Science Myth 5

In the course of the aforementioned homebirth debate, I realised that I had another Science Myth to add to my list.  Or, depending on how you look at it, two Science Myths. 

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Science Myth 5: The ‘Natural’ myth.  This is the belief that the safety and desirability of an activity/way of doing things is best judged by the degree of technology involved.  The reason I’ve phrased this in such a cumbersome way is because the myth covers two mirror-image philosophies:

Myth 5a – If it’s natural, it’s bound to be safe.  For example: childbirth is natural, and women’s bodies have evolved/been designed to give birth safely.  Less hi-tech medical intervention is obviously better! 

Myth 5b – If it’s high-tech, it’s bound to be safe.  Childbirth is horribly dangerous, and is bound to be safer if you’re in hospital with all available monitors, drugs, machines that go ‘ping’, and the like.  More hi-tech medical intervention is obviously better!

Truth – While there would have been obvious problems for the survival of the human race if women couldn’t give birth successfully without intervention in most cases, the key word there is ‘most’.  Evolution is sloppy.  It allows for a fair bit of wastage as long as things work well enough for the race to survive overall, and does not care about the fact that that ‘wastage’ is somebody’s dead baby or mother.  And, although I’m using childbirth as the example here because that’s the one that happened to come up, this applies just as much to the many, many other situations in which ‘natural’ is automatically considered to be synonymous with ‘optimal’.  There is no logical reason to assume that we may not, in at least some cases, be able to design a way of doing things that works better than the ‘natural’ way.

However, people who rightly spot the fallacy with this side of the ‘natural’ myth are astonishingly good at missing the other side – it is equally fallacious to assume that just because a way of doing things involves more action and more exciting-looking machines going ‘ping’, then it must automatically be better. 

Truth 5a and 5b – There are situations where technology helps, situations where it doesn’t help, and situations where it harms, and there is no logical basis for making any assumptions, one way or the other, as to whether more ‘hi-tech’ ways of things are going to be better or worse than more ‘natural’ ways.  The correct way to go about things is to try to collect as much evidence as possible and to be realistic about the inevitable limitations of said evidence, while at the same time being willing to look at what the evidence actually says rather than at what we’ve already assumed it should say.  Thus, the appropriate pro-homebirth argument would not be "A woman’s body was designed to give birth safely!" but "Several studies comparing homebirth with hospital birth have shown homebirth to be of comparable safety to hospital birth in low-risk women", and the appropriate anti-homebirth argument would not be "How could a woman be so selfish as to do something so stupid and dangerous?!" but "Although I realise the research supposedly seems to show the safety of homebirth, I disagree with the findings because…"

The interesting thing is that, while the homebirth debate seems to have its fair share of followers of Science Myth 5 represented on both sides of the debate, the more evidence-based style of argument seems to be found exclusively on the pro-homebirth side.  I’m sure this can’t be literally true: I’m sure there must be anti-homebirthers whose contributions to the subject consist of thoughtful analytical commentaries on the ways in which they feel the studies showing the safety of homebirth to be flawed, who discuss the evidence instead of ignoring it, who don’t resort to berating or belittling or mocking pro-homebirthers.  But, unfortunately, I just never seem to run across them.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Science Myth 5

  1. I’m a pro home-birther (March 3, 2006!), but while I certainly do fall into the “birth is generally safe” camp, I would never go so far as to say it’s natural therefore it’s safe. Nor would I say it’s high-tech so it’s safe. In fact, I’d be more likely to say it’s high-tech therefore it’s less safe. Ability to intervene seems to translate, for many docs, into necessary intervention.
    I have friends who cannot fathom my choice, and I can’t imagine why they’d want to risk repeating their hideous hospital births. I suppose everyone must heal themselves in their own way. Which is not to say my hospital experience was traumatic, far from it. I knew, though, that there was a much better way to go about this baby business, and barring medical necessity, I won’t be going back.
    I’ve had to argue with friends that choosing a home birh does not preclude regular OB care, ultrasounds, or any other high-tech prenatal care, but they can’t seem to wrap their heads around the idea. “You mean you have a midwife AND you got ultrasounds? Impossible! A band of hippies surely descended on your house with pitchforks and burning brands!”
    Alas, though we could certainly use the excitement, it was not to be. Of course, my OB did drop me at 38 weeks, so perhaps the hippies got to her…
    At any rate, I am (slowly) learning that some people will refuse to accept the studies, the evidence, the WHO, because the whole idea is outside their comfort zone. And that’s fine, they’re not having my babies. I wish, though, that they didn’t react as if I were planning on doing my section with a rusty spork and a bottle of Ripple.
    I’ve wandered far afield, sorry. I agree, though: when I come across the con crowd, they have nothing constructive to add and refuse to acknowledge the body of evidence in favor. Bah.

  2. I want the best of both worlds. Can I have a planned, home-cesearean?

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