Natural childbirth and information naivete

Most of what natural childbirth advocates think they “know” is factually false. How did that happen?

The proximal cause is easy to identify: the world of natural childbirth advocacy is an echo chamber where almost all information is acquired from celebrity natural childbirth advocates who broadcasts it through websites, books and conferences. Most of these celebrity natural childbirth advocates have minimal or no training in science, so a great deal of their “information” is factually false, disingenuous or deliberately misleading. This misinformation is bounced back and forth, primarily through websites run by lay people, amplified and never corrected.

There is a deeper cause as well: natural childbirth advocates, like most devotees of pseudoscience, suffer from “information naivete.”

As Prof. Roberta Brody explains in The problem of information naivete:

Information naïveté … is the belief held by an individual or a group that information designed, created, obtained, or stored is comprehensive and where this belief is without a grounding or understanding of the situation of that information within its own contexts.

In other words, information naivite is the inability to tell the difference between comprehensive, accurate information and limited, cherry picked, non-representative information.

Brody points out that it is easy to mistake information naivete as “ignorance or carelessness in the handling of [knowledge] perhaps solved or mitigated with an improvement in information literacy.” But information naivete is a product of, and often deliberately created by, media bias, limited context as well as limited ability.

Natural childbirth websites, publications and conferences do not even pretend to be unbiased. There is no effort to present both sides of an issue, and no effort to transmit information that does not support the core tenets of natural childbirth. On websites run by professionals as well lay people, comments that attempt to present other information are not merely discouraged, but literally deleted. Lay people looking for information about natural childbirth are not alert to this bias.

Brody addresses the issue of limited context:

… the circumstances and conditions of information naïveté predate the emergence of electronic information, though perhaps current contexts seem to make some aspects and implications more apparent. The space between knowing of and knowing about may be widened by electronic contexts. That is, the electronic information environment encourages the delivery of bits of information that have been removed from their native contexts.

For example, the web has made it easier than ever to access health information,

… but it does not mean that the user understands how the content of the results is shaped within larger contexts and what, consequently, may be emphasized, distorted, or missing.

Virtually every natural childbirth website or publication misrepresents scientific evidence by emphasizing favored pieces of evidence, distorting the full breadth of the evidence and deliberately omitting the copious evidence that does not support the tenets of natural childbirth.

The major limitations of those who consume natural childbirth information are information deficits and incompetence at recognizing the information deficit:

In what they refer to as the “double curse of incompetence,” Dunning, Heath, and Suls explained that
in many significant social and intellectual domains, the skills necessary to recognize competence are extremely close if not identical to those needed to produce competent responses… Thus incompetent individuals suffer a double curse: their deficits cause them to make errors and also prevent them from gaining insight into their errors.

That’s true in natural childbirth advocacy and well as ever other area of pseudoscience. The skills necessary to recognize an accurate understanding of the scientific literature are almost identical to the skills necessary to acquire an accurate understanding of the scientific literature. That’s why the claims of natural childbirth advocates to being “educated” are both poignant and ridiculous. Natural childbirth advocates know so little about childbirth, science and statistics that they have literally no idea how little they know.

What’s the difference between information naivete and simple ignorance?

… [I]gnorance has at least the potential to be corrected whereas information naïveté may contain in it the arrogance of prejudice — that is, the perception that there is nothing more to know … Just as one may read with comprehension but without judgment, so may one create and use information that appears to be satisfactory while still remaining naïve about the underlying processes that shape the results and its resultant flaws.

That accurately sums up the state of “knowledge” within the natural childbirth movement. Natural childbirth advocates, both professionals and laypeople, suffer from the arrogance of ignorance. They think they know everything there is to know about the topic and have no understanding that they know only a tiny, non-representative fraction of the information available on the topic.

Brody concludes with a general claim that accurately describes the specific situation of natural childbirth advocacy:

… [I]t would appear that while there are information users seeking information who are … struggling to bridge gaps in their understanding, there also are the information naïve who are unaware of such gaps, uninterested in bridging them, or intentionally exploiting them.