Should you trust an expert or a fauxpert?

apples vs oranges

Elissa Strauss nails it!

Her new piece, Want to ask Facebook about your daughter’s binky? Go ahead., has added a new term to my lexicon: fauxpert.

As in: Internet discussions about natural childbirth, homebirth, breastfeeding and vaccination are dominated by fauxperts, self-appointed, self-proclaimed mommy experts.

Strauss is talking about the age old strategy of mothers seeking advice from other mothers, adapted for the internet age into mothers seeking advice on the web, particularly on Facebook. As Strauss notes, there’s nothing wrong with asking your internet friends for parenting advice:

Facebook parenting is fine, a totally reasonable behavior for any parent with a question about their kid and an internet connection. The only important thing parents need to remember is the difference between an expert and a friend — even of the Facebook variety.


The internet has borne many fruits, most sweet and a few rotten. Among the putrid is the way it has convinced countless regular folks to act as experts. These fauxperts tend to be the ones with the super strong opinions, those who try to convince us all that co-sleeping will turn our kids into dependent monsters or that crying-it-out will turn our kids into insecure monsters. There are also those who believe that home-births risk lives, and those who think epidurals get in the way of mother/baby bonding. And then there are the anti-vaccinations fauxperts, whose preaching has yielding far more insidious results.

What to do?

There’s no need to stop sharing, but mothers (and fathers) need to understand the difference between scientific evidence and personal anecdotes. Scientific evidence presents the experience of thousands, even millions of individuals, is arrived at by the community of scientists as a whole, independently verified, and can tell you the likelihood of various outcomes. Personal anecdotes tell you one mother’s experience, unverified, reviewed only by that mother, which may or may not apply to your child and you.

So how can you tell the difference between an expert and a fauxpert?

I’ve created this handy chart to help you:

Experts vs fauxperts

Let’s look at the differences.

1. An expert has formal education in the topic at hand, while the fauxpert has none.

This has several important implications. It means that the expert has been exposed to a wide variety of evidence and viewpoints. He or she tends to be familiar with ALL the scientific evidence, not merely cherry picked studies that the fauxpert has never read and wouldn’t understand if she did read. It means that the expert is fully conversant with any major controversies in the field, has thought a lot about them, has read both sides, and has come to a decision. The fauxpert generally views the controversy as a dichotomy between those with more formal education than the fauxpert and the fauxpert, who claims to have more personal experience.

2. An expert understands both science and basic statistics and can reach an independent opinion about the existing scientific evidence. A fauxpert has to take the word of someone else.

An expert is giving you an expert opinion. A fauxpert is giving you the opinion of someone she likes (generally herself) with all the attendant drawbacks of relying on empirical claims just because you like who said them.

3. An expert recommends what’s good for YOU. A fauxpert recommends what’s good for HER.

Experts rarely have a one-size-fits-all recommendation. Even in the case of vaccination for childhood diseases, which ALL experts (pediatricians, immunologists, public health officials) recommend, there are exceptions and every effort is made to find out if your child is one of the exceptions. That’s why you are asked about your child’s allergies, previous reactions to vaccinations, and family history of vaccine reactions. The fauxperts generally have one-size-fits-all recommendations; you should do what the fauxpert did, regardless of how your circumstances differ from those of the fauxpert.

4. Experts change their recommendations based on new scientific evidence. Fauxperts never change recommendations regardless of what the scientific evidence shows.

For example, over the years obstetricians have changed their recommendations about epidurals based on advances in technique, changes in medication, and newer scientific evidence. Natural childbirth fauxperts were opposed to epidurals 30 years ago, and they’re opposed to epidurals now even though the scientific evidence shows pretty clearly that current epidurals have no harmful effects on mothers, babies, or childbirth. It makes no difference to fauxperts what the evidence shows because fauxperts rely on unchanging belief systems, not science.

Experts also acknowledge when they are wrong. Consider this year’s flu vaccine. The experts, the same people who counseled everyone to get the vaccine, publicly announced that this year’s vaccine has only limited effectiveness. In other words, although they initially thought they had put together the most effective possible vaccine, they were wrong and they admit it. Protection for the flu virus that is most prevalent this year is not included in the vaccine. Therefore, although you should still get the vaccine, you should understand that it is not as effective as in years past. When was the last time a fauxpert acknowledged that he or she was wrong about a fundamental claim?

5. Experts take responsibility for their recommendations. Fauxperts wash their hands of you, or even blame YOU when THEIR recommendations cause more harm than good.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this point. Experts pay a price if they are wrong. You can take action against them, and they are well aware of that. It is in THEIR best interest, financial, professional and personal, to give YOU state of the art recommendations based on the latest science. Nothing ensures accuracy like having skin in the game.

In contrast, fauxperts take no responsibility for their recommendations. If they are wrong, YOU pay the price and they just keep giving out the same bad advice. They win if you listen to them, regardless of whether listening to them harms or kills you or your child. Sure, they dress it up by pretending that you are taking responsibility for your health, but you are taking the SAME amount of responsibility for your health when you listen to your doctor. The difference is not in your level of responsibility; it’s in theirs.

So feel free to ask other mothers, on Facebook or anywhere else, how they handle parenting their children. You may find that their experience gives you helpful suggestions about ways to manage your parenting dilemmas.

But never forget, they are not experts, merely fauxperts.