Lactivists and “the science”

That woman is not too bright, sorry to say. She has no credentials, her sources are limited and biased, and she is obviously just trying to reason away her own guilt for not breastfeeding …

No, that lactivist is not talking about me. She’s talking about Charlotte Faircloth, another professional who pointed out that the benefits of breastfeeding are far smaller than what advocates claim. Faircloth discusses this response in her paper ‘What Science Says is Best’: Parenting Practices, Scientific Authority and Maternal Identity.

Faircloth explains the meaning of “the science” to lactivists and the paradoxical invocation of scientific evidence by women who are just as likely to ignore science when they feel like it.

Simply put, lactivists don’t read scientific papers, don’t know what they show and don’t care anyway. “The science” is simply a convenient cudgel which lactivists use to metaphorically hammer away at women who do not follow their example:

The scientific benefits of breastfeeding and attachment parenting serve as a (seemingly) morally neutral cannon about which mothers can defend their mothering choices and ‘spread the word’ about appropriate parenting. I noticed that for some particular women, sharing ‘information’ with other mothers … was a source of great enjoyment – as Felicity in the quote above puts it, she is ‘super empowered’ with the knowledge that she has. Amelia, cited above, also said that she felt ‘like a genius on a planet of idiots.’ Any criticisms she has of other women are de-personalised, because science ‘has no emotional content…’

“A mother describes how she responds to those who criticise her decision to breastfeed her son until his seventh birthday, by saying: ‘I mean, do you want to see studies? Because I can show you studies!’ There are laughs and cheers from the rest of the group.”

But lactivists, who have basically no idea what the actual scientific evidence shows, use “the science” in another way:

Arguably, ‘science’ here is not about understanding, but belief. The use of ‘evidence’ has reached the level of the quasi-religious; not in the sense that the beliefs are other-worldly (quite the opposite) but that they are held to be beyond the possibility of doubt and revered as truth.

In other words, belief is described as “science” in order to trade on the reputation of science. As Faircloth notes:

In many ways, however, it is ironic that my informants refer to science, since many attachment parenting advocates are openly sceptical about scientific knowledge… What is interesting then, is the selective use (and mis-use) of scientific evidence to support certain (moral) discourses about parenting. (my emphasis)

Appeals to “the science” are a rhetorical strategy, and a rather cynical one at that. The very same people who ignore the scientific evidence on the dangers of homebirth, who openly spurn the World Health Organization recommendations on vaccination, and who dismiss the scientific evidence on circumcision by insisting it is only relevant in the developing world choose to misinterpret and misuse the scientific evidence on the limited benefits of breastfeeding.

This cynical misuse of science finds ultimate expression in public health campaigns to promote breastfeeding. That’s why these campaigns continue even though they have been failure on their own terms. The activists who create them, run them and promote them are far more interested in promoting their personal beliefs than in increasing breastfeeding rates.

In Faircloth’s words “sharing ‘information’ with other mothers … was a source of great enjoyment.” That’s because lactivists are not “sharing,” they are browbeating other women as a method of enhancing their own self esteem. As Faircloth notes:

When ‘science’ says something is healthiest for infants, it has the effect, for [lactivists], of shutting down debate; that is, it dictates what parents should do.

Critically, for lactivists, it allows them to “moralize” the choice of infant feeding. In the minds of lactivists, “the science” turns breastfeeding from a choice to an obligation, the classic is-ought confusion.

… [U]nder the assumption that science contains ‘no emotional content’, a wealth of agencies with an interest in parenting – from policy makers and ‘experts’ to groups of parents themselves – now have a language by which to make what might better be termed moral judgements about appropriate childcare practices. [But] ‘Science’ is not a straightforward rationale in the regulation of behaviour, rather, it is one that requires rigorous sociological questioning and debate in delimiting the parameters of this ‘is’ and the ‘ought’.

Hence the example with which the piece began, the vituperation directed at Faircloth for pointing out that the scientific evidence on breastfeeding is rather weak, and, at best, shows only a small, limited benefit. Lactivists responded with anger because their own self conception and their ability to feel superior to other women rests on presenting “the science” as firm, strong, unequivocal and dispositive. In the case of breastfeeding, it is none of the above.

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