On Peanuts, Truth, and Other Stuff

Earlier this month, the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases (say that three times fast) released new guidelines for prevention of peanut allergy in children. These guidelines were rather surprising for many people, because they were a complete reversal of the previous ones. Whereas previously the official scientific advice had been to avoid feeding peanuts to allergy-prone children until the age of three, parents are now urged to begin introducing it “before they are 6 months old,” as a preventative measure.

Needless to say, the press release introducing the new position, and the flurry of news coverage that followed, led to much consternation on social media. Many parents, rightfully concerned for the health of their kids, expressed fear and distrust of what appears to be a dramatic turnaround in scientific thought around the issue. A lot of questions were asked about why we should trust the new results when we clearly could not trust the old ones. If scientific research is supposed to give us answers about life or death issues, why does it seem so unreliable?

As far as social media controversies go, the peanut allergy studies are somewhere in the middle. Much more contentious has been the continuing debate over the safety of vaccines: on the one hand, concerned parents who mostly don’t want their kids to get sick are accused of endangering everyone around them. On the other, the lingering suspicion of a link between vaccines and autism (a link that has been strongly–and repeatedly–debunked by several studies).

Not so controversial, but certainly as high-stakes, is the changing advice on how to prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Late last year new recommendations included letting children sleep in the same room as parents, and taking away blankets and soft toys.

As someone who does research-based work with families, I try to keep up with new studies, and I like to be able to present parents with the context behind my advice other than “because I said so.” Parents want to do the best thing for their kids, especially when it comes to their health and safety. When the science gives ambiguous or seemingly controversial advice (though really, sudden reversals such as the one about peanuts are pretty rare), the guilt we feel about our decisions may shade into suspicion. How do we know what information to trust?

When I “asked” this question online, nearly everything I found was from academic websites. If you’re writing a research paper (and I’ve taught a few of those classes), you want to be sure your sources are sound and reliable. When it comes to the news and the kind of information we rely on, like medical advice, it is just as important (maybe more: more important than research papers!) to distinguish the solid stuff from the shaky.

The articles I have linked to in this post are from major publications. Major newspapers and newsmagazines have editorial boards and fleets of fact-checkers. They don’t want to be sued for slander. When they make a mistake, they quickly publish a correction and add it to the bottom of the piece. All three name authors and include dates and other identifying information. They link to the studies they discuss (presented by the organizations in question), so that we can see them for ourselves.

When it comes to parenting (or really, health in general), the internet is not the best place to get our information. Pediatricians, clinics and public health agencies contain real, verifiable people who can confirm or deny when needed.

Practicing this kind of discernment is more important now than ever (and I’m not even going to use the words “fake news.” Oops). Regardless of the anxiety we may feel as parents over keeping our kids safe and healthy, if we know how to pay attention we’re doing the right thing.

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