Parents often don’t know what is best

When dealing with anti-vaccers and other believers in woo, I often encounter indignant parents who, when faced with evidence and arguments that are contrary to their views, respond with, “well as a parent, only I know what is best for my child.” This sentiment is pervasive among anti-vaccers, but if we think about it for even a few seconds, the absurdity of it quickly becomes clear. Giving birth clearly does not magically impart you with infinite medical knowledge. Having a child is not even remotely equivalent to earning a medical degree. It’s kind of unbelievable that I even have to say that, but apparently, I do.

The problems with this claim should become obvious as soon as we start applying it to other situations. For example, purchasing a computer clearly does not endow me with instant and incomparable knowledge about anti-virus software, firewalls, etc. Similarly, no one claims to be an expert mechanic by sheer virtue of the fact that they own a car, so why would we think that simply having a child makes someone a medical expert?

I want to take that car analogy a bit further, because I think it is instructive. Imagine that I have decided that the notion that you need to do regular oil changes to protect your engine is actually just a conspiracy by car companies to make money, and, in fact, not only is it fine to never change your oil, but oil changes are actually bad for your car. Obviously, that position is absurd, but now imagine that you confronted me about it, and I responded by saying, “well as the owner of my car, only I know what is best for it.” Would you accept that response? Would it instill you with confidence that I actually know what I am talking about? I doubt it. It would be obvious to you that the fact that I own a car has no bearing on the extent of my mechanical knowledge, and plenty (probably most) car owners know next to nothing about mechanics.  Nevertheless, that is exactly what anti-vaccine parents do. They hold a dangerous position that is discredited by a mountain of evidence, yet they feel justified in their position simply because they have a child.

Now, at this point, someone may accuse me of a straw man fallacy, and argue that giving birth doesn’t magically give you medical knowledge, but rather, parents know best because they are the ones who interact with their child on a daily basis and know the most about him/her. That argument isn’t really any better though. Watching your child on a daily basis can’t possibly give you knowledge about your child’s internal physiology, nor can it inform you about the results of carefully controlled studies. Interacting with your child can’t magically inform you that vaccines are dangerous, for example. Going back to my car example, I could say that as the owner of the car, I am the one who interacts with it on a daily basis and know the most about it, but that clearly doesn’t make me any less wrong about the necessity of oil changes. In other words, interacting with your child doesn’t magically give you medical knowledge any more than driving my car magically gives me mechanical knowledge. To be clear, parents should report their observations to a doctor when they take the child for a medical visit, just as I should report observations about the way my car drives when I take it for a tune up, but that is a far-cry from parents being in a position to reject countless medical studies simply because they have daily encounters with their progeny.

Nevertheless, a parent might try to expand on this with specific observations. For example, they might say, “well after the first shot, I could see a difference in my child, so I’ll never vaccinate again” (see note). That is, however, simply an anecdote, and it is utterly worthless for establishing causation. For one thing, personal observations are often biased, and humans are notoriously bad at deciphering trends without the aid of actual data. Further, two things often occur together just by chance. For example, in a previous post, I ran the math on autism rates and vaccination rates and showed that even though vaccines don’t cause autism, we expect there to be thousands of cases each year where, just by chance, the first signs of autism are noticed shortly after vaccination. To return to my car example again, imagine that I had an oil change once, and shortly afterwards, one of my spark plugs stopped working and had to be replaced. Could I say that since it happened right after the oil change, the oil change must have been the cause? Obviously not. Further, the fact that I am the owner of the car would still be irrelevant. I couldn’t say, “well I own the car and drive it daily, so I know what happened, and I know the oil change killed the spark plug.” That would obviously be insanity.

Note: To clarify, I am not talking about things for which causation has already been established (e.g., an immediate allergic reaction). Rather, I am talking about all the countless things that anti-vaccers attribute to vaccines, despite a total lack of evidence to support causation, and often a substantial amount of evidence against causation. Autism is a prominent example, but I have seen parents accuse vaccines of everything that you can imagine. According to them, restlessness = vaccine injury, change in food preference  = vaccine injury, change in favorite toy = vaccine injury, etc. all “supported” by the notion that as parents, they surely must know what is going on with their child. It’s also worth pointing out that for the vast majority of things that anti-vaccers accuse vaccines of, there is simply no plausible causal mechanism, and they really are no different from me accusing an oil change of killing a spark plug.

Next, someone might try to appeal to “parental instincts,” but that is really just a restatement of where we started. We are back to the notion that being a parent automatically gives you medical knowledge, even thought it clearly doesn’t. As a friend of mine likes to say, parental instincts tell you that you shouldn’t let your kid play in that shady-looking guy’s van, but they can’t tell you whether or not vaccines are safe, whether or not a treatment works, etc. Only carefully controlled studies can do that.

