I feel that this post is the most important one I’ve ever written, and I hope you read it. Below I lay out a framework for making important lifestyle choices.
There’s been much ado in the news recently regarding a Danish study about drinking during pregnancy. Before you rush to organize your local mother/fetus pub crawl, let’s talk a little bit about the purpose of studies and why you should often ignore them.
Some types of studies help solve a problem that common sense could not. A few years ago, studies revealed that compression-only CPR is probably superior to compression-and-rescue ventilation CPR. If you come across a person lying unconscious in the street, the decision is a no-brainer – you should use the chest-thrusting motion to try to revive them as opposed to a combination of that and mouth-to-mouth. There is no tradeoff for you, unless the victim happens to be extremely attractive. Studies like this save thousands of lives.
Other types of studies are what I call wager-based studies – a study that measures the riskiness of a behavior which provides some sort of benefit to the participant (e.g. the social enjoyment benefits of alcohol vs. the risk of harm to the child).
I suppose I should clarify something at this point. The headline of this blog post was intentionally misleading – I don’t actually hate studies. Studies are incredibly useful for advancing our understanding of our world, our bodies, and science that surrounds us. But, due to their extremely narrow focus, they rarely have real-world applicability.
The biggest problem is that the media, whether due to sensationalism or stupidity (probably both), often misinterprets a study and propagates false conclusions. Fox News published an article about this one entitled “Low to Moderate Drinking in Early Pregnancy Deemed OK for Children.”
Let’s look at the actual scope of what our Danish friends examined. Like most studies, it researched only a very narrow set of conditions: it showed that there was no difference between the IQ, attention span, executive functions, and self control of 5 year old children whose mothers drank less than 8 drinks per week during pregnancy vs. mothers who abstained completely.
In other words, the study answers this question: “will my 5 year old be less intelligent if I drink while pregnant?”
But that conclusion is useless because it doesn’t answer the real-world question that you’re unconsciously asking. You’re seeking the answer to a value judgment: “should I drink during pregnancy? Contrary to the Fox News headline (gasp!), the study didn’t address that topic at all – it simply revealed that the wager is a little less risky than we previously thought it was.
Our life path, physical health, and relationships all depend on how we approach these value judgements. Studies can’t show us how drinking during pregnancy may affect a person’s ability to negotiate complex contracts, make beautiful art, or become a successful novelist. We’ll never know if children of mothers who drink may be more likely to settle for an average relationship instead of pursuing earth-shattering love. Or worse, perhaps they’ll be predisposed to enjoying reality TV and gossip magazines.
When the sacrifice is minimal and the potential risk is large, ignore the studies and use common sense to make a value judgement. We all know that alcohol isn’t the greatest thing for the human body, and so it would be reasonable to think that it probably isn’t so great for a developing fetus, either. A study that rules out one small, possible risk won’t change my mind on that. Neither will ten or a hundred studies, for that matter. If I were a pregnant woman, the benefit of nine months of drinking would not be worth the yet-undiscovered potential risks.
Similar reasoning would lead you to use a cell phone headset, despite the lack of conclusive evidence showing that cell phone radiation causes brain tumors. Do you really want to wait for concrete evidence to exist? I’d personally rather be ahead of the curve, and you’ll often find that the scientific studies trail painfully far behind it.
This philosophy is called the precautionary principle and you’re already using it more than you think. If you could rob a bank and get away with it, would you do it? If you answered no, your subconscious is probably reasoning that the financial benefits are not worth the potential risk of punishment in the afterlife – even though that risk is completely unproven and you may not even consider yourself religious.
Sometimes you’ll decide that the benefits are worth the risk, and that’s OK, too. Though I know that alcohol is bad for my health, I (attempt to) drink in moderation because I feel that the experiences it brings me outweigh the possible damaging effects. As my personal philosophy evolves and my priorities in life shift around, that value judgement may change as well.
This framework for decision making has most recently led me to start eating 100% organic, or at least as close to it as possible. Though studies may not show a statistical difference between people who eat organic and people who do not, I’m willing to wager that I’m probably better off without chemicals and antibiotics in the food that I eat.
I’ve also decided to eat a Paleo diet, which consists of foods that can be hunted, fished, and gathered. It calls for you to eliminate grains, dairy, and processed foods. Though no conclusive evidence exists to prove that gluten and dairy are unequivocally bad for you, the arguments that I’ve read against them make a lot of sense to me.
And if I reach the End of Days and discover that I was wrong, I’ll have the rest of eternity to think about whether I should have spent my time on earth robbing banks and eating Big Macs.
But something tells me I’ll be OK.
If you liked this post, please spread the word by sharing it on Facebook.
Un abrazo fuerte,
It is common sense. What’s the point of even publishing a ‘study’ like that (re the drinking during pregnancy) is it only to make people who already drink feel better? Or is it so people will talk about it? Anyway, Im glad you’ve discovered Paleo. I have been doing the Dukan diet for 6 months now and am also leaning towards paleo once I reach my goal weight. It makes sense to me to not eat processed foods and chemicals and try to eat as naturally as possible. Its also amazing to discover that fat doesn’t actually make you fat. It’s sugar. And what do grains turn into in your body? glucose ie sugar. Good luck with it!
Love the precautionary principle, and your focus on values, and common sense to make decisions. With respect to the diet, it is also logical for me. I was plagued by disgestive issues since childhood. Some were as a result of food allergies. My symptoms worsed over the years, and I am sure it was playing havec with my digestive track. My physicians had no answers for me. Diagnosed with irritable bowl syndrone, and given meds to mask the symtoms. I decided to go gluten free two years ago, and to also avoid processed food, and thus make an effort to eat fresh fruit and vegetables daily. Surprise, my digestive issues are all but resolved. Listen to your body.
Love your posts. Thanks again.
Definitely a great post! Thank you for the continued inspiration!
It’s kind of like the saying, If in doubt throw it out. If there is the slightest doubt about something while pregnant don’t do it. Wait a minute. What about all of those people of bygone years who had to drink fermented drinks because the water wasn’t safe. As an American child living in France for a few years at a young age my parents always took soda to my babysitters house because they all including the children drank wine with their meals. So it would be safe to say that many a pregnant woman would have had some wine to drink during a pregnancy. This does not however mean to say that I think it is a good idea, just exploring an idea not otherwise thought of.
Paleo diet sounds interesting. What blood type are you? I have recently started eating for my blood type (Type O) and have found that cutting out grains & dairy has been so beneficial.
Great post, Zack. And if you haven’t read it, I would highly recommend you read The Fark Book by Drew Curtis, the guy who curates and runs Fark.com. As a guy who has seen, at both a macro and a micro level, the vast intricacies of today’s media environment, 24-hour news cycle, and the finer economics of journalism, he’s put together a really thorough (and hilarious) look at the many trends he’s discovered in the way our media functions. The bottom line is that there is a great deal of laziness and deferral to acquired “experts,” which often take the form of Press Releases and Studies. There’s obviously much more to it, so you should definitely check it out.
Also, hope you’re well buddy. Take ti easy.
The risks of drinking while pregnant fall off the later in the term you are drinking, so a woman that’s showing is probably doing no perceptible harm at all to her baby, while someone who is drinking before they even know they’re pregnant may be doing significant harm. My intuition is that it probably follows a curve of diminishing (negative) returns. People have just been telling pregnant women not to drink at all because it is a HELL of a lot easier to follow than the truth, which has no clear demarcation line at all. Such is life.