On the heels of my next-to-last post, I thought this link was apropos. It is a list of critiques of studies that purport to show one thing when serious flaws actually show something else. Henci Goer has also written The Assault on Normal Birth and “Spin Doctoring” the Research.
I wish I could remember where I read this, but it’s been too long ago — and it didn’t deal specifically with obstetrics or birth — but it basically said that a lot of the research that goes on today is extremely biased. One scientist reported that he was asked to participate in research, and found out that the article had been written before the results were even complete! In essence, he was just hired to stamp his name on the study so that other people would accept it. In theory, this wouldn’t happen — not only would doctors and scientists refuse to stoop to such unethical levels, but if they did, then the editors of these well-respected journals would surely catch the mistakes and not let them be published. Yet they often are. Another problem is that much of the researched is “leaked” or pre-released to the media before it is even published in the medical journals. This means that the public hears the spin-doctored version of the study (or merely an editorial) before the professionals and scientific peers have the opportunity to thoroughly read the research and find errors in the design, methodology, etc.
While I read with great interest some recent stories, I try to always keep this fact in mind — simply because some well-educated professionals say some nice-sounding things, it doesn’t mean that the conclusions are founded on good science. For instance, take the recent report of maternal cell-phone usage causing behavioral problems in children. Is there a scientific and/or medical reason for it — for instance, that the radio waves interfere with the growth and development of the fetal brain? or is it simply that mothers who talk on the phone too much ignore their children?
The problem is that many people don’t read more than the headlines, abstracts, or editorials of these studies, and these things may reflect the authors’ bias instead of what the research actually shows. For instance, several years ago there were headlines across many of the nation’s papers that “Home birth has twice the neonatal death rate of hospital birth.” Well, the major flaw of this research was that any out-of-hospital birth was included in the “planned home birth” group — even those that happened in the car on the way to the hospital (obviously, that was a planned hospital birth — it just didn’t happen that way), and even those that happened from 34-37 weeks (which are preterm births, and midwives don’t attend these births which are for obvious reasons riskier). They also didn’t exclude those babies with lethal birth defects who would have died regardless of birth place.
So, when reading research, it’s important to realize these things, because not everything is always as it seems.