"President Kennedy was the first president to not wear a hat. Have you seen men wearing hats since then?" Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the world's few astrophysicists with a household name, asks on the phone from his car. Well, no. "If I wear some cowboy hats, it's because it's the outfit, it's not because that's my standard equipment when I leave the home."
"We have classes on 100 things and none of them are on the ability to distinguish what is true and what is not."
But Tyson, who speaks in methodically reasoned paragraphs with lots of semi-rhetorical questions to make sure we're all still listening, isn't really making a point about Mad Men-era men's clothing trends. "Should a president influence fashion?" he says. "I think people sometimes don't know the full power they have over other people. So, that's the first prong in this comment. My second prong is, why would anyone take medical advice from a politician?"
Days before our conversation, news broke that President Trump said he was taking hydroxychloroquine, which he had hyped for months as a surefire magical cure for COVID-19 — the science just hadn't caught up to his predictions. But the science never did catch up; instead, it went the opposite direction, showing that hydroxychloroquine, when used to treat COVID-19 patients, actually led to an increased risk of death.
Alarm spread swiftly around the globe as experts cast the president's professed self-medicating as illogical and dangerous. However, it was just one of a series of wild pieces of medical advice espoused by Trump from his mighty pulpit, like that, hey, maybe disinfectants could cure people when injected into their bodies. (That also leads to death.)
But people do take medical advice from politicians. An Arizona man afraid of COVID-19 died after consuming chloroquine phosphate, which he and his wife had sitting on the back of a shelf after using it to treat koi fish for parasites. The pandemic has exposed many weaknesses in the feedback loop of society, government, the media, and science, including the difficulty of seeding accurate medical information with the masses. Many on the left and right decry a broken political and news media system, but Tyson believes the problem isn't mega-influencers like Trump. Rather it's the general public's desire to take their advice on complex topics – like the science of virology – that such influencers know nothing about.
Tyson's not upset with the public, who follow Trump's advice. "As an educator, I can't get angry with you," he says. Or even Trump himself. "Trump was elected by 60 million people, right? So, you could say all you want about Trump, kick him out of office, whatever. [There's] still the 60 million fellow Americans who walk among us who voted for him. So, what are you going to do with them?"
Tyson also isn't upset with Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms that serve as today's biggest conduits for misinformation. After all, in the realm of modern media's history, these networks are tadpoles. "As an educator and as a scientist, I'm leaning towards, let's figure out a way to train people in school to not fall victim to false information, and how to judge what is likely to be false relative to what is likely to be true. And that's hard, but you and I have never had a class in that, have we? We've had biology classes, we've had English lit, we've had classes on Shakespeare — we have classes on 100 things and none of them are on the ability to distinguish what is true and what is not."
This is why Tyson himself doesn't engage in Trump bashing on his social feeds, but does try to get people to differentiate factual science from fake news. "I feel responsibility to participate in the enlightenment of culture and of civilization, because I have that access," says Tyson, who has 13.9M followers on Twitter, 1.2M on Instagram, and 4.2M on Facebook. He doesn't tell his followers not to inject themselves with Clorox ("no one likes being told what to do"), but tries to get them to visualize a pandemic's impact by comparing it to, say, a throng of rabbits.
"Left unchecked, 1,000 rabbits in 5 years, become 7-billion, the human population of the World. After 15 years, a 'land-ocean' of rabbits fills to one-kilometer depth across all of Earth's continents. Viruses can reproduce waaaay faster than Rabbits," he tweeted on April 6, after much of the nation had locked down to slow the pandemic's spread. For added viral impact, he attached a photo of an adorable, perhaps appropriately scared-looking, white bunny.
Of course, not all celebrities message responsibly.
Tyson is a rare scientist-turned-celebrity. His appeal isn't acting in movies or singing dance-pop anthems (if only). Rather, his life's work is making science fun and interesting to as many people as possible through his best-selling books on astrophysics and his directorship of the planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. His longstanding place in popular culture is an exception, not the rule.
And he believes his fellow celebrities, actors and pop music stars and internet influencers, should aid the public's quest for accurate scientific information. And in order to do that, they must point their followers to experts and organizations who know what they're talking about. "It could be to a website, it could be to a talk that was given. I would say that that's where the responsibility lies if you control the interests of a million people," he says.
One example of this is Lady Gaga's March 14 Instagram of herself on her couch with her three dogs with the caption, "So I talked to some doctors and scientists. It's not the easiest for everyone right now but the kindest/healthiest thing we can do is self-quarantine and not hang out with people over 65 and in large groups. I wish I could see my parents and grandmas right now but it's much safer to not so I don't get them sick in case I have it. I'm hanging at home with my dogs." (All the celebrities here in this article are my references, not Tyson's, who does not call out specific people.)
