Risk: Do you Get in a Car?

OSTER: I think that there is a knee-jerk to be like, “Well, if anyone ever said that this might be dangerous, no one should ever do it, ever.” I think that there is sometimes a discomfort with facing up to evidence and also to the uncertainties that come with data, that lead doctors, medical professionals, medical organizations, to want to make more blanket statements than are always appropriate, and to be less comfortable with explaining nuance to their patients than they might otherwise be.

Oster had no such discomfort with nuance. She set out to explore the parenting terrain using data as her guide. The result has been two books. The first, published a few years ago, is called Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong — and What You Really Need to Know. The new book is called Cribsheet: A Data-Driven Guide to Better, More Relaxed Parenting, from Birth to PreschoolOster appreciates that there are systemic reasons for the medical field to be cautious: remember: first, do no harm; also, there’s the threat of a malpractice suit. But Oster wanted to think about risk rationally — not as a doctor, hoping to avoid liability; or even as a parent, wanting nothing bad to ever happen to her children. Instead, she just wanted to think about risk as an economist.

OSTER: First of all, let’s interrogate a little bit whether those risks are really real, and are really significant. And then also to interrogate you have to trade off the risks maybe against some other benefits. And in something like pregnancy, you think about treating really severe nausea. There’s this “Oh, don’t take anything for that, just suffer through it.” So actually, that can be really debilitating. And it may make sense for people to take something even if we are not 1,000 percent sure that there are absolutely no risks to it, because it may outweigh some other risks. And I think we sometimes forget that.

DUBNER: And what about facing head-on risks that you’re describing as relatively small while totally ignoring other, let’s say, daily risks that are actually relatively large, like getting in a car?

OSTER: I am constantly comparing things to getting in a car, because getting in a car is very risky. And I think that there are many kinds of risks that people talk about in pregnancy and childhood which are far less risky than getting in a car, where people are like, “Oh, only somebody who’s a terrible parent would even consider doing that.” It’s like, “Well, actually, do you get in the car?”