserted that fluoride was “a dangerous chemical,” and who apparently couldn’t understand the difference between therapeutic levels of fluoride and toxic levels of the stuff. [*Note 1]  The fluoride opponents won.  That may have been when my fascination with mommy myths as a phenomenon was born.

What’s particularly interesting is that these notions are accepted at face value, largely uncritically, by women who’ve had ample opportunity to learn how to be discerning consumers of information.  These notions are often supposedly supported by “scientific evidence,” but if you bother to look at the studies being cited, the “evidence” usually boils down to studies that either don’t exist, aren’t reliable, or have been disproven, or simply bizarre claims based on an appallingly idiotic misreading of legitimate scientific studies (see, e.g., fluoride.)  Proponents also often agitate to change public policy based on complete pseudo-science because of “concern for our children,” so their confused and unnecessary policy solutions to non-existent problems end up being foisted off onto the rest of us.  

As much as some of my fellow urban and suburban progressives like to complain about scientific ignorance among [some] rural conservatives, it’s ironic that these same folks often fail to call out the significant (or at least noisy) contingent of fellow progressives who frequently rely on pseudo-science, too.  I value objective reality above all - evidence, a healthy respect for modern science, a reasonable understanding of its limitations, close and critical analysis of academic and scientific research, consideration of potential unintended consequences of policy, and shedding light on the crucial nuances that are sometimes, perhaps even often, lost in popular reporting on various matters - these are the driving values that make me who I am and that ultimately led to this blog.  

So maybe that’s why mommy myths fascinate me so much - because they usually come from women who are a lot like me in some respects, but who apparently don't have my odd habit of questioning virtually everything I hear.  In any case, maybe my fellow progressives shouldn’t be so quick to look down on conservatives when it comes to pseudo-science and propagation of nutty, scientifically-disproved notions - at least evolution denial never resulted in a public health crisis. [*Note 2] 

There are a variety of notions out there that I have a sneaking suspicion are nothing more than mommy myths.  I plan to examine a number of these in coming months.  In the meantime, what common ideas or concerns do you suspect may be mommy myths?  Please share here in the comments section, and I'll try to look into as many as I can. 

*Note 1: The link I provided is rife with "scientific" claims about fluoridation and citations that supposedly support the anti-fluoride folks.  I've never delved into all of the sources they listed, but I examined two of the studies fluoride opponents repeatedly cited and they were actually completely irrelevant.  The 2006 National Research Council study and another Chinese study I'm not finding at the moment (sorry) did NOT support fluoride opponents' contentions.  Those studies actually examined adverse effects of toxic levels of naturally occurring fluoride in water in certain locations, not the addition of much lower therapeutic levels of fluoride to water in locales where concentrations of naturally-occurring fluoride were non-existent or extremely low. This source talks more about the fluoride opponents' distortions of available scientific evidence.

*Note 2: Okay, I was being cute there. Climate change denial also poses a significant and legitimate threat to human survival.  Please save your indignation for something more worthwhile than my cheap throw-away joke.

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