How pregnancy is like climate change denialism

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.

Read the rest of her fantastic essay at Ensia

Image: Pregnant baby chart, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from jmoneyyyyyy's photostream


  1. Oh, dear. You should only take unsolicited advice with non-iodized salt, or better yet, Mrs. Dash.

  2. One of the things that makes pregnancy and baby raising advice difficult to take or understand is the very small effect a choice can make. Eating risky foods is so unlikely to be a danger that ignoring the warnings is easy…until you consider how devastated you would be if the improbable were to happen. It’s one thing to say a computer works great 99.9% of the time, but there is too much emotional investment in a child to allow even 0.1% variance.

    1. Mother of pearl, that’s got to be some kind of record:  mansplanation in less than 5 comments.

      1. But he is right.

        Take listeria for example.  Ever heard of it?  Ever known someone who had it?  I knew what it was in a very general sense and certainly never heard of anyone getting it.  But because of special properties of this little bug pregnant women shouldn’t eat unpasteurized cheeses, raw milk, or non-heated deli meats. 

        It’s kind of like lightening.  I don’t know of anyone personally who has been struck by it, but why stand outside in a thunderstorm holding a metal umbrella.

        1. Although the information that’s provided to pregnant women is often unclear on the processes involved – so it’s not made clear that you can let the deli meats cool down before you eat them, and even store them in the fridge once you’ve pasteurized them, just as you refrigerate pasteurized milk.

        2.  I asked my doctor about how serious this threat of listeria was. She said she had known as least two women who had lost babies mid-way through pregnancy because of it. I decided then to follow the guidelines.

      2. First I’ve heard this word, what do you actually mean by “mansplanation?”

        Is it that the comment came from a male*? Which would seem to mean that advice about pregnancy from a male is invalid because…? People who don’t carry babies cannot know about carrying babies?

        Or is it that it was somewhat pedantic?
        Because you could have just said it was needlessly pedantic and have left his gender out of it. Seems to mean you’ve conflated the problems and may even equate men with being pedantic.

        So are you sexist or are you sexist?

        I’m not actually trying to be pedantic, or even really defend his statement, but the idea that someone’s condescension is tied to their gender, and that you could use gender as a primary filter by which to discriminate and dismiss such ideas, seems wrong and unfair.

        Ok, I’m done being pedantic.

        *Or someone with a male avatar

        Ok now I really am.

        1.  From Karen Healey who helped popularized the term:

          Mansplaining is when a dude tells you, a woman, how to do something you
          already know how to do, or how you are wrong about something you are
          actually right about, or miscellaneous and inaccurate “facts” about
          something you know a hell of a lot more about than he does.

          Bonus points if he is explaining how you are wrong about something being sexist!

          Think about the men you know. Do any of them display that delightful mixture of privilege and ignorance that leads to condescending, inaccurate explanations, delivered with the rock-solid conviction of rightness and that slimy certainty that of course he is right, because he is the man in this conversation?

          That dude is a mansplainer.

          I imagine the term has widened quite a bit since this though and I’m not sure exactly how anyone knows a given poster believes they are right simply because they are male over the internet.

      3. How is that mansplaining? I’m a woman, and I agree with the above. And even more, I think this is something that should be taken into account when doing “you should not” lists. I guess it’s easier to just give a list to the soon-to-be parents than to explain what the risks are and at what probability, but it leads to people ignoring the warnings, more or less in the same way as the author states: “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.”

  3. Actually, the mental problem may be even worse with pregnancy than with climate change denialism. See, your mental and emotional state *also* affect body chemistry. If you’re stressed out worrying about how to make your baby healthy, that could make your baby less healthy. (Note: I am not a medical professional. This information, too, is hearsay, and my comment is meant to be snarky).

    1. Snarky or not… it’s a good point, though. Stressed pregnant mothers have too much stress hormones which does affect the baby physically in a negative way, even long term.

      … I’m having a bit of trouble tying my comment in with climate change denialism… um… Aaaah! People stressed by climate change may self-soothe by shopping therapy or eating and therefore may use more resources which leads to more climate change. So therefore climate denialism is good for the environment!

  4. I have shrugged my shoulders over global warming since day one. Political rhetoric, lies and accusations, and then what the hell can I do about? My fuel efficient car and RRR practices don’t even matter globally. I’m not in denial, I’m in helpless.
    The only solution I have found has been not to have children. One less polluter, one less sufferer.

    At least when having a child, there are tangible dos and donts that will reduce risks.

  5. Some pregnancy advice seems to be offered without any explanation or supporting information to help people make sense of them (even by doctors or others who have the real reasons handy).

