Tag Archives: pseudoscience

What not to do during pregnancy and childbirth

Ben Goldacre – author of Bad Science, scourge of secretive Pharma companies, and champion of evidence-based healthcare – highlighted a great resource on his secondary blog. It is a collection of ‘do not do’ recommendations from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (pleasingly abbreviated to NICE), which publishes guidelines on best healthcare practices within the UK’s National Health Service.

The ‘do not do’ database holds information on a range of clinical practices that NICE recommend should be stopped or not used routinely, all of which is based on the best available evidence. There is a section on ‘Gynaecology, Pregnancy and Birth’, which contains 174 recommendations. Many are for specific interventions that may be more of interest to health professionals, such as “A serum ferritin test should not routinely be carried out on women with heavy menstrual bleeding (HMB)”. But there are a few nuggets that mothers- and fathers-to-be may like to hear.

There is a range of advice on alternative and complementary therapies, for instance: “Healthcare professionals should inform women that the available evidence does not support herbal supplements, acupuncture, homeopathy, castor oil, for induction of labour”. There is no evidence for hot baths, enemas or sexual intercourse either. For labour pain, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) should not be offered to women in established labour”, which our midwife obviously had not read (or just ignored!).

As for acupuncture, acupressure and hypnosis, they “should not be provided, but women who wish to use these techniques should not be prevented from doing so”, which seems sensible, although potential side effects should be forgotten. Generally for alt med, it advises that: “Pregnant women should be informed that few complementary therapies have been established as being safe and effective during pregnancy. Women should not assume that such therapies are safe and they should be used as little as possible during pregnancy.” Sound  advice.

There is a mention of supplements during pregnancy – iron supplements shouldn’t be taken routinely (unless a deficiency is identified) – but I would love to see that section expanded to cover other areas of nutrition. More specifically, there is no good evidence that magnesiumfolic acidantioxidants (vitamins C and E), garlicfish oils or algal oils can help prevent disorders related to high blood pressure, such as pre-eclampsia.

A random titbit that’s not really connected with other recommendations, says that if a women wants to breastfeed, then breast examination during pregnancy does not seem to help breastfeeding in the long run.

There are more pieces of intriguing guidance about midwife support during labour (“Team midwifery and active management of labour), psychosocial interventions to reduce the likelihood of developing a mental disorder, and approaches to fertility problems.

All of which can only be good for mums and dads in making informed decisions and for health professionals in providing the best care possible. Happy browsing!

On the 21st Floor

Just a quick note to say that the great folks at the blogging collective, The 21st Floor, got in touch to see whether I was interested in writing some stuff for them. Their site is full of intriguing, intelligent and challenging content relating to scientific and sceptical news and commentary.

My first couple of posts have been re-workings of ones originally posted here: on why homeopathy for babies is wrong and on whether babies ‘start off’ female. I’ll still be posting stuff at The Skeptical Dad, but the pseudoscience-themed posts will probably end up there.

Do check out the rest of the stuff on The 21st Floor – it’s alway interesting! And if you’re wondering where the name comes from:

“Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. I live on the twenty-first floor.” – Alan Sokal

Follow them on Twitter: @the21stFloor or on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/the21stfloor.

On opening the door to science

I’ve been talking once again on the excellent Pod Delusion podcast, which is an audio show about all things interesting from a rational point of view. This time it was about the slightly esoteric issue of scientific publishing, that is the forum in which researchers make their findings available to the community. The issue I was discussing was whether research articles, the very channels that contain all the data and results from scientific experiments, should be freely available to whoever wants to read them (“open access”) or whether they should be allowed to be protected behind paywalls.

Some argue that if research is supported by public funds, such as that funded by the taxes all of us (or most of us!) pay, then there’s an ethical imperative that the public has a right to access the results of that research. The same goes for charity research that is funded through money raised by public donations. If one needs a subscription to read the results of the research supported by public or donated money, then that person is effectively paying twice for it.

Now bear with me. This may seem like a discussion that only those in a particular industry should care about, but it speaks of some wider concerns. These have been discussed at some length elsewhere, such as in George Monbiot’s and Stephen Curry’s excellent articles in The Guardian.

But what has all this got to do with evidence-based parenting? Well, as I mentioned briefly on the podcast, if parents really want to make evidence-based choices about everything from pregnancy to childbirth to child development, then having access to actual primary research can be invaluable. I’m not proposing that parents carry out full literature reviews to reach a conclusion on a particular issue – we rely on health professionals with appropriate expertise to provide scientifically informed advice – but there are many myths and claims into which parents may want to look a little deeper.

Myths about the validity of some alternative medicine remedies, for instance, can be quickly deflated when one looks to the proper scientific literature rather than pseudoscientific websites. Sensational claims in newspapers, which can genuinely cause undue alarm for parents, can also be tempered by actually looking at what the researchers report in a respected scientific journal. See my previous posts for examples.

The use of resources such as the Cochrane Library that hosts independent reviews of evidence for healthcare decision making, such as whether homeopathy is effective to induce labour (it’s not), is a great place to look for an overarching picture of the current state of scientific thinking. In fact, access to the Cochrane Library is opening up on a country-by-country basis, as more governments – including the UK and Ireland – negotiate ‘national provisions’ for their residents. The Cochrane Library even includes lay summaries for their articles, highlighting the desire to widen accessibility to research findings. 

