Lactivism is fake news

Fact or Fake concept, Hand flip wood cube change the word, April fools day

If the last few days on my Facebook page are any indication, we have a big problem with reasoning in this country. The page has been swarmed by tens of thousands of lactivists, and to say that their knowledge base and reasoning skills are poor dramatically understates the case.

They have trouble with basic reading comprehension:

I write “the benefits of breastfeeding are trivial.” They insist I wrote “formula is better than breastfeeding.”

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Lactivism is the latest iteration of the effort to replace objective truth with self-serving opinion.[/pullquote]

I write “insufficient breastmilk is common.” They insist I wrote “no woman is ever able to produce enough breastmilk.”

I write “cluster feeding is a warning sign of infant starvation.” They insist I wrote “every baby who cluster feeds is starving to death.”

I write “her baby, her body, her breasts her choice.” They insist I wrote “no one should ever breastfeed.”

Their knowledge of the scientific evidence is pathetic. They copy and paste scientific studies that they have never read and wouldn’t understand if they read them.

They seem to think that science is some sort of democracy: That if enough of them parachute in to “vote” their beliefs and outrage, I will change my mind about what the scientific evidence shows. No chance of that.

Most startling of all, they imagine I care about their poorly informed opinions. (Perhaps readers can help me out with this. What did I do that gave them the impression I care about what they think?)

Sadly, lactivism has become fake news.

The term “fake news” has been used and abused a lot lately. An Op-Ed in yesterday’s New York Times got me thinking about the way that contemporary lactivism embodies fake news.

It starts by asking the question:

How should we explain the fact that President Trump got away with making 2,140 false or misleading claims during his initial year in office?

The comparable questions for lactivism are these:

How do lactivists get away with claiming major benefits for breastfeeding when most of the research on which those benefits are based has been thoroughly debunked?

How do lactivists get away with claiming major benefits for breastfeeding when countries with the highest breastfeeding rates have the highest infant mortality rates and countries with the lowest breastfeeding rates have the lowest infant mortality rates?

How do lactivists get away with claiming major benefits for breastfeeding when the breastfeeding rate has tripled in the past 40 years and we can’t find a single term baby or healthcare dollar that has been saved?

Are professional lactivists lying to their followers or are they ignorant, too? The op-ed suggests a third possibility for those who endlessly repeat falsehoods; they are “post truth.”

“Users of post-truth see themselves as expressing their opinions, but opinions that call for no verification, and in being their opinions, are on a par with anyone else’s opinions,” Prado writes in a forthcoming book, “The New Subjectivism.”

For professional lactivists this means that they don’t actually have to demonstrate any real world benefits of breastfeeding. They “know” that breastfeeding has massive benefits — they’ve staked their careers and incomes on it — so it must be true.

For lay lactivists, they “know” that breastfeeding has massive benefits — they’ve staked their self-esteem on the notion that breastfeeding makes them superior to other mothers — so it must be true.

Both feel free to ignore the mounting number of brain injuries and deaths that are the result of a breastfeeding policy that grossly exaggerates benefits while simultaneously refusing to provide women with accurate information about risks. A new study published in the past few days showed that breastfeeding increases the risk of hospital readmission by 100%. Extrapolated to the entire country it would mean that we have 60,000 excess newborn hospital admissions each year at a cost of a quarter of a BILLION dollars per year. This is not a minor problem; it’s a major scandal.

Why has this disaster been allowed to occur? The answer is tribalism, an obvious defect of our contemporary politics and a less obvious defect of our contemporary breastfeeding policy.

According to Stephen Pinker:

The answer lies in raw tribalism: when someone is perceived as a champion of one’s coalition, all is forgiven. The same is true for opinions: a particular issue can become a sacred value, shibboleth, or affirmation of allegiance to one’s team, and its content no longer matters…

Lactivists feel duty bound to believe whatever other lactivists tell them, regardless of whether or not it is true.

And once tribalism takes the place of scientific reasoning:

the full ingenuity of human cognition is recruited to valorize the champion and shore up the sacred beliefs. You can always dismiss criticism as being motivated by the bias of one’s enemies. Our cognitive and linguistic faculties are endlessly creative — that’s what makes our species so smart — and that creativity can be always deployed to reframe issues in congenial or invidious terms.

Of the more than 120,000 people who have dropped into my Facebook page so far, and the hundreds who have left comments, not a single one tried to engage with the actual scientific evidence that I presented. Their full ingenuity — such as it is — was dedicated to dismissing the evidence as motivated by bias, cricizing my credentials, and calling me names.

If tribalism has begun to supplant traditional partisanship, their argument suggests, lying in politics will metastasize as traditional constraints continue to fall by the wayside…

Tribalism has already begun to supplant scientific reasoning when it comes to contentious issues. Creationism is nothing but a lie, climate denial is a lie, anti-vaccine advocacy is based almost entirely on lies. Lactivism is just the latest iteration of the effort to replace objective truth with self-serving opinion.

When it comes to lactivism, this is not an academic issue; it is a matter of life and death. The only question remaining is this:

How many newborn brain injuries and deaths are we prepared to allow so that lactation professionals can make money and lactivists can bolster their fragile self-esteem?