“Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics…in that order”

ImageI was thinking of a title for this section when I remembered a book that I read years ago. It’s title, “Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics…in that order”. It’s a book on how statistics can be manipulated to tell whatever story one fancies.

In ‘Parenting Philosophies – The Two Extremes’, I attempted to roughly clarify on the confusing parenting information conveyed to us. Here, I will try to explain a bit more on how you can better understand what the gurus are trying to say. Unfortunately, at this moment, the only book I have on hand is Dr William Sears’ ‘Night Time Parenting’, so my examples will come from this book. Sorry, don’t have time to provide a ‘balance’ presentation. Hey! This is not a thesis or something!

The following are some terms you have to understand and keep in mind when reading any parenting material:

 1. Conjectures

Conjecture is a nice sounding term which means somebody’s best guess, or even wild guess.

 2. Hypothesis

Hypothesis is one step closer to the ‘Truth’ compared to Conjecture. It is still a guess but usually with some basis and still need to be tested to establish that it is indeed true.

3. Relationship

When we say there is a relationship (or co-relation) between A and B, it could mean that A causes B, or B causes A or A and B both change in a certain manner because of C, etc. We know there is a relationship between A and B but we are not sure what kind of relationship it is.

4. Causation

When we say that there is a causative relationship between A and B, it means A causes B (or vice versa).

5. Opinion

Opinion is subjective and there is no right or wrong about it.

6. Sweeping Statements

Beware of sweeping statements. ‘Breastfed babies have a lower tendency to fall sick compared to formula fed babies’ is correct. ‘Breastfed babies will not fall sick’ is a sweeping statement and is incorrect.

Now that you know all the different terms, you should be able to ‘test’ everything you read to know whether they are the truth or just somebody’s opinion or best guess. This way the ‘experts’ cannot pull wool over your eyes and you will be in a better position to decide what will work for you, and what will not.

When you read any parenting material, you will notice that sometimes, the matter is written in such a way that less discerning readers will take it as the ‘gospel truth’ when it is nothing more than a hypothesis. Well, after all, the author’s job is to try to make his point and convince the readers. As I go along, I will bring up some illustration of the different types of statement.

1.     Not every research result is conclusive

A lot of research results quoted are not conclusive and only preliminary. In order for something to be scientifically tested and concluded, the results have to be subjected to numerous test, a well represented sample, and peer reviews, etc. Therefore, it does not mean that ‘studies show that…’ means it must be true. E.g years ago, ‘studies show that’ margarine is better than butter. Now, there are ‘studies that show that’ butter is better.

2.     How the research is done

The conclusion of the study is affected by many factors, sometimes not controllable. Sometimes, it could be a reverse logic kind of thing.

Here’s something from the Sears book :

‘A study comparing night-waking between breastfed and bottle-fed infants around 6 months of age showed that 52% of breastfed babies awakened during the night compared to 20% of bottle fed babies.’

Does this mean that it is a fact that if the baby consumes breast milk, it means that he will not sleep through the night? Or could it be that it’s not so much the breast milk but the feeding method (demand feeding, night nursing, nursing to sleep) that is the actual factor affecting night wakings?

If the factor is the breast milk, then we can’t help breastfed babies from waking up frequently at night. However, if the factor is something else more controllable, breastfeeding mothers may not actually need to put up with the frequent waking for so long.

Besides this, needless to say, the results of a research will depend on the way the research is done, the methodology, the sample size, etc. The accuracy of the findings depends on whether the research is properly carried out.

Here, for example, is Dr James Dobson’s explanation on some of the ‘studies’ on behaviours : What does Behavioural Research Tell Us About the Best Way to Raise Children?

3.     Identify Writer’s Own Opinion/Hypothesis

Sometimes, the writer is merely putting down his own opinion but he conveniently writes in such a way that if the reader is not careful, the reader will be misled to believe that there is more truth to the hypothesis than there really is.

Here’s a very honest Dr Sears :

The hypothesis I wish to propose is : In those infants at risk for SIDS, natural mothering (unrestricted breastfeeding and sharing sleep with baby) will lower the risk of SIDS. I emphasize that this is my own hypothesis based upon my pediatrician’s intuition and not based upon any scientific studies that I am aware of.’ (italics mine)

But how very often now we hear of people saying that co-sleeping reduces the risk of SIDS as if it is a fact!