I would also like to think that opening access to scientific research unveils some of the mysteries surrounding scientists and what they do. At a time when the public confidence of scientists and their work has been knocked by scandals in climate change research and human embryonic stem cells, it is incredibly important to show the inner workings of the research community. A greater access to scientific discoveries would also help to improve scientific literacy amongst the public by showcasing the scientific method. To promote the value of this work and the exciting breakthroughs it can bring should also help to maintain public support for scientific endeavour through taxes and charitable donations.

If you get the chance to talk or write to your MP, I would encourage you to ask them about open access and whether they would support a government policy to mandate this for publicly funded research. It would really help put scientifically valid evidence in the public and at the heart of decision making.

My son, the enigma machine

Little Roo has been babbling for some time now. Until now, it has been the fairly standard oohs, aahs, yelps and giggles. But the other day, we heard something that sounded distinctly like “Dada”. The joy! The amazement! He can talk and he knows who I am!


Or does he?

I couldn’t help think of the entertaining talk by science communicator, author and libel crusader, Simon Singh, that I’ve seen a few times at various events. The story, in its essence, goes something like this: within the Hebrew text of the Bible (the ‘Torah’) lie many coded messages that foretell future events. All one needs to do is remove all punctuation and spacing to leave a single string of thousands of letters, and the predictions pop out like a wordsearch puzzle. Using this technique, the Bible successfully anticipated the assassination of JFK by Lee Harvey Oswald (“dallas” “president kennedy” “oswald”), Hitler’s evil intent (“hitler” “evil man” “nazi”) and “Newton”‘s theory of “gravity”. This theory was popularised by Michael Drosnin and his ‘Bible Code’ book – plus TWO follow-ups – which have supposedly sold millions of copies worldwide.

Then those pesky scientists, who like to destroy a nice story with ‘evidence’, came along to put the cat amongst the pigeons. One of them, Brendan McKay, a mathematician and computer geek, thought that if there was an array of thousands of letters, the chances of randomly coming up with some relevant words was well within reason, especially if you allow reading forwards, backwards, diagonally, skipping rows, etc. (as well as variations in Hebrew spelling). So he was challenged to find the same sort of predictions in a non-sacred text. He devised an algorithm – a series of calculation steps  – to mine the mystical and secret-containing book, Moby Dick.

It turns out that, using the same technique, Moby Dick predicts Leon Trotsky’s murder (“trotsky” “ice” “hammer”), Princess Diana’s death (“princess” “wales” “lady diana” “henri” “paul” “dodi”) and the 9/11 terrorist attacks (“world” “trade” and “center” “twin” crossed with “building” “Osama”). I also came across Dave Thomas’ work, which does a pretty good job at finding secret messages in a U.S. Supreme Court document (“hitler” “nazi” and so on), in Drosnin’s Bible Code itself (“vain” “hoax” “megalo-mania”), as well as predicting anti-Judeo-Christian messages in the Bible. These findings debunk the sanctity of the Bible and tell us that coincidences, no matter how spooky, are just that – coincidences.

There’s a video by Singh to explain it more graphically (the first 4 minutes are about the Bible Code):

Vodpod videos no longer available.

from 5×15

To take it back to Roo’s babble, most of time it sounds like this:


And this supposed random exploration of sounds and syllables is a part of how we develop the ability of speech and language. Babies move from gurgling vowel sounds at 2-3 months of age to add in consonants at 6-7 months, much like Roo is doing in the clip above. At this stage he’s as likely to say “gaga” or “baba” as he is to say “dada”, and we wouldn’t assume he’d developed an astoundingly early fascination with American songstress, Lady Gaga, or rapper of science – yes, a science rapper – Baba Brinkman.

From 6-12 months, Roo will continue to experiment with this vocal play, and it won’t be until he’s over a year old that sounds will start to carry meaning. For instance, he might make the sound a car makes or utter monosyllabic words in place of a more complicated phrase, and he will also start to understand the meaning of sounds he cannot yet say. At 18-24 months, he should then be at the stage to start using multisyllabic words in short sentences. There’s a correlation between early babbling and linguistic ability later on, as a review by Carol Stoel-Gammon explains:

…infants who produced more in the prelinguistic period (i.e. more vocalizations at age [3 months]; more CV syllables at age [1 year]) had superior performance on subsequent speech and language measures during childhood.

So, my initial sound clip, of Roo saying “dada”, is more likely to be a version of the Bible Code – a chance coming together of noises, among a cacophony of vocal explorations, to form a sound that is recognisable to us. Our temptation to believe that he’s forming meaningful speech seems to me to be a form of confirmation bias – the way in which we filter out the negatives and remember only the positives, thereby confirming our already-held beliefs. This is especially true if we retrofit the associations – there are many phrases that we could associate with JFK’s assassination or words that could be formed from two or three simple syllables, but we need only a couple to convince ourselves that ‘there’s something in it’.

We are tempted to add significance to coincidences all the time. When something relevant happens on a special day or when a psychic stumbles upon a personal fact (often in a room of hundreds of people), it’s often said that it’s “too spooky to be just coincidence, don’t you think?”. Practitioners of pseudoscience, like psychics and astrologers use this – intentionally or unintentionally – to convince readers that they have hit the nail on the head, when in actual fact they threw many nails in the vague direction of the person in the hope that one will strike its target.