Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Panic Trap

Daniel Engber, over at Slate, has posted an interesting article that attempts to tackle the seeming hysteria over infant abductions, and explain how it's misguided, or even dangerous.

"Here's some perspective: Your baby's odds of getting snatched are considerably smaller—five times smaller, in fact—than her odds of being struck and killed by a lightning bolt."
Invasion of the Baby-Snatchers
Great. Now let's all sit back and watch as the nation's parents start hustling their children inside at the merest hint of rain.

While I appreciate articles like this, I really wonder what the point is. Does it really matter if the chance of a baby being abducted from a hospital is one in ten or one in ten million? Once the idea that this is a threat enters the public consciousness, nobody wants to be "that person" - the one who lost a baby - especially to something that a different choice of hospitals may have prevented. Parental investment in children these days is off the charts, as near as I can tell, and many parents are loath to do anything that smacks of risk. It's impossible to live in a society where "even one is too many" and not have people pull out all the stops over remarkably rare circumstances. But coupled with that is a level of judging that seems to make the stakes even higher than they already are. One of the things that I've noticed in the wired world is how quick people are to apply the label of "bad parent" to anyone whose children have less than stellar outcomes. Kid picked up by the cops for kyping a pack of bubble gum? Bad parent. Daughter knocked up at 15? Bad parent. Son threw a rock through a window? Bad parent. Baby injured in the home? Bad parent. Child snatched by a stranger? Bad parent. As invested as people are in their children, they seem just as invested, if not more so, in avoiding the label of "bad parent," and the social delegitimization that goes along with it.

In the face of this, the overwhelming majority of the article that Mr. Engber devoted to carefully explaining to us just how rare infant abductions are seems like a complete waste of otherwise useful bandwidth. I count about five paragraphs of "news you can use," starting with "So if baby-snatching was never much of a problem to begin with, why are health care administrators across the country so focused on its prevention?" Here we get into the economics of health care and health marketing. This is the good stuff. We all understand that the whole point behind sales and marketing is to manipulate us - and it's always worthwhile to see a new perspective on how and why.

But here it's wrapped in a quixotic call for reason and clear-headedness that, let's face it, is going to go unheeded. (It didn't take long for the "for good parents, no price is too high" crowd to start showing up in the comments.) One of the salient points of the No Brakes! articles (also in Slate) is that you can't simply reason someone out of a deeply-felt emotional reaction - especially when their peers are involved - teens or adults. So next time, let's get the lowdown on the art and science of luring families into being lifelong health-care consumers by laying bait for fretting mothers. Surely, there's more than five paragraphs worth of material that can be wrung out of that.

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