There are none so blind as homebirth advocates who think they’ve “researched”

You knew it was coming. When Sarah Kerr was asked why she risked and lost the life of one of her children at a homebirth, she responded by insisting that she had “researched” the issue, and made her decision accordingly.

Kerr, like most homebirth advocates, was supremely confident about one thing. She was sure that she was more educated than the rest of us. She had done extensive “research” on the internet that had, in her view, qualified her to understand the risks and choose accordingly.

No doubt Kerr had done a great deal of reading. But what she, and other homebirth advocates, fail to understand is that their “research” has equipped them with nothing more than pseudo-knowledge.

Pseudo-knowledge has the appearance of real knowledge; it uses lots of big words, and it often includes a list of scientific citations. There’s just one serious problem; it’s not true and baby Tully is in a coffin in the ground because it isn’t true.

We are surrounded by pseudo-knowledge in everyday life and most of us understand that it isn’t true. Advertisements of all sorts of products are filled with pseudo-knowledge. Most of us are quite familiar with the language of pseudo-knowledge:

“Studies show …”
“Doctors recommend …”
“Krystal S. from Little Rock lost 30 pounds in 30 days …”

In the era of patent medicine, claims like these were usually enough to sell a product. But consumers have become more jaded and the language of pseudo-knowledge has become more sophisticated as a result. Contemporary pseudo-knowledge contains big, scientific words and sounds impressive. It also contains