Of course, not all celebrities message responsibly. Jessica Biel and Jenny McCarthy have faced scorn for public stances against vaccines. Gwyneth Paltrow and her media brand GOOP have faced backlash for promoting homeopathic treatments with no basis in science.
"The New Age Movement is a cultural idea, it has nothing to do with religion, has nothing to do with politics, and it's people who were rejecting objectively established science in part or in total because they have a belief system that they want to attach to it, okay? This is how you get the homeopathic remedies," says Tyson. "That's why science exists, so that we don't have to base decisions on belief systems."
[Editor's Note: This article was originally published on June 8th, 2020 as part of a standalone magazine called GOOD10: The Pandemic Issue. Produced as a partnership among LeapsMag, The Aspen Institute, and GOOD, the magazine is available for free online.]
At the end of my second trimester of pregnancy, I answered a call from an unknown number.
To be pregnant is to exist on a never-ending receiving line of advice, whether we want it or not.
"I know your due date is approaching," said a stranger at the other end of the line, completely freaking me out. She identified herself as being from Natera, a company that my doctor had used for genetic testing I had consented to months ago.
"Excuse me?" I said.
"Have you considered cord-blood banking?" she said.
"No, I'm not doing that," I said. I had read enough about cord-blood banking, the process of saving stem cell-containing blood from your baby's umbilical cord, to understand that my family was in the vast majority of those that would with extremely high likelihood derive no medical benefit from it. Of course, in the societally sanctioned spending spree that accompanies new parenthood, plenty of companies are happy to charge anyone hundreds if not thousands of dollars plus annual storage fees to collect and manage your cord blood.
"Why not? Have you considered all the bene—"
"I'm not doing it and I don't want to explain my decision," I said before hanging up. I would later learn I neglected to check a miniscule box on my testing consent forms at the doctor to opt out of solicitations. Still, I was angry that I was being telemarketed unnecessary and costly medical services by someone who had been trained to immediately call my judgment into question. I was annoyed that my doctor's office would allow such intrusions at all. When I asked my OB about it at my next visit, she told me there's no way Natera would have gotten my information from them. Apparently even she didn't realize what was on those forms.
The incident with Natera did nothing to heighten my trust of the medical establishment during my pregnancy. I was hardly alone. Almost every mom I knew had expressed a similar sentiment.
"I don't trust doctors," read the text of a loved one when I told her I would probably get an epidural after my doctor recommended getting one because, she said, it can help relax the pelvic muscles during labor. But this friend, a highly educated woman who had had done her research and had two unmedicated births, believed firmly otherwise. "Look it up," she said. Thus commenced more of the furious Googling I found myself doing multiple times a day since deciding I wanted to become pregnant.
To be pregnant is to exist on a never-ending receiving line of advice, whether we want it or not. Information presents to us from Google's never-out-of-reach search bar, friends and family eager to use our pregnancies as an excuse to recall their own, and the doctor's office, where the wisdom of medical professionals neatly comingles with brochures and free samples from myriad companies that would really, really like our business as new moms. Separating the "good" advice from the rest is a Herculean task that many pregnant women manage only with vigorous fact-finding missions of their own.
The medical community in America is poorly equipped to help women navigate the enormous pressures that come with birth and transitioning to motherhood.
Doing my research during pregnancy felt like a defense against the scary unknowns, overabundance of opinions, and disturbing marketing schemes that come with entering parenthood. The medical community in America is poorly equipped to help women navigate the enormous emotional and societal pressures that come with birth and transitioning to motherhood. Too much of what pregnant women experience at the doctor has to do with dated ideas about our care, mandated by tradition or a fear of being sued rather than medical necessity. These practices, like weigh-ins at every appointment or medically unnecessary C-sections (which are estimated to account, horrifically, for almost 50 percent of all C-sections performed in the U.S.), only heighten anxiety.
Meanwhile, things that might alleviate stress – like having thorough discussions about the kinds of interventions we might be asked to accept at the hospital during labor and delivery – are left to outside educators and doulas that insurance plans typically don't cover. The net effect isn't better health outcomes for mom and baby, but rather a normalized sense of distrust many American women feel toward their OBGYNs, and the burden of going to every appointment and the delivery room on the defensive. Instead of being wed to dated medical practices and tangled in America's new motherhood industrial complex, shouldn't our doctors, of all people, be our biggest advocates?
