It is a Yiddish expression, meaning roughly “an old woman’s superstitions.” Here are three pieces of advice given to my daughter concerning the recent birth of our first grandchild that struck me as bubbe-meisis.
1. If the fetus is below the 10th percentile in estimated weight at the 8th month, the risk of still birth is sufficiently elevated that labor should be induced immediately.
2. If you want your milk to come in, you must not allow the baby to drink any formula.
3. If you allow your newborn to sleep on its stomach instead of its back, the risk of SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome) is very elevated.
If your grandmother said such things, you would probably ignore her. Unfortunately, these opinions were rendered by my daughter’s obstetrician, lactation consultant, and pediatrician, respectively. Hence, they had the force of Authority.
(1) does not take into account: the huge margin of error in fetal weight estimates; the fact that still birth is such an unusual event that unless the fetus is showing clear symptoms of acute distress it is very difficult to find factors that have reliable correlations with still birth; and the fact that different women tend to give birth to infants of different weights. I would bet that our grandson was in the 50th percentile of the weight that was expected for a child of his parents. So his low estimated fetal weight was not a signal of any distress whatsoever.
(2) strikes me as more ideology than science. If the mother is nursing correctly, how soon her milk comes in (or whether it comes in at all) depends on many idiosyncratic factors. Denying the infant any formula at all will mostly serve to starve a baby if the mother’s milk is not available.
(3) Again, we are talking about a rare event where we do not know the causal mechanism. If there is any effect of sleeping on the stomach, it is not materially significant. There has been a small decrease in the rate of SIDS death since the back-sleeping advice started to be given, but there could have been many other factors that changed over this same time period. Meanwhile, as soon as he is put on his back, our grandson wakes and cries, while on his stomach he sleeps like, well, a baby–but he is not allowed to do that.
These bubbe-meisis deal with phenomena that have what James Manzi calls causal density–there are too many potential causal forces at work to have a definitive theory of the process. Many factors can cause still birth. Many factors can cause a mother to be unable to supply enough milk to a newborn. Many factors might be implicated in SIDS.
Nonetheless, most people would rather listen to an Authority who offers a specific causal theory rather than one who says “we don’t know.” So economists who dispense Keynesian bubbe-meisis are listened to, and those of us who say that we don’t know how to create patterns of sustainable specialization and trade are not.
By the way, so far our grandson is doing fine. Our daughter compromised with Authority. She refused to be induced in week 37, and only caved in at week 39. She limited her infant’s intake of formula, but she did not eliminate it altogether. As for sleeping, because he cannot sleep on his back, he tends to fall asleep on someone’s chest (face down, of course). If an Authority knew this, would he or she give the parents a pass to let the baby sleep on its stomach in the crib?