The tribal epistemology of lactivism and natural childbirth advocates

17023684 - abstract word cloud for tribe with related tags and terms

I’ve written before about the tribalism of natural parenting advocates.

According to sociologist Jan Macvarish:

The idea of ‘parental tribalism’ … [is] descriptive of a tendency among individuals to form their identities through the way they parent, or perhaps more precisely, through differentiating themselves from the way some parents parent and identifying with others …

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]For lactivists and natural childbirth advocates the only thing that matters is whether a scientific paper supports their “side.”[/pullquote]

And I’ve written about the parallels between Trumpworld and the world of lactivism and natural childbirth. Both rest on a foundation of ignorance and lies.

But rarely have I read such an apt description of the “tribal epistemology” of lactivism and natural childbirth:

Information is evaluated based not on conformity to common standards of evidence or correspondence to a common understanding of the world, but on whether it supports the tribe’s values and goals and is vouchsafed by tribal leaders. “Good for our side” and “true” begin to blur into one.

The author, David Roberts of Vox, is referring to right wing talk radio aficionados but it applies equally to the world of natural parenting.

Most lactivists and natural childbirth advocates have no idea how to read a scientific paper, what constitutes scientific evidence or how to analyze statistics. As a result, they are forced to rely on leaders to spoon feed them the information that supports the tribe’s values and goals. Lactivists have no idea what the scientific evidence shows about breastfeeding; they only know what people like Melissa Bartick tell them. They have no idea what the scientific evidence shows about childbirth until Henci Goer or someone similar “interprets” it for them.

Sadly for both the thought leaders and acolytes the only thing that matters is whether a scientific paper supports their “side.” Everything else is ignored.

Listen to Rush Limbaugh’s assessment of the worldview of conservatives and liberals:

We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that’s where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes ever overlap.

As Roberts explains:

In Limbaugh’s view, the core institutions and norms of American democracy have been irredeemably corrupted by an alien enemy. Their claims to transpartisan authority — authority that applies equally to all political factions and parties — are fraudulent. There are no transpartisan authorities; there is only zero-sum competition between tribes, the left and right. Two universes.

In the view of lactivists, the core institutions of medicine and science have been irredeemably corrupted by the formula industry. Their claims to authority — through rational thought and scientific evidence — are deemed fraudulent. There is no unbiased scientific evidence, there is only a zero-sum competition between breastfeeding supporters and the formula industry.

In the view of natural childbirth advocates, the core institutions of obstetrics and medicine have been irredeemably corrupted by the institutions and practices of “technocratic” birth. Their claims to authority — through rational thought and scientific evidence are deemed fraudulent. There is no unbiased scientific evidence, only a zero-sum competition between midwives and doulas on the one hand and obstetricians on the other.

Extrapolating from Robert’s views of tribal epistemology in politics, we can assert that on one side is what we might call the classic theory of science as a search for knowledge. In this view, science is a kind of structured contest. Factions and parties battle over scientific evidence, implications and policies, but the field of play on which they battle is ring-fenced by a set of common institutions and norms like journals and conferences, both open to all.

In contrast, lactivists and natural childbirth advocates insist that science itself, its rules and referees, are captured by the other side (the formula industry, the hospital birth industry), operating for the other side’s benefit. Any claim of scientific authority is viewed with skepticism, as a kind of ruse or tool through which industry and medicine seek to dominate lactivists and natural childbirth advocates.

As a result, both the lactivist world and the natural childbirth world operate as the equivalent of right wing talk radio. They are filled with ignorance, misrepresentation of both scientific evidence and physicians, and bitterness. Rather than trying to compete with physicians, scientists and industries through journals and conferences, lactivists and natural childbirth advocates have withdrawn into a world of their own, complete with their own conferences and journals from which mainstream scientists and physicians are excluded.

Ironically, lactivists and natural childbirth advocates love to assert that they have educated themselves about breastfeeding and childbirth, but they are no more educated about either than Fox News viewers are educated about politics. Neither has anything to do with increasing knowledge; both are concerned above all with promoting tribalism.

Where does that leave us? It leaves us with a medical system that could benefit from the interests and concerns of lactivists and natural childbirth advocates at precisely the moment when, sadly, lactivists and natural childbirth advocates have become divorced from both scientific evidence and reality.

  • Squirrelly

    This is why the bar for proof is so low for natural parenting and trumpland…because it’s about what they want to believe. You can say anything, no matter how ridiculous, as long as it supports the right side. And they really, really believe.

    The same is true in quack medicine. I had a relative pass away from cancer because she rejected conventional treatment. No chemo for her, she believed in holistic diets and witch doctors and supplements. The last time I ever saw her she gushed about taking amino acids and I asked her how they worked. She answered, you know I’m not sure but they’re great for you. Her passing was sad but not surprising.

    As a engineer this type of thinking drives me batty. I’ve designed and run tests that we were certain wouldn’t fail and lo and behold an unexpected variable creeped in and it failed. The amount of time I spent trying to prove that a 2 inch plastic doohickey wouldn’t fall off another doohickey is ridiculous. Even after 8 different tests I can only say it’s unlikely but not impossible for it to fall off depending on usage. For someone to say it won’t fall off because they have other ways of knowing is just…omg.