    For instance – I can recall a few instances where an expectant mother had been told to avoid soft cheeses, without any explanation as to why – when the real recommendation is to avoid unpasteurized soft cheeses – and were therefore unwilling to eat pasteurized feta, or baked brie straight burn-your-mouth hot straight out of the oven (anyway unpasteurized soft cheese is illegal in Canada – you’d seriously have to be buying cheese on the black market to not follow the recommendation).

    But no background information had been offered to help these mothers understand why they should be avoiding certain foods – or to assess whether other foods that might not be common enough to make the specific list they were given (say specific to a particular ethnic cuisine), might pose a similar risk and be something they’d want to avoid.

    1. That last paragraph pretty much defines “health care education” and dietetics as practiced by the media, and sadly, quite a few health care professionals. Now we all have orthorexia.

    2. This.  Also the reason why I called out Johnny upthread for mansplaining.  I have given birth, I now know how much of what the medical community pretended was unvarnished scientific fact was, in reality, evidence-free superstition.  It’s not simple research to do, either.  Try figuring out exactly how long an infant gets *any* benefit from breastfeeding.  I dare you (hint –  less than two years).

      1. I tried participating in that study, alas my application was rejected…  They didn’t want anyone 216 months old or older…

      2. I still don’t get why that was mansplaining. Did he rush in and tell how “the woman” was wrong, and here is a guy explaining how it really is? I agree with him, but perhaps that is nulliparasplaining.

        I agree very much with you, dragonfrog. I would perhaps add, though, that as Johnny said above… the numbers are sometimes hard to understand and make out as a yes/no kind of thing… for instance low probability, but high probability of devastating effects if it does happen, or with alcohol a very unknown “what is safe?” number…. so it’s probably easier to just make blanket statements. But that does in no way excuse not discussing with the parents-to-be the “why” behind the recommendations.

      3.  “I have given birth, I now know how much of what the medical community
        pretended was unvarnished scientific fact was, in reality, evidence-free
        sorry, maybe i’m mis-reading this, but are you implying because you’ve given birth, you know when and where the medical professionals are wrong and right?

        1. I have seen this effect in action in mature-age students in my education degree. “I have offspring, so therefore not only do my children represent *all* children, but my knowledge and understanding of their learning and development is superior to that of the researchers and academics paid to teach me.”

  6. Sometimes I think most of the population is made up of armchair doctors & nutritionists fueled by anecdotes.

    I can’t even figure out what kind/how much protein I’m supposed to eat after going to the gym which should be a simple question. I can’t imagine what kind of crazy advice you get while pregnant.

  7. Imma let you finish, but don’t sleep on your back in your third trimester.  In a half century of having pregnant friends, that’s the only really consistent piece of advice that I’ve heard.  You know, other than, “Don’t sniff too much glue.”

    1. Isn’t that advice you typically don’t actually have to offer anyway – as in, you can just say, “If a thing hurts so much you want to stop doing it, stop doing it.” – and that will cover sleeping on your back in the third trimester among other things.

      1.  It doesn’t usually hurt much or at all.  It’s just really bad because you’re putting too much weight on your vena cava and disrupting the flow of blood (oxygen, etc.) to the fetus.

        1. My doctor said that it doesn’t actually cut off blood to the fetus to sleep on your back. It cuts off blood to your legs. And that will get uncomfortable for you. And then you won’t do it.
          Basically, he told me not to worry about back sleeping and to stop doing it when it got uncomfortable for me. 

          And, thus, an excellent example of the contradictory information pregnant women get from friends, family, random strangers, the Internet, doctors, etc.

          1. It cuts off blood to your legs. And that will get uncomfortable for you.

            Pregnancy not required for that condition. 

          2. This doctor of yours is sounding like a keeper.  Tell us what he’s told you of C-sections, please?  

          3. Avoid them if you can because the recovery time is a lot worse and there are more risks involved in surgery than birth. (Honestly, I’m not sure if you’re being sarcastic or not.) 

            He’s a family practice doctor (so he is my doctor, my gyno, my husband’s doctor, and will be our baby’s pediatrician, too). He’s fantastic and is one of the most evidence-based, caring doctors I have ever had the pleasure of working with. 

          4. @boingboing-7160c7db52df96e5fe196a6c9ce73f83:disqus You’ve got a good doctor.  Keep him as long as you can.  I have friends that allowed C-sections to be scheduled to fit their OB’s schedule.  It’s insane that this is still happening.  I don’t think he was being sarcastic about having it as an option if birthing isn’t going well.  

          5. Another reason for the confusing advice… we all get told different things according to what research it is backed up with (or isn’t… pregnancy and parenting advice contains a lot of lore… even from doctrors). So we get to hear from our parents science from a few decades back.

            Medical advice should come with version numbering and expiration dates!