Finally, someone will almost certainly argue that “doctors sometimes make mistakes.” This claim is, of course, true, but the fact that doctors aren’t perfect doesn’t automatically make parental instincts superior. Doctors are human, and humans make mistakes, but someone with a decade of advanced training and years of experience is far less likely to make a medical mistake than someone with no training or experience who is basing their views off gut instincts and Youtube videos (note: read this post before bringing up the claim that medical errors are the third leading cause of death).

In conclusion, I want to be clear that I’m not attacking parents or trying to “diminish” parenthood or any other such nonsense. I’m just trying to get people to have an accurate view of their own limitations. Having a child does not make you a medical expert nor does it make you the most qualified person to understand or assess your child’s health. If it did, there would be no need for doctors or science.

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13 Responses to Parents often don’t know what is best

  1. Holding The Line In Florida says:

    I about laughed my rear end off simply because you had to write an article like this in the first place!!! What you have written is so true. As I always say, “It requires a license to drive a car, but any fool can have a child.” The exact same thing is happening in education. I don’t know how many times I have to explain to parents that their kid isn’t passing since he/she isn’t performing to standard because they are simply not doing their assignments or preparing for exams. Of course it the my fault for not accommodating to their needs (a swift kick in the ass would be the appropriate action but we can’t do that in Middle School) since they know their kids. I only observe their actions or lack of. Wonderful post.

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  2. Richard says:

    Not to play the devil’s advocate, but there are of course a few things that parents (and in particular the mother) instinctively do get right, such as nursing the child and protecting it from anything threatening. And especially the latter may actually contribute to antivaccine sentiments: having strangers sticking needles in your child is something that instinctively doesn’t feel right, no matter how beneficial it may be. Diseases, on the other hand, are only perceived as a threat when someone is clearly unwell, or when there are certain other sings that something is amiss (e.g. the bad smell of spoiled food or undrinkable water). Since the actual pathogens are invisible with the naked eye and thus do not elicit an instinctive protective response, vaccinating a child when it is perfectly healthy ‘feels’ unnecessary, and even bad. It takes a conscious effort of rational thinking (and trust in what the doctor tells you) to tell yourself that you are really protecting your child. Luckily, most people do listen to the voice of science and reason, and do protect their children.

    Because, if parents always instinctively know best, how come that even 150 years ago, some 25% of children died before the age of five? How come those parents didn’t instinctively know that e.g. hygiene could have prevented a lot of those deaths?

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      I think that you’ve actually hit on an important part of the problem. Parental instincts tell you things like, “your child shouldn’t be in pain” which leads to views like, “needles hurt, therefore we shouldn’t use them.” The problem is, as you stated, that in many cases those instincts ignore the big picture, which is where science and risk assessment come in.

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  3. I would add that not only are parental observations often biased, but they’re biased by design, and that’s a good thing. We want parents to passionately care for their child, notice even a slight problem, and have their observations colored by love. It’s part of what helps parents put in the enormous efforts sometimes required to raise children.

    A parent that is truly objective seems to me a thing that’s in tension with an unconditionally loving parent.

    I would be happy to hear counter views, though.

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  4. Parents may not often know whats best, but neither should they blindly listen to those[ medical profession] who care more about money 1 Tim 6 : 10 than their child [ vaccines]

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    • If you think your pediatrician cares more about money than your child, you should change doctors.

      All the pediatricians I worked with were wonderful with my kids.

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      • The pediatric field [ guidelines] as a whole is disastrous, 1] telling mothers not to give their infant whole milk or wait x amount of time ,2] that it’s okay to feed an infant solid food before 1 yr when the” tongue thrust reflex” overwhelmingly doesn’t diminish in children till at least 1 yr or longer .Unbelievable . The AAP reminds me of 1 Tim 1 : 7 [ Niv] bible .

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    • Richard says:

      Erm, you do realize that modern science and the medical profession built thereupon is the reason why child mortality has fallen from 15%-25% up until only a 150 years ago to ~0.5% now? And that our life expectancy has almost doubled in the same period? And that lots of other traditional scourges of humanity, ranging from relatively benign parasitic infestations to horrible diseases such as poliomyelitis and smallpox, have all but vanished? And that we now can live our life safer and more comfortable than ever before? And yes, vaccines make a significant contribution to this state of affairs.

