Rule #6

Since posting my 5 rules for reading science papers online, I’ve been pondering if I missed anything.  Something  in Erin’s comment on the matter about “experts” tearing in to new mother’s because they didn’t feed their child organic yak’s milk from a glass bottle with a hemp nipple reminded me of a whole genre of ridiculousness I missed.

          6. Be very wary of those whose main argument is “we did this for thousands of years so it must be the best way of doing things”.   Now listen, I actually don’t mind this logic for lots of things.  I confess, I’m one of those people who likes more natural things in general (ESPECIALLY peanut butter.  I HATE peanut butter with anything other than peanuts and salt.)  So I get why the train of though appeals to people.  HOWEVER, in the absence of supporting evidence, it’s not a real argument most of the time.  There’s a couple of subreasons for this:
  • Most people saying this don’t actually know how many people did whatever they’re claiming or for how long.  They’re not anthropologists.  To say that all primitive people ate this or raised their children like that is probably a bit reductionist.  
  • The lifespan in “the good old days” was abysmal.  Yes, they might have fed their infants yak’s milk or eaten saber tooth tiger raw, but many of those children died before the age of 5.  It’s called “survivor bias”, and it means you have to be careful to remember that you only get to see how the people that lived through the whole thing turned out.  Some advances in technology are pretty categorically good, and if you’re going to try to live more “back to the earth” you should remember that you’re probably going to have to be a little selective about this if you want to live past 35 or so.
  • Lots of practices from ancient times are dismissed pretty out of hand these days, we’re selective about the ones we glorify.  I remember the first time I really read the Bible’s retelling of the Moses story and had to ask my mother what a “wet nurse” was.  I was horrified.  Most people today who go with “natural” practices would never consider handing their child off to a stranger to breastfeed, and yet other practices are held up as the ideal.  Our forefathers/foremothers got a lot of things wrong.  On second thought…..I feel the whole wet nurse comeback is due for a comeback….anyone want to try to write a book for rich parents about how this is what you’d do if you really loved your child?
I’m sure there’s more, but now I have a craving for yak’s milk.  I hope my local Whole Foods is open early.