Sunday, August 14, 2011

Helping people make informed choices - it's not rocket science, but Darcia Narvaez just didn't nail it

As a long-time lactivist, I am a supporter of World Breastfeeding Week, whose purpose is to encourage breastfeeding and improve the health of babies around the world. This year there were some great articles on the internet that discussed these issues. However, a recent series on the Psychology Today blog, which attempted to highlight this theme, backfired spectacularly. Whatever the intentions of Darcia Narvaez were, her venture ended up going sadly awry.

As an unintended consequence of the final article in the series, Narvaez evoked some strong responses from various corners of the blogosphere. She ended up re-editing the offending article and retracting, or a couple of her claims.

However, I'm not sure that Narvaez really gets it. In her most recent post, although she apologizes for the lack of empathy she displayed, she seems to think that the underlying reason for the negative reactions to her article lies in the fact that "the information we provided is often shocking for those not previously exposed to it because the (mistaken) baseline assumed by many is 'formula feeding is fine'". Although this might be the case for a few mothers who read her article, I'm afraid she's way off base here. Many of those who criticized her posts were familiar with much, if not all, of the information she presented.

As well as that, she seems to be rather confused as to the tone of her offending article. She writes that the post deliberately "had a very sharp tone", after which she tells us that she and her co-writers "intended a coaxing tone." It seems that she's not sure what tone was intended, but in the end, her articles came off as judgemental and bullying, even to many of those who shared her point of view.

In response to a critic (who obviously hasn't heard of milksharing networks, as she states that milk donation isn't viable because pumping is painful and time-consuming) Narvaez writes that the purpose of her posts is to get information out about the deficiencies of formula. I have no problem with giving information, but the problem here is that Narvaez didn't leave it at this. She twisted and exaggerated the research to make her point and to make formula seem worse than it is and valorize breastmilk, and in doing so, did a disservice to the cause of infant feeding. In some cases, her exaggerations appeared to be deliberate, but she also carelessly cites hyperbolic claims made by others.

There's an example right in the very comment that I just linked to. Narvaez writes that WHO studies show that "in societies where breastfeeding is expected to be the norm there are no physical difficulties." NO physical difficulties? What about those babies with cleft palates, those with Downs Syndrome and other congenital defects, very low muscle tone, severe tongue tie or mothers with hypoplastic breasts who can't produce milk? These issues occur in all societies, not just in modern industrialized ones and the breastfeeding difficulties they cause don't disappear in societies where breastfeeding is the norm. I totally agree that breastfeeding difficulties are almost absent in societies where breastfeeding is the norm, but Narvaez goes too far when she says that there are none. What her statement does is to idealize breastfeeding. Her statement that 99% of women can breastfeed was another example of how she manipulated statistics. The source she was citing from actually said that 95-99% of women can breastfed, and Narvaez knowingly cited the most optimistic figure.

What I particularly want to focus on in this post, however, is Narvaez' claim that "Chemicals used in rocket fuel production have even been found in some infant formulas." Now that sounds really scary. Who wants to be told that their babies are drinking a concoction that is laced with rocket fuel. There are a number of things wrong with this statement. It is an example of the logical fallacy known as appeal to fear. The reference to "chemicals", in the plural, serves to heighten this claim. Narvaez implies that more than one constituent in formula is tainted by association with rocket fuel.

As it is, the link in Narvaez' footnote only refers to one chemical, perchlorate. In the form of ammonium perchlorate, it is used as a propellant for rocket fuel. However, it also has other uses, one of them medicinal and in fertilizer, but the statement "Chemicals used in fertilizers have even been found in some infant formulas" just doesn't strike the same level of fear into a pregnant mother's heart. Perchlorate has been found to be naturally present in arid environments. There has been some contamination due to its release into groundwater after NASA launches and fireworks displays.

It has also been detected in breast milk, at higher levels than in infant formula. There's a touch of irony in this, given that Narvaez mentions its presence in formula to debunk the myth that formula is as safe as breastmilk.

Perchlorate is a chemical which may disrupt thyroid activity, so its presence in formula and breastmilk could be a cause for concern. However, this is not a reason to wean babies from breastmilk or bovine-based formula. When this chemical was discovered in breastmilk, the media had a field day with the rocket fuel reference as well, this time in an attempt to sensationalize the issue and possibly also to discredit breastfeeding (that's my conspiracy theorist alter-ego talking there.)

I don't want to downplay the issue of perchlorate or other contaminants, but this is just a further indication that Darcia Narvaez' aim is not so much to inform as to strongly persuade. I don't think there's anything wrong with attempting to persuade, but this is an attempt to persuade cloaked in the guise of providing information and in this case, it went badly awry.

Next time you want to do something to promote breastfeeding, Darcia,sit on your hands - you'll do a whole lot more good that way. If you do aim to inform, then I hope that in future you try to do it honestly and look very carefully at the way in which you present "facts".

By the way, breastmilk and some formulas (the ready to feed ones) also contain an ingredient that is also produced as a result of the combustion of rocket fuel and whose overconsumption can result in death. I'll leave it up to you guys to guess what it is.


The Fearless Formula Feeder said...

Love it, Rina. I'm so glad you commented on the rocket fuel issue... this is so misunderstood and you explain it quite well.

As I said in my own post on this issue, I actually think Darcia's posts did some good, in that they got smart people like you talking, which can only lead to a more positive approach to breastfeeding promotion. If that happens, it will more than make up for the hour of my life that I spent reading through her posts and comments...!

Teri said...

Well-done and well-researched. Articles like Dr. Narvaez's really make me kind of sad, when I get past the anger. How many women might otherwise want to try breastfeeding but are turned away from the idea because they don't want to be associated with radical, immoral, unethical people like Dr. Narvaez? Working women often feel sensitive about the issue of being perceived as "hysterical" because of centuries-old assumptions that, well, we are. Dr. Narvaez's writings could well be cited by misogynists who hate the idea of women in higher education and research as a reason to distrust the writings of ALL women in science.

Julia said...

Great research and great article, Rina!
Love it.
(I guess the dangerous chemical that you are referring to is dihydrogen monoxide, right?) ;-)