Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Interlude: Non-Scientific Pregnancy Froo-Froo

Our delightful march of progress has, in a few scant thousand years, delivered humanity from the sort of abject, state-of-nature poverty that thankfully most of my readers will only ever vaguely grasp in the most abstract terms into the warm, comfortable hands you're enjoying right now. You aren't at risk for polio, or smallpox, and if you come down with dysentery or even the Black Plague itself, all you'll need is a quick dose of antibiotics and you'll be right as rain. Unless I have a very peculiar readership, you're at virtually no risk of being conscripted, and even if you were, your chances of dying in combat are a small fraction of what they were even during the heyday of mechanized warfare, let alone something as horrific as Napoleon's foray into Russia.

And to what do we owe this—I do not use the word flippantly—miraculous transformation? Well, to use a sort of weaselly word, signals. Signals that tell us that peaceful, cooperative trade is more dignified than conquest through force of arms; signals that tell us that scientific inquiry fell not from the bosom of an heresiarch, but by His Grace; signals that sing panegyrics to Courage, Love, Justice, Faith, Temperance, Hope, and Prudence.

And like with any signal, there is noise.

Most of the time, we're pretty good about ignoring noise. Most of us (I hope) can tell when someone's pulling our leg by age of majority. Or, barring that, we know where to turn for solid advice. But think about Zach's worry up there. Particularly under conditions of rapid social change, legacy noise filters may break down and when you couple that with pregnancy hormones and run-of-the-mill anxiety, it's entirely plausible that expectant mothers could be guzzling snake oil by the bbl. Not very euvoluntary. True-blue exploitative even.

So what's the answer? Well, you can start with Emily Oster's book. And you can seek unbiased medical advice from multiple sources (hello Bayes!). But how about something more punitive? How about banning sketchy advertising for suspect products?

I hesitate advocating this solution for the reason that it doesn't do Jack F. Squat to remedy the underlying problem of prenatal ignorance. Papering over balderdash (weakly) gives an incentive for women to be less engaged in the fine details of pregnancy and early term care, on the margin. Even if the effect isn't particularly strong, muting noise rather than strengthening signal serves to stifle innovation. If an honest person of modest means has an idea that can actually, genuinely help people, it's best to keep barriers to the marketplace nice and low and let the discovery process work its magic. Fight fraud valiantly with the saber of truth (it's got a +3 enchantment).

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?