          6. This is pretty standard info from doctors and the major websites dealing with pregnancy, though, not just strangers-on-the-Internet stuff.

            I had different doctors for my pregnancies, all based at major hospitals, and all gave me that same warning.  As did the (nurse-practitioner trained) midwives I had for one pregnancy and birth.

      2. That’s assuming that you haven’t sniffed enough glue to stop the pain.

        The back thing was meaningful to me because I was teaching yoga and needed to do adaptations for pregnant students.  A lot of yoga students would dislocate a joint or break a finger off if the teacher told them that it would be good for them.  It’s quite fucked up, really, the extent to which people will take bad, obviously painful advice.

          1. I had a student who had to have foot surgery to correct what a previous yoga teacher had her do, and she still doesn’t understand that something horribly wrong happened.

  8. It’s because you can’t prove that human actions are responsible for either one, isn’t it?

  9. When I had my daughter we were told to put her to sleep on her stomach, so she didn’t choke on her vomit.  When we had our older son 5 years later we were told to put him on his side, so no vomit, but … actually I can’t remember why, but it made sense at the time, and there were special wedge shaped pillows we were supposed to use to prop him.  2 years after that we had our youngest, and he was supposed to sleep on his back, and for god’s sake don’t have pillows or even blankets in his crib with him (how that’s supposed to work in Minnesota I have no idea.)  Not only do we shut out the advice because it’s overwhelming, but even the good, researched, advice is subject to radical change in a very short time.  I am happy to report that all of my children are alive and well and no one suffocated or choked on vomit.

    1. I don’t think the “choke on her vomit” advice had any research behind it. It’s one of those things that has been told from one generation to another. But… the side/back sleeping does have the numbers to back it up, it’s just that it’s on large scale… and here we can draw analogues to the climate change. I can look out of my window and say that I don’t see any global warming… and I probably won’t really for quite some time. That doesn’t mean that the numbers aren’t there to back it up.

  10. Another thing about pregnancy and parenting advice that makes it difficult to decide what is real and what isn’t is that the “scientifically proven” advice changes over time. When I had my first child 23 years ago, there were posters everywhere telling mothers to always put their babies on their tummies. I was told again and again how very dangerous it is to put your baby on their back, because they can spit up and choke and die. By the time my second child was born 2 1/2 years later, the medical establishment had changed its mind. We were all supposed to prop our babies up on their sides. Baby stores sold cloth-covered foam rubber for helping prop your baby on its side properly. Skip ahead another 7 1/2 years and it’s “Back is best for baby!” And here’s the worst part — I’ve heard of CPS getting involved because of mothers who didn’t follow the advice in each of these three instances. 

    Also, as was noted by dragonfrog, some of the advice that’s given is intentionally misleading. A glass of wine with dinner is NOT going to hurt your baby. If it did, generations of Europeans would all have fetal alcohol syndrome, and all the babies of practicing Jewish families throughout history (who have at least one glass of wine a week, traditionally) would also suffer. Problem is, if you don’t think that people are mature enough or intelligent enough to process information and understand the idea of “moderation”, you think you have to treat them like small children and tell half-truths that can be grasped. The fact no one realizes how disrespectful that is should be shocking, but it isn’t.

    And yes, the same sort of situation arises with global warming. For one thing, there are many pieces of the puzzle that scientists haven’t sorted out yet. When something new gets published, the mainstream media and popular culture treats it as the new “last word”, when really it’s just another piece in a puzzle. Then the next piece comes along, shifts the picture a little bit, and people who really believed that the last “last word” was really IT become a little disillusioned. “How come you keep changing the ‘facts’? You don’t really know anything, do you?” From there, it’s easy to just turn off and ignore everything.

    In pregnancy as well as in global warming, its too easy to get overwhelmed with the amount of information that you have to sort through and fact-check. It makes perfect sense to build a cosmology all your own and ignore the rest, except in small bites and when you feel up to it. Perfect sense.

  11. I’m an OB-Gyn and I spend a lot of time at my prenatal appointments trying to clarify some of this stuff for people.  My basic line is generally that there are really very few things that are “dangerous”; most of the stuff you are told to avoid is fine in small quantities (alcohol, cheese, tuna, coffee); there’s no guarantee that even if you do everything ‘right’ nothing will go wrong. For god’s sake, lie in whatever position will let you get some sleep, because that’s hard enough in the 3rd trimester at all.

    I also like to collect little facts that people ‘know’ about pregnancy, most frequently told to them by older women.  For instance, did you know that you shouldn’t do exercise where you put your hands over your head, because it makes the cord go around the baby’s neck?  And you have to put your hands on your belly when you go in an elevator or else the baby can drop too low?

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