      So exactly what evidence do you have for this frankly appalling insinuation that doctors are inclined to harm children, just for money? And no, vaccines do NOT cause autism — apart from the fact that you apparently see autism as a sort of horrible plague, to be avoided at all cost. I find this very, very insulting, having Asperger’s myself, and knowing quite a few other people with ASD who generally live a fulfilling and generally happy life, regardless of their social handicaps.

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  5. The medical profession on the whole is so evil to suppress the truth Rom 1 : 18 that vaccines do cause Autism .

    They contain all kinds of known neuro- toxins like aluminum.

    Autism was unheard of before the inception of all these vaccines especially in short time frames. .The correlation is undeniable . No way can an infant or child who’s nervous systems are not yet nearly developed enough be able to handle all the terrible ingredients that vaccines contain .
    You wouldn’t give a 2 yr old child a strong cup of coffee but it’s okay to give them these powerful vaccines .

    Show me one autistic child that neither the expecting mother nor infant into childhood didn’t have even one vaccine . You won’t, because there isn’t one case .

    It’s a no brainer that vaccines cause autism ,nothing has been discredited, just the truth covered up.

    Think about this a mother has a 2 yr old child she is with it day and night 24/7 it’s fine has the capabilities to show all the range of emotions, then like after a very short time on a given day to the Dr. office to be vaccinated something terrible is wrong with the child . That wasn’t the vaccine?

    One more thought, childhood viruses like measles are not and never have been life threatening , it’s a big lie to keep the billion dollar vaccine industry going .

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    • Bitty Mack says:

      You might want to read a lot of other posts in this blog before spouting a lot of what you have there.
      You’re insistent on some kind of cover up or conspiracy, but you have no evidence of this. This blog, in particular, does a reasonably good job of debunking just about everything you have written.

      Further… Autism has been around for many, many years; it just used to be called something else. Instead of ‘Little billy is autistic’ it was ‘little billy is super weird so we keep him in the stable’.
      We know better now.
      There are many, many studies comparing the autism rates of vaccinated and unvaccinated children. They are the same.
      There are enormous meta analysis involving more than 23 million children that conclude that vaccines and autism have no link. We actually have found some genetic markers that predict autism which furthers the evidence that it’s a more common genetic condition.

      Finally… I’d also like to add that Autism is not a bad thing. I have friends on the autism spectrum and they’re wonderful human beings who don’t deserve to be treated like they’re the worst thing to happen to a family. They’re not.
      Vaccines have eradicated diseases, saved millions (possibly billions) of lives. We owe the doubling of our lifespans and the increased comfort and happiness through this long life to modern medicine. It really is a brilliant display of human ingenuity.

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    • Fallacy Man says:

      Your claims are empirically false. Numerous large studies (including one with over 1.2 million children) have looked at potential links between vaccines and autism, and they have consistently failed to find such a link. One study even looked specifically at people who were at a high genetic risk of autism and still failed to find any evidence that vaccinated children had a higher prevalence than unvaccinated children.

      I explained the studies in more detail here
      https://thelogicofscience.com/2016/04/28/vaccines-and-autism-a-thorough-review-of-the-evidence/

      Further, autism was around long before vaccines, but the definition of autism has changed over time. Thus, the “increase” is largely just because the definition has expanded (i.e., people who would not have been considered autistic 40 years ago are considered autistic today). Those studies were also discussed in the link above.

      Further, correlation absolutely does not indicate causation. The “increase” in autism rates also correlates very strongly with increased sales of organic food. Does that mean that organic food causes autism? Obviously not. Further, numerous studies have shown that the correlation is spurious and often non-existent. There are, for example, studies from the UK that looked at autism rates before and after the introduction of the MMR vaccine and, guess what, they are the same. Similarly, another study looked at autism rates in Japan when it stopped using the MMR vaccine and, guess what, removing the vaccine didn’t affect autism rates (these studies are also discussed in the link).

      If you are going to make a claim like “vaccines cause autism,” then you need to provide actual evidence, but all that you have is conjecture, fear-mongering, and logical fallacies. Numerous studies have thoroughly discredited your view.

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    • Janna says:

      dafuq? WTH does Romans 1:18 have to do with any of this? Oh, and you are an idiot.

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  6. Yet another one of your articles I need to bookmark for when I read this asinine response. It also can present as mentally and psychologically abusive, since parents often believe that having a child makes them their property instead of a separate, individual entity all their own. I’m sure if you asked an LGBTQ teenager who was kicked out of their house for being LGBTQ if they thought their parents know best, you’d receive a far different response. Oh, I also love the “You don’t have kids, so you have no room to talk!’ You’re right…I don’t, but you don’t have any medical credentials, so why are you still talking?

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