Thursday, October 05, 2017

Trusting the Experts

I'm rereading FOR HER OWN GOOD: TWO CENTURIES OF THE EXPERTS' ADVICE TO WOMEN, by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English (actually, the first edition, titled "150 Years of..."):

For Her Own Good

The book deconstructs medicine and psychology in particular, as one would expect, but also new disciplines such as "domestic science" (aka home economics, invented in the late nineteenth century). The venerable doctrine that overuse of the mind, especially in pursuit of "masculine" fields of study, ruined women's physical health and rendered them unfit for their natural purpose, reproduction, is only the most blatantly appalling of the now-discredited theories exposed in this historical survey.

The book serves as a reminder of how "science-based" recommendations offered to the public can change from century to century, decade to decade, and sometimes year to year. Around 1900, American housewives were encouraged to protect their families' health by obsessive cleaning in an attempt to make the home germ-free (an impossible goal in a normal household anyway). Nowadays, it has been discovered that an excessively clean environment in childhood promotes allergies. In the first half of the twentieth century, some doctors recommended smoking as a weight-loss strategy (as mentioned in Stephen King's novella "The Breathing Method"). In the same period, mothers were urged to put their babies on rigid schedules and told that picking up a baby between feedings or cuddling and playing with him or her would lead to all sorts of mental and moral ills. At the time of my first pregnancy, obstetricians badgered pregnant women to starve themselves into a weight gain of twenty pounds or less (not only almost impossible for most women but unhealthy). Eggs used to be considered evil because of their cholesterol content. Now we know dietary cholesterol has little or no direct effect on blood cholesterol; the main culprits are trans fats.

That's what we know now, at least. What guarantee do we have that the latest findings of modern science will remain THE authoritative truth instead of being superseded as many earlier truths have been? Yet the average layperson has to trust the experts, since she doesn't have the background to evaluate the research herself. (And then there are pseudo-scientific fads, which the Internet sometimes makes hard to distinguish from legitimate science.) The best we can do is exercise critical reading and thinking skills as we compare claims—which a liberal education is supposed to teach us to do, as mentioned in last week's blog post. Faith in the pronouncements of authorities is often scorned as a fallacious mode of thought, but we all accept authority as the basis for many of our beliefs. Even the most widely educated genius can't be an expert in everything.

I once came across mention of a story (don't know the author or title) in which the magicians of the world "came out" and revealed that all the alleged technological marvels of modern society were, in fact, created by magic. For many of us in relation to many fields of technology, "a wizard did it" would sound just as plausible as the scientific explanation.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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