Natural childbirth and the argument from ignorance

“Natural” childbirth advocacy is riddled with fallacious arguments and one of the most common types is known as the “argument from ignorance.” It could more properly be described as the “appeal to ignorance”; ignorance in this setting refers not to a characteristic of the person offering the argument but as a description of the quality of the evidence. Specifically, there is no evidence.

To understand how an argument from ignorance is structured, why it is a fallacy, and who might invoke an argument from ignorance, let’s start with an easily understood example from outside the realm of childbirth.

… there is nothing in the files to disprove his Communist associations.

This line was famously uttered by Senator Joseph McCarthy when accusing individuals of being secret Communist sympathizers and therefore unfit to participate in American public life. What’s wrong with this argument?

1. Arguments from ignorance typically share the same structure:

Person 1: I assert A.
Person 2: Where is your evidence for A?
Person 1: I find no evidence for “not A” so A must be true.

The argument of McCarthy followed the same structure:

McCarthy: “John” is a Communist.
John: I am not a Communist and there is no evidence to show that I am a Communist.
McCarthy: But there’s no evidence to show you are not a Communist, so you must be a Communist.

What’s wrong with this structure? It’s easy to see when the argument is about Communist sympathies. We understand that if a person is falsely accused of being a Communist, there will, of course, be no evidence that he is a Communist. Therefore, the claim that the lack of evidence “proves” he is a Communist is demonstrably false.

2. Arguments from ignorance place the burden of proof on the wrong person.

In logical argument, the burden of proof is on the person making the claim. If McCarthy wants to claim that John is a Communist, McCarthy must provide the proof. It is not up to John to prove that he is not a Communist. Indeed, there is no way to prove that you are not a Communist since there is likely to be no evidence of any kind.

3. Arguments from ignorance are usually invoked when the person making the claim has no evidence for the claim.

It is a tactic of desperation. If the person making the claim had evidence, he would present it. An argument from ignorance is an implicit acknowledgment that there is no evidence for the claim.

4. The person making the claim generally has a specific ideological reason for doing so.

McCarthy wanted to shame the Truman administration and punish those he did not like. He was not interested in following evidence where it led. He had determined the conclusion in advance and created an “argument” that allowed only for that predetermined conclusion.

What I find particularly instructive about the McCarthy example is that we understand that if the person is truly not a Communist, the fallacious argument will be impossible to disprove. In other words, the more likely it is that he is not guilty, the more difficult it will be to prove that he is not guilty.

Let’s turn to ways in which “natural” childbirth advocates use the argument from ignorance. They almost always deploy it when confronted with evidence that undermines their ideological beliefs. They have a predetermined conclusion in mind, and they are committed to ignoring any evidence that stands in the way of that conclusion.

“Natural” childbirth advocates are sure that modern obstetrics is harmful, not helpful. The evidence is not on their side, however. The neonatal mortality rate has dropped 90% and the maternal mortality rate has dropped 99% since the inception of modern obstetrics. “Natural” childbirth advocates don’t want to accept the evidence and often make the following argument from ignorance to me:

NC Advocate: Improvements in sanitation are the true cause of the decline in neonatal and maternal mortality.
AT: Where is the evidence for that claim?
NC Advocate: Can you show that sanitation didn’t cause the decline in mortality rates? If you can’t then it is perfectly reasonable to assume that sanitation did cause the decline in mortality rates.

Of course, if sanitation didn’t cause the decline, there would be no evidence to show that it didn’t cause the decline. So it is entirely unreasonable to conclude that the lack of evidence about sanitation shows that modern obstetrics cannot take credit for the decline in mortality rates.

Homebirth advocates make a similar argument when confronted with the data that homebirth increases the neonatal mortality rate compared to low risk hospital birth. Their predetermined conclusion is that homebirth is as safe or safer than hospital birth and they must reach that conclusion regardless of the evidence. Hence the following argument:

HB Advocate: Well the data may show that homebirth increases the risk of neonatal death, but hospital birth increases the risk of postneonatal death even more. Lots of babies hurt by obstetrics interventions die from those interventions, but only after 28 days has passed.
AT: Where is the evidence that hospital birth increases the postneonatal mortality rate?
HB Advocate: Where is the proof that hospital birth doesn’t increase postneonatal mortality. If you can’t present proof, then it is perfectly reasonable to assume that hospital birth increases the risk of postneonatal mortality.

In this case, it is actually possible to prove that hospital birth does NOT have a higher ponstneonatal mortality rate than homebirth. Indeed, in the few data sources available, homebirth has a higher postneonatal mortality rate as well as a higher neonatal mortality rate. So homebirth advocates have used ignorance of the existing data to speculate on what that data shows.

The bottom line is straightforward. Any claim requires proof presented by the person who makes the claim. Those who don’t believe the claim are not required to provide evidence that it is not true. Lack of evidence that the claim is not true in not proof that it is true or even a plausible reason to suspect that it might be true.