Chicken Little: What We Don’t Hear When We Listen

I am grateful on a daily basis for the Internet. I love my smartphone, love being plugged in, love having the accumulated knowledge of millions of contributing sources at my fingertips via Google. I’m often glad to be alive in a time where we have so much technology, and when there so many interesting and engaging things happening. More than ever, we are able to see more, to know more, about the entire world, thanks to mass media.


As the information superhighway has grown throughout my lifetime, I fear we have abandoned common sense by the side of the road. Sure, we know more, and about more things, but that only makes us worry more. It’s hard to get through a day without hearing or reading something that is cause for alarm or a cry for battle, and no one is more vulnerable than a new parent. Toys with lead! Crib bumpers and SIDS! Autism! Life-threatening food allergies! Mass school shootings! Should we really be that worried, or has someone convinced us that the sky is falling?

For example, when I got pregnant, I don’t remember exactly how I learned that you are not supposed to eat lunch meat. I think my cousin mentioned it, knowing how much I love sandwiches. The risk, of course, is that you could contract a disease called listeriosis (which is somewhat similar to, but more serious than, salmonella) from eating lunch meat or soft cheeses that are contaminated with listeria bacteria, and this disease can be deadly for the baby. Being a smart lady, I decided to do some research. According to the CDC, pregnant women are about 13 times more likely to get listeriosis than the average person. Of about 1,600 cases reported each year, 1 in 6 are pregnant women. So, about 267 pregnant women every year get listeriosis. Of those, one or two cases may be fatal to a baby. There are perhaps 6.5 million pregnancies in the U.S. each year. So I figure the chances of a pregnant woman losing a baby due to the disease are about 1 in 3 million. In contrast, in 2012, there were roughly 34,700 deaths in motor vehicle accidents. That means that, given 315 million people in the U.S., any individual’s chances of dying in a motor vehicle accident are a bit more than 1 in 9,000. My conclusion? Have some ham and buckle your seatbelt, for Pete’s sake.

Pregnant women worry about everything. We worry about whether exercise or pre-test alcohol can harm the baby in the first trimester. We worry about what we eat and drink. We worry about giving birth on the side of the road. It gets even worse once the baby actually arrives. Should we delay the vaccinations? Let her sleep in the rock ‘n play? Put a blanket on, take a blanket off? Was that a cough? Is it a fever? As we stumble our way through the first few months, we often turn to the Internet and other sources to tell us what to do, and what we hear is that we have to be oh-so-careful.

We shouldn’t stop asking, and we shouldn’t stop listening, but we need to start thinking and questioning instead of just reacting to what we hear and read. It’s like that State Farm commercial where the girl says it must be true if it’s on the Internet; oh, and by the way, my blind date is a French model I met…on the internet. The other day, Nicole asked the WingMoms in chat whether she could take aspirin while breastfeeding. A quick online search yielded the answer, courtesy of aspirin should be avoided by nursing mothers. Wanting to know the “why”, I read on, and discovered this tidbit buried farther down the page: “because of a single case report of metabolic acidosis, the American Academy of Pediatrics characterizes aspirin as a drug that has been associated with significant effects on some nursing infants and should be given to nursing mothers with caution.” How does that even make sense? One case report and they’re warning all nursing mothers off aspirin? I’m not advocating that Nicole take the whole bottle, but why not one pill if it’ll help her migraine? It’s too easy to see the dire warnings and default to taking only the paths of absolute safety. It doesn’t hurt much when all you’re suffering is a headache, but I see this happening all around me, with everything.

Food allergies are another great example. My daycare forbids ALL nut and peanut products on the premises. I’ve seen fierce, fiery debates on forums, and read articles about the dangers of food allergies. Our due date club has debated how long to wait before offering peanuts to our kids to lower the risk of an allergy developing. Now, I remember being in the first grade, and there was a girl with a peanut allergy. You know what her parents did? Told her not to take food from the other kids! One Huffington post writer recently questioned the actual incidence of food allergy deaths versus the numbers she was hearing in the media. She found that, since a code for food allergy death was added to the ICD-10 about 10 years ago, the average number of deaths  in the U.S. per year from food allergies – all food allergies, not just nuts and peanuts – is eleven. Eleven. That means that one person in 28 million in the U.S. dies each year. I think we’re blowing this way out of proportion. Give up texting while driving, and stop worrying about the peanut butter sandwiches!

My bottom line is this: don’t believe everything you hear. Actually, scratch that: disbelieve everything you hear until you know all the facts. I have taken college-level statistics and psychology courses. It makes me question everything I hear. That study that says a drug is better? Yeah, turns out it was funded by the maker of the drug. That poll that says 75% of people aren’t sick of cold weather? Might have been conducted only in Florida. Everyone has an agenda; even the food allergy numbers that are widely accepted are based on estimates from the lobbying group for people with food allergies instead of the CDC data! Look, bad things happen, all the time, often to good people. But the world – especially the internet – is also full of lies, spin, and selective statistics. Taking the path of absolute safety is like making your kid into Bubble Boy: sure, you can make certain the bad thing you’re worried about won’t happen, by avoiding it altogether. There are just two problems with this approach. First, you simply can’t control everything, and trying to do so will send you down a path of insanity – are you going to not send your kid to school because there could be a shooting? Not allow him to drive? Not allow her to date? Of course not, and this leads us to the second reason: living a life of fear is no fun, and it’s exhausting.

I choose to live without fear. I have hand sanitizer in the house, but I don’t bathe myself in it. I buckle my seat belt, but I still get behind the wheel. And as Squeaker grows up, I will let her have experiences and let her make mistakes. It will be difficult, and it’s possible that a Big Bad Thing will happen to us some day. As M. Scott Peck once said, “life is difficult.” But being afraid of what might happen won’t prevent it from happening, so in the meantime, I’ll have a ham sandwich and a glass of wine. Bonjour!