Wednesday, September 19, 2012

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.


  1. Generally, good argument.

    (If you're referring to paleo-diets...yes, they might be a good idea. Probably. Don't know if the level of general health at the time was due to the diet, or the fact that the average human expended a large amount of energy every day doing the hunting/gathering work every day. Plus, the death rates included diseases-with-no-antibiotics and inter-tribal warfare that may have been happening. Plus the fact that we don't really have any stats, we have guesswork based on life expectancy among the few groups of people in the modern age who still attempt such a lifestyle.)

    About the Moses story...there were both wet-nurses and midwives mentioned there. Midwives don't need much explanation.

    Wet-nurses do. Though I seem to remember not realizing the full task of a wet-nurse, and envisioning the job as a nanny-like position.

  2. This sort of thing does seem to be especially prevalent among nutrition cults of various kinds. One of my favorites is "Avoid dairy products because you never see any other adult animals consuming milk even from their own species, never mind milk from another species." This is stated as if it is the definitive argument against eating all things dairy -- kind of like the Karate Kid's Crane Kick. "If you do it right" says Mr. Miyagi "there is no defense."

    Then they follow it with an extensive photo gallery to demonstrate the poisonous effects of dairy consumption.

    Presumably, this would include yak's milk as well -- but since it comes from high on the Himalayan steppe -- close to the Dalai Lama's ancestral home -- maybe Yak milk would be OK.

  3. Mom of Toddler, so I'm coming to the conversation late. Probably no one will scroll down far enough to read this. *shurg* fits in with my new "habit" of always reheating or eating a cold dinner once the little one is taken care of.

    My Dad is a big proponent of this one. It works well for vaccine arguments too (oh dear, there I go bringing up more explosively controversial baby topics; they really are unavoidable). As he points out, "sure HUMANITY may have survived, but that doesn't mean individuals did." And as to the "natural" comment, my favorite comeback is "yeah, arsenic is organic too, but you don't see me running to Trader Joe's to pick that up."

    Glad you enjoyed my comment; hope you found the correct organic variety of yak's milk you were looking for. I suppose free-range grass fed llama milk might do in a pinch. Now I'm starting to feel like I'm writing a sketch for Portlandia:

    I think I'll stop while I'm ahead.