  • Madtowngirl

    It’s so frustrating to me when they scream about “being educated.” Google is a very powerful tool for finding information, but it is no substitute for enrolling in med school and earning an MD. Nor is Google an unbiased source of information. Being “educated” means being aware that sources can be wrong, studies can be flawed, and new information is always becoming available. It doesn’t mean you read a few websites on the Internet and then suddenly become an expert who knows everything.

    • Google isn’t biased – rather, I imagine the “marketers” of natural childbirth are just far more aware of search engine optimization, than scientists, who write mostly for other scientists and not generally to generate traffic to their websites. If Google is biased, it is in this way, biased to those who are aware of and try to work the “algorithm”.

      • And I should note, they do this by targeting their consumer, rather than targeting their colleagues.

    • Dr Kitty

      I use Google differently to my patients.
      They Google “what is this weird rash” I Google “erythema nodosum patient information leaflet”, for example.

      Patient.co.uk, the NHS patient information website is very good if you ever want information about medications, conditions or anything.

      • Roadstergal

        “what is this weird rash”
        WebMD said it was cancer. But I treated myself holistically with cannabis, and my doctor says I’m cancer-free now!

    • BeatriceC

      I just took OK to urgent care last night to get a quick exam and x-ray to make sure nothing catastrophic was going on and he could continue to wait for his next scheduled ortho appointment. I literally told the doctor “I just need somebody with ‘MD’ after their name to make sure we’re still good to keep waiting”. Even as educated as I am with my kids’ bone disease, there are still times when an actual doctor needs to weigh in on things.

    • Platos_Redhaired_Stepchild

      Yes, its like they don’t know that huge chunks of the world’s knowledge is not digitized and accessible by the Internet. Or that it may not be published in English. Or that their own education is not good enough to understand science. Or that Google answers are sorted by popularity rather than factual correctness.

  • Heidi_storage

    To look at matters from an ontological perspective, I think parents should be EXTREMELY wary of identifying themselves with any parenting ideology whatsoever. If you wish to follow the principles of the parenting style called “attachment parenting,” great; but be hesitant to call yourself an attachment-parenting parent. To do so is to create that sense of tribalism, which is a) artificial; b) potentially harmful, since you can then develop blindness to the flaws in the ideology you are following; and c) can cause you to lack empathy for others who “parent” in a manner different than your own.

    Tl;dr: I wear my baby sometimes, but I am NOT a “baby-wearing mama.” (Ugh.)

    • MaineJen

      Absolutely. All those labels tend to feel a little bit cultish.

    • Dr Kitty

      My father was sent to boarding school at 11, as was his sister.
      By the time he was 13 both of his parents weren’t working (my grand mother never worked, my grandfather sold his share in the family business and retired to grow tomatoes and roses and train racehorses and play golf) they were upper middle class Irish in the 1950s, apparently this was considered totally normal.

      Nowadays I think most people would consider his parents self absorbed and horribly neglectful. But my father and aunt remember spending blissful summers on the Amalfi coast or riding ponies in the Irish countryside and happy family Christmases with parents who loved them deeply, but didn’t necessarily want to make parenting their life 24/7. Any time the did spend with their parents was “quality time”, and some sort of Enid Bluton style madcap adventure was usually to be had from the way they both tell it.

      My grandparents were probably the antithesis of AP, but my father and his sister had happy childhoods, were close to their parents and don’t seem to have much trauma (except neither of them can eat certain foods because of the way they were served at school- liver for my aunt, porridge for my dad).

      You parent the best way you can, that works for you and your kids, and usually if you have love and common sense it’ll all be OK.
      The test of good parenting isn’t childhood anyway, it is well-adjusted, happy adults.

      • MaineJen

        I remember wondering, when I first read the Harry Potter books, why the kids all went off to school at 11. Seemed such an arbitrary age to me…now I realize that it coincides with the beginning of Middle School here in the States, and that boarding school is way more common in Europe 🙂

        • Dr Kitty

          The UK and Ireland have Primary schools (4-11) and secondary schools (11-18), roughly. No middle schools.

          11 is the usual “going to big school” age, with one set of exams at 16 and another at 18. Rowling kept that structure for Hogwarts.

    • J.B.

      The problem with ideological purity is that it is all a competition. No matter what you do, you are doing it wrong/less aggressively than someone else. Unless your parenting philosophy is to be a lazy bum as much as you can get away with. Then everyone else thinks you’re doing it wrong, but perhaps you yourself like it 🙂

    • Gæst

      I like this idea because I don’t label myself with any particular parenting style. 😉

  • Empress of the Iguana People

    Personally, I -love- it when people (usually men) tell me to watch Fox News for the real news, because it’ll change my views. THey don’t have much to say when I say I do watch Fox and never watch MSNBC. (I tend to watch CNN, the regular channels, or PBS for my horrible liberal bias.)

    • MaineJen

      NYT, WaPo and NPR for me.

      • Empress of the Iguana People

        Those first 2 are on my occasional list; They’re not really in my budget just now. NPR is under PBS in my brain. 🙂

        • MaineJen

          I have online subscriptions, they’re pretty cheap