4.     Examine the Context

Some things may be true in one context but not another. Check the context in which the statement is made. E.g ‘Breastfeeding is cheaper than formula feeding’. I have done a calculation and found that this statement is not true (refer to The Whole Truth about Breastfeeding) at least in our (Singaporean) context.

Breastfeeding is much cheaper in 3rd World countries where people are poor and cannot afford formula but are forced to cough up money for formula because they were misled to feeding their babies formula instead of breast milk. The environment is such that the people need not invest in breastfeeding accessories, unlike us in Singapore, and hence cheaper.

Also, some advice are only applicable to babies of certain age. But often, it is not specified. So you have to consider the context of the advice in terms of the age group it is relevant for.

5.     Relationship

Sometimes the authors quote research studies which established that there is a relationship between A and B, but phrased it in such a way that you think there is a direct causal relationship. Beware of such statements. Also, technically, you also need to establish how ‘strong’ the relationship is.

To explain plainly, suppose someone found that every time my friend in Malaysia sneezes, I will being having a cold here in Singapore. But that does not mean that my cold is caused by my friend’s sneeze. However, if I say ‘every time my friend sneezes, I catch a cold’ it will mislead you to think that my cold is due to the sneeze. Even if there is something about the sneeze and the cold, statistically, this is considered pure coincidence if the sneeze and the cough happens only once in a blue moon.

6.     Negative Examples and Fear Tactics

Oh they are so fond of this! They do it directly, indirectly, insinuate, outright accusation, etc. They quote scary examples of how ‘other methods’ produces unhealthy, psychologically affected babies. Do not be intimidated by such tactics. Every method has its down side. It is like weight loss fads – every one of them claim to have their own success stories.

To me every road leads to Rome and every road has its own potholes. If you trip over a pothole, don’t blame the road; blame yourself for walking with your eyes closed!

7.     Foot in the Door Method

Here’s a usual tactic : suppose a well-known guru advocates parenting method, tweedle-dee. Of course, there will be people who have doubts about tweedle-dee. Dr Guru will start off with qualifying statements such as ‘you should review your own situation to see if tweedle-dee is for you’, or ‘ tweedle-dee is not absolute and does not apply to all situations’, etc. The qualifying statements sort of ‘win’ you over to at least go on reading (ie. you ‘opened your door’ and Dr Guru put his foot in). As long as you go on reading, there will be a chance you will be completely won over by Dr Guru’s argument. Hence, by putting his foot in your door, Dr Guru basically gain entry into your ‘house’. If you go on reading with a discerning mind, you will realise that at the end of the day, Dr Guru is basically saying that tweedle-dee is THE parenting method to adopt (contrary to all the qualifying statements made in the beginning).

8.     Check the Credentials and Qualifications

Sometimes, the credentials of the author are not accurate or even false. But it would be too tedious to check out, unless you really have the time. And not everyone with a PhD or MD attached to their names are really the experts. To a certain extent, I might trust a person without such qualifications, but has years of experience more (e.g. maternity nurse, midwives). At least these people deal with real life issues and have experience with different babies compared to a scientist whose conclusions are based on controlled clinical researches (which may or may not be accurate) and are hardly applicable to a real life situation.

These are not hard and fast rules and there is no way I can tell you who to believe and who not to believe. What I hope to do is to remind you of this particular aspect and you will have to make your own judgement. At the end of the day, you have to find your own way that suits you and your baby the best.

9.     Be Aware of Hidden Agendas

Face it, everyone has some hidden agenda in almost every issue. But be very careful of certain groups that advocate certain ‘non mainstream’ ideology. Not that what they advocate is down right wrong. Just be aware that usually these groups have very strong hidden, or not-so-hidden agenda for promoting their ideology. They have their own ‘study results’ to quote and their own ‘medical experts’ to support evidences. But we may not know much about how valid their claims are. A simplistic example is the Christian Science group advocating against immunisation. I am not drawing conclusions here and the whole issue about immunisation is another big topic more complicated than this. What we do know is that Christian Science is basically not in favour of medical intervention in general, thus the agenda against immunisation.

There may be validity in some of the things these groups advocate but because of their strong hidden agendas, their claims may be over exaggerated.

Simlarly, disposable diaper companies may quote studies to show that cloth diapering is more detrimental to the environment than disposable diapers. The hidden agenda? Profits.

Hence, it helps to know who is saying what, so that you know why they are saying it.