Hillary Rosner is a fantastic environmental reporter — the sort that digs facts and stories more than outrage-bait and blind activism. She's currently pregnant and, like all pregnant ladies, is finding herself subject to a deluge of warnings and "helpful" advice. When you're pregnant, there is always somebody who wants to let you know what you're doing wrong, why you're being irresponsible, and how you've totally ruined your kid's life already.
But in the midst of this, Rosner noticed something really fascinating: When it feels like the world is conspiring to make you terrified and guilty, it's sometimes easier to just tune out the world rather than investigate which claims are true and which aren't.
Pregnancy has allowed me for the first time to understand how hard it is to tell good information from bad. As a science journalist, I make my living by being able to decipher the two, but all these warnings bewilder me. As a result, I feel like I can see a bit more clearly how misinformation can become epidemic, leading to collective panic and seriously bad policy making. So I have tended to take this unsolicited advice with several grains of noniodized salt. Many of these warnings strike me as absurd — whether they come from friends, strangers, books penned by supposed experts or the truly maddening discussions I occasionally can’t help reading on parenting websites. I have resolved to not give in to other people’s hysteria. Humans have been reproducing for millennia, I reason, without any books to admonish them to avoid sleeping on their backs or drinking unpasteurized orange juice.
At least that was my position until a friend who writes about health and the environment suggested that I was choosing to ignore (as opposed to, say, fact check) the pregnancy warnings largely for emotional reasons. While I normally take a rational, science-based view of things — climate change, say, or vaccines — my desire to avoid the paralysis of fear, she said, prompted me to overlook some of the science surrounding pregnancy. I was indignant, until I realized she was probably right.
And suddenly, I began to understand something else: exactly how — and why — so many people opt to ignore the looming threat of climate change. Or to cherry-pick the facts that convince us that environmental problems are vastly overstated. Or to think that those preaching the most alarming outcomes are being melodramatic.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.