In the company of woo

I find myself in the company of woo, and as a skeptic it is bringing me some grief.

It’s all about homebirth – planning to deliver a baby at home, attended by a midwife, rather than in a hospital.

Deena and I came to homebirth through an examination of the evidence. (Here’s a discussion I participated in on the Bad Science forums before Kaia’s birth.) We were convinced, by scientific studies and analyses, that planning a home birth here in the UK was at least as safe as planning a hospital birth, given a competent attendant and a handy hospital in the event of complications. So we went for it.

However, many people choose homebirth for less evidence-based reasons. They cite personal intuition, or the “naturalness” of it. Not just as reasons to prefer homebirth, but as evidence of its safety.

At Edinburgh’s Pregnancy and Parents Centre (a haven for various types of woo, as well as useful support groups and great toddler activities), when we went to the “home birth support group” to relate our experiences and our evidence-based approach, it was alongside others promoting woo of various flavours as part of their support of homebirth.

A recent post on homebirth at Science-Based Medicine has stirred up an epic-length discussion, with passionate defenders on both sides. I’ve participated, but fear that just being on the homebirth side has made me, in some people’s eyes, an advocate of woo.

This is the problem: I agree with the woo-birthers that homebirth can be safe, but I disagree (passionately, vigorously) about why this is a legitimate position. And the disagreement isn’t immaterial. At the homebirth meeting, someone recommended homeopathy to treat post-partem haemorrhage. One of the most serious and potentially life-threatening complications of pregnancy, and she advised drinking high-priced water. That is dangerous advice, and I wish I’d been quick-thinking enough to respond persuasively (rather than sitting like a lump and grinding my teeth).

What is a skeptic to do? On the one hand, having someone agree with me in one breath, and back me up with an appeal to intuition in the next, makes me want to revisit and question my beliefs that much more carefully. (That’s something a skeptic should be doing anyway, for all their beliefs, but who has the time?) On the other hand, to adapt Niven’s 16th law, “There is no belief so true that one cannot find a fool believing it.” Just because someone agrees with you for bad reasons doesn’t mean you’re wrong. I came to my belief about homebirth on the basis of the science, and I’m determined that only science will dissuade me.

But there’s also the whole social side. Just as many of my fellow atheists wrinkle their brows at me when I say I go to church, many skeptics seem to do the same when I talk about homebirth. Atheists often assume that the word “church” is synonymous with supernatural beliefs and submission to a holy text, things that would feel alien in our Unitarian church. Similarly, many skeptics assume that, because it’s associated with modern medicine, hospital-based birth is inherently safer.

I’m tempted to close by declaring, evangelist-style, that skeptics must beware of this tendency to take association as evidence. Its association with woo-birthers says nothing about the safety of homebirth; nor does its association with high-tech hospitals demonstrate the superiority of hospital birth.

But perhaps a more humble conclusion is in order. Here goes:

I promise to keep vigilant for evidence that might contradict my current beliefs.
I promise to honestly communicate any changes of position that such evidence might lead me to.
I promise to avoid being swayed by other people’s assumptions (whether or not they are skeptics).
I promise to make every effort to pin my beliefs to the evidence, and nothing else.


5 Responses to “In the company of woo”

  1. Steelman Says:

    That last paragraph is all any reasonable person could possibly expect from any reasonable person.Please post when the percentage of reasonableness in society increases by a reasonable amount. Until then, I consider optimism regarding said increase somewhat unreasonable.However, glad to know at least some of us are making an effort!

  2. Harpertown Says:

    Thank you, you’ve convinced me to seriously look into home birth options in my area with a new perspective. Very reasonable. Moreover, you’ve provided a nice tangible example of a broader perspective of this world with a solid conclusion from which we can debunk atheism once and for all. Here goes:

    I like the metaphor of the 2-D ‘insect’ used when imagining other-dimensional space. The sensorial range of these intelligent ‘insects’ would be reasonably (for them at least) limited to their dimensional space. I think that even a scholarly ‘insect’ would have difficulty imagining life in 3-D, just as it would find the idea of life in a 1-D world terribly constrictive.

    Much like the ‘insects’, our sensorial range is little more than an extension of our own ‘god’-given senses. Science, when well used, can provide us with many of the practical answers we need in our plane, for example in childbirth (Congratulations, by the way!). However, a rational world view is inherently narrow-minded. It is confined to our limited sensorial range and our limited imaginations. We haven’t yet been able to ‘look up’ yet and appropriately define what we ‘see’. Fortunately, 4-D thumbs don’t regularly squish us out of the blue. So apart from spirituality and science fiction, this may be irrelevant.

  3. Timothy Mills Says:

    Thankyou both for your comments.

    Harpertown, I’m afraid you’ll have to expand on your example a little. What do the third and fourth dimensions in the insect’s universe represent in your metaphor? How would an atheist insect differ from a non-atheist insect in this metaphor?

    And, ultimately, how exactly does this “debunk atheism”? How is a rational world view “inherently narrow-minded”? Compared with what?

  4. Harpertown Says:

    Thank you for humouring me.

    To answer your questions:

    1. “What do the third and fourth dimensions in the insect’s universe represent in your metaphor?”

    I use higher dimensions as a metaphor for those concepts and facts that would be defined as irrational or unreasonable based on scientific evidence.

    2. “How would an atheist insect differ from a non-atheist insect in this metaphor?”

    The atheist insect likely enjoys the works of Christopher Hitchens, metaphorically speaking.

    3. “And, ultimately, how exactly does this “debunk atheism”? How is a rational world view “inherently narrow-minded”? Compared with what?”

    It is the atheists’ position that deities do not exist that I call into question. It assumes that the universe goes no further our sensorial range (or that it does go further, but that there is SURELY nothing deity-like there). It seems inherently narrow-minded when compared with the belief that one should “keep vigilant for evidence that might contradict [one’s] current beliefs”.

  5. Timothy Mills Says:

    Thanks for elaborating. If we’re taking “atheist” to mean “someone who refuses to consider the possibility that deities exist”, then I agree with you: that is a narrow-minded position.

    However, as I have said elsewhere, that definition fails to describe most atheists. To adapt your metaphor, an atheist is simply someone who has yet to be persuaded that there are 4-dimensional thumbs to watch out for. Most atheists I know would agree with you that we should “keep vigilant for evidence that might contradict [our] current beliefs”. Here’s a report on one of my recent forays looking for such evidence.

    Now, as to our 2-dimensional friends: if there is no evidence of 4-dimensional thumbs, why should those insects believe in them?

    A rational worldview is not “inherently narrow-minded”. Rational investigations have shown us wonders that the vaunted religious approach never dreamed of: the bizarre nature of quantum mechanics at the most minute scales; the cosmically slow and majestic dance of stars, galaxies, and quasars at the other end; the elegant, messy, epic tale of evolution as told by genes, by the forms and distribution of all life on earth, and by the fossil record; even the Newtonian unravelling of light. (I invite you to check out how many of the posts I’ve labelled “inspiration” are based in science.) Rationality does not preclude creativity, imagination, and wonder.

    Okay, that got a bit rant-like. I apologize. I mean every bit of it, but if I could I’d phrase it a little less … zealously.

    (And, for the record, this atheist doesn’t particularly enjoy the works of Christopher Hitchens.)

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