[First published on skepolitical.com on 5/17/12]
Tuesday, on his NPR show On Point, Tom Ashbrook discussed the topic of Attachment Parenting with three guests, including the “guru” of the attachment parenting movement, Dr William Sears. I myself have a two-year-old boy and another boy expected this August, so I’ve already experienced the difficulty of sifting through the reams of advice in order to find out what’s really important and what isn’t. This is about the least political topic I hope to address on this blog, but it’s kind of in my wheelhouse for skeptical topics, so I couldn’t resist. There’s really a ton of misinformation and trumped-up advice on parenting being peddled to parents. Sears and attachment parenting mostly fall under the “trumped-up” category rather than the far more odious “misinformation” category, but, independent of Sears, there is certainly a lot of misinformation that has become associated with attachment parenting. This includes the claims by his son and occasional co-author, Dr Robert Sears, that in order to minimize amassing aluminum in a baby’s system it is better to follow his vaccine schedule rather than the standard schedule. That sells books, but it’s not true (a sticking point for us skeptics). Still, as far as vaccine pseudo-science goes, this is a very minor offense.
I think attachment parenting is mostly harmless and probably includes some good parenting suggestions. The problem arises when Dr (William) Sears’s “Doctor” status causes people to view his parenting suggestions are more than just suggestions. They’re not.
I’ve been reading Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow, which differentiates between intuitive, “System 1″ thinking and deliberate “System 2″ thinking. Less than one fifth of the way through the book, I already have high hopes for it becoming a central tool for mainstreaming skeptical thinking. I will write about this in a future post. (In the meantime, go ahead and read it!) Today, let me just point out how adopting the tools of skepticism, including some of the information I found in just the first ninety pages of Kahneman’s book, could help you more effectively evaluate the arguments Sears made on Tuesday. The dubious claim that Sears seems to be trying to defend is that his attachment parenting recommendations produce healthier, happier, friendlier, smarter children. Let’s look at some of his arguments.
Dr Sears made frequent reference to parents who practice attachment parenting coming to him with stories of how well-liked their children are, suggesting that parents who do “regular” parenting rarely have such popular children. Setting aside the obvious selection bias (patients who follow their doctor’s advice might be more likely to tell their doctor when things are going well), the well-documented confirmation bias suggests that, even if “attachment” parents and “regular” parents were both coming to him with such stories at equal rates, he would tend to remember and embrace the evidence that confirmed his pre-existing belief that attachment parenting is better. The “null hypothesis” — that attachment parenting has no effect — cannot be eliminated.
In addition to cognitive biases like the confirmation bias, Sears uses some logical fallacies that are extremely common among those supporting pseudoscience and alternative medicine. These logical fallacies are superficially persuasive because they appeal to System 1 and require quite a bit of effort from System 2 to overcome. The trick to avoid being duped is to be aware of these fallacies (or at least these), which will eventually cause your System 1 to send out warning signals when they are encountered.
For example, Sears’s line of reasoning suffers from the “post hoc ergo propter hoc” logical fallacy. Even if there were a correlation between attachment parenting and positive qualities in children, it wouldn’t imply that those qualities were caused by the parenting practices. For example, one alternative explanation is that there is a correlation between parents who are likely to try attachment parenting and parents who would raise popular children anyway.
To be fair, a caller who was critical of attachment parenting because of the affect on his marriage said that his child’s friends literally cheer when he shows up at school. I have to admit that that is pretty impressive anecdotal evidence. Also, Sears responded admirably by saying that children also need happy parents, and he gave the good advice that the caller should talk to his wife about finding better balance in their approach to parenting.
A second argument Sears made was that attachment parenting, and, in particular, “wearing your children,” is good because “it’s the oldest parenting style there is.” Well, this is a clear example of the logical fallacy called the “argument from antiquity.” The fact that people used to do something does not mean it is necessarily good. For example, for millennia, corporal punishment was also a common parenting technique, but that does not justify it. Again, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with parents deciding to “wear” their babies rather than use a stroller, but let’s not pretend we know one is better just because it’s the traditional way to do things or because other cultures do it.
I’ll point out one more logical fallacy. Referring to long-term nursing (3+ years), Sears stated that “it’s natural.” Any argument that includes “it’s natural” should send up immediate red flags for you. Such arguments will invariably rely on the naturalistic fallacy or an appeal to nature. That something is natural does not imply that it is good.
Sears is charming and makes perfectly reasonable and plausible claims. He tells us that being close to our kids as often as possible is better, and this sound right. It sounds good. This triggers “cognitive ease” engenders lazy thinking. It encourages us to trust our System 1 without checking with System 2. Our System 1 likes to assume causation and to trust what nice people say. This makes it susceptible to the post-hoc ergo propter hoc (causation) fallacy and to appeal to antiquity. To use the academic psychological term from the Thinking book, Sears has managed to create a “halo effect,” making anything he says seem reasonable. Fortunately for us, he doesn’t say anything too extreme like “don’t vaccinate,” which would be horrendously damaging.
Incidentally, by subduing System 2, the “halo effect” also makes us less likely to think twice before making an impulse purchase of a parenting book that contains information we already know.
Before I leave the parenting topic, let me say that the Freakonomics podcast on parenting was about as purely skeptical as you could hope for. Also check out the Skeptical OB blog or just use this Skeptic Search Engine if you are having difficulty finding reliable information on parenting (or anything else for that matter).
Relating to my two previous posts, about my influencing Best of the Left podcast and about Obama’s declaration of support for gay marriage, the newest Best of the Left episode is entitled: “It’s okay not to be cynical at least for a moment (Same Sex Marriage)”. I liked the first couple minutes of this clip from The Bugle (with John Oliver), which was featured in the BotL episode. The last minute is also excellent. Also, I may have had a little influence over the podcast that brought me to this blog in the first place, Dan Carlin’s Common Sense, when he interviewed Buddy Roemer last week.