As soon as I found out I was pregnant, I devoured Expecting Better, by Emily Oster, an economist who embarked on her own fact-finding mission during her first pregnancy, predicated on the belief that the advice OBGYNs have been giving pregnant women for decades is out of date and unnecessarily restrictive. The book includes controversial stances, like that having small amounts of alcohol while pregnant is OK. (More recent research has called this view into question.) Oster writes that for the vast majority of pregnant women, it's perfectly fine to lie on your back, do sit-ups, and eat Brie — all things I was relieved to learn I wouldn't have to give up for nine months, despite the traditional advice, which my doctor also gave to me.
Oster recommends hiring a doula, based both on research and personal experience. It's a worthwhile investment for those who can afford it: according to one study, 20.4 percent of laboring women with doulas had C-sections compared with 34.2 percent of women without them. A doula can do many things for a pregnant client, including helping her write a birth plan, massaging her back in labor, and cheering her on, which is especially useful for women who plan to labor without pain medication. Use of doulas is on the rise; according to DONA International, the world's largest and oldest doula association, the number of doulas who have been certified to date is over 12,000, up from 2,000 in 2002.
But the most significant role a doula plays is that of patient advocate in the hospital. This is a profound commentary on the way the medical establishment handles childbirth, a medical event that 86 percent of women aged 40 to 44 had gone through as of 2016. Recognizing the maternal mortality crisis in the U.S., where women are far more likely to die as a result of childbirth than anywhere else in the developed world and black women are three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women, a few states now allow Medicaid to cover doulas. Can you imagine feeling the need to hire an independent non-medical care provider to help you run interference with your doctors and nurses for something like an appendectomy?
I wouldn't have been aware of all the imminent interventions during my labor if my doula hadn't told me about them. Things happen fast in the hospital and doctors and nurses may rush patients to consent before proceeding with things like breaking their water or hooking them up to an IV of Pitocin. Only because my husband and I had spent six hours in birth class — a suggestion by my doula — did I realize that I was empowered to say "no" to such procedures.
Expecting more trustworthy advice to come from my doctor than books or Google or even a doula hardly seems unreasonable.
Of course, we all feel immense pressure to become good parents, and questioning conventional medical wisdom is a natural response to that pressure. "Looking around at the world and saying, who am I as a parent? What is important to me? Who are the wise people? What do I think wisdom is? What is a good decision? If you're a certain type of introspective person, if you're really asking those questions, that's going to include like taking a second look at things that doctors, for example, say," says Koyuki Smith, a doula and birth educator.
Expecting more trustworthy advice to come from my doctor than books or Google or even a doula hardly seems unreasonable. Yet my doctor's office seemed more concerned with checking off a list of boxes rather than providing me with personalized care that might have relieved my understandable anxiety about my first birth. When I still hadn't gone into labor around the time of my due date, my doctor encouraged me to be induced because my baby appeared to be large. I declined but scheduled an induction to "hold my spot" around the 42-week mark.
When I asked what medication would be used for an induction if I had one and she said Cytotec, I told her I had read that drug could cause serious complications, but she dismissed my concerns after I told her they stemmed from a book I read on natural childbirth. The FDA's page on Cytotec isn't exactly reassuring.
The nurse who took me in triage after I went into labor a week past my due date practically scolded me for waiting to go into labor naturally instead of opting for induction sooner. My doula told her while I was struggling to speak through labor pains to get off my case about it. I hadn't even become a mom and I was already doing so many things "wrong." Because I had done my own reading, I felt confident that my choices weren't harming my baby or me.
Becoming a mom would be less daunting if the medical community found a way to help women navigate the pressures of motherhood instead of adding to them. "Our culture at large doesn't support women enough in the complicated emotions that are a part of this process," said Alexandra Saks, a reproductive psychologist and author of What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions From Pregnancy to Motherhood. "I hope that every practitioner that works with women around reproductive health prioritizes her emotions around her experience."
For many of us, that will mean doctors who help us understand the pros and cons of conventional advice, don't use their offices as marketing channels, and don't pressure women into medically unnecessary inductions. Moms should also receive more attention after delivery both in the hospital and after they get home; a single, quick postpartum visit at six weeks is not an adequate way to care for women recovering from the trauma of childbirth, nor is it an adequate way to ensure women are emotionally supported during the transition. While several people interrogated me about my mental health at the hospital and my doctor's office just before and after birth, if I had been concerned about postpartum depression, I can't imagine feeling comfortable enough in those moments to tell strangers filling out obligatory worksheets.
It also means figuring out how to talk to patients who are prone to Googling their pregnancies with gusto every single day. It would be impossible for many women to shun independent research during pregnancy altogether. But it would also be nice if our doctors didn't add to our impulse to do it.