The science of finger-wagging

Not long ago, a relative of mine asked to see me and my husband to discuss ‘a concern’. Somewhat bemused, we agreed; it transpired that what he wanted to raise with us was his worries about what he perceived to be our excessive consumption of alcohol while trying to conceive a child. In essence his message was that we should stop drinking or the result would be a child with behavioural problems and/or special needs.

His concern was, he told us, born of his ‘studies in biology’. He came armed with helpful print-outs of articles from the internet, one for me and one for my husband. He even had notes about ‘the science’.

Never mind the accuracy of his perception that either of us is a raving alcoholic (we’re not) or indeed the validity of the ‘science’ he wanted to share with us (debatable) or indeed the appropriateness of a not particularly close family member attempting an intervention in such a profoundly intimate area of our married life (extremely debatable). The point of relating this distasteful episode in our family life is to exemplify a general trend that has only become apparent to me since notions of parenthood appeared on my radar: namely the co-option of ‘science’ to deliver what are, essentially, moral precepts.

Two things collide here. The first is the general injunction in modern society to avoid being ‘judgemental’, for fear of the cruelties this will supposedly inflict on anyone experiencing moral censure. (Theodore Dalrymple writes beautifully on this subject here, arguing in essence that while the backlash against moral censure is in some ways a justified reaction against past cruelties, determined refusal to apply moral judgement to individuals can result in far worse cruelties especially when institutionalised in the mechanisms of the social state.)

The second is the ebbing away of any source of authority except science. Religions are increasingly perceived as sources less of moral authority than of bigotry; received opinion is ignorant until proven enlightened; we no longer listen to what our mothers told us about childrearing, preferring to rely on ‘guidelines’ issued by bodies such as the WHO. This is by no means confined to child-rearing but assumes particular force  when applied to the sensitive subjects of bringing new humans into the world and their subsequent nurture.

The result is a situation in which moral precepts (women should not drink, at all) piggyback on sensible advice (don’t neck a bottle of vodka a day while pregnant or it will harm your baby) and are delivered in a supposedly ‘non-judgemental’ way via ‘scientific’ studies of dubious validity. The advice they offer is that because it cannot be proven that any level of alcohol consumption in or around pregnancy is 100% safe, it should be avoided entirely. The fact that the same could be said of any number of substances is neither here nor there; the motivation for choosing to focus on alcohol is obscured and the finger-wagging can proceed.

Emily Oster’s delightfully nerdy book Expecting Better provides solid meta-analysis of many of these studies, offering anxious modern mothers a route through the anxious discourse of pseudoscientific finger-wagging. What it has less room for, though, is a critique of the culture within which science is thus weaponised. Frank Furedi notes on this subject that

If science is turned into a moralising project, its ability to develop human knowledge will be compromised. It will also distract people from developing a properly moral understanding of the problems that face humanity in the twenty-first century. Those who insist on treating science as a new form of revealed truth should remember Pascal’s words: ‘We know the truth, not only by reason, but also by the heart.’

It is no surprise that this is evident nowhere more than in discourses around childrearing: all societies feel, justifiably, that they have a vested interest in the processes whereby new members are created and socialised. No area straddles the public and private sphere more delicately. There can surely be few areas where taking a moral stance is more understandable, and the obfuscation of such stances behind pseudoscience is disingenuous at best, if not downright destructive both to meaningful science but also to our shared understanding of right and wrong.

With all this in mind I would have preferred my relative to come right out with the moral stance. I would have disabused him of his mistaken perception of my lifestyle and all would have been well. As it is, the cloaking of morality in science has left an uneasy sense of a misperception impossible to rectify because cloaked, an insulting criticism impossible to challenge because disavowed, and an unhappy rift in my family circle.

Author: The Sparrow

I’m UK-based. I’m interested in the political and cultural side-effects of globalisation, the replacement of class politics by identity politics, and the emerging backlash against the regressive left. I was a radical lefty once upon a time, though these days I'm just interested in following arguments wherever they go. I voted Leave, in the interests of positive, engaged globalisation within a democratic framework, though I'm a bit exasperated at how it's going so far. I’m a fan of liberty, free speech, home winemaking and practical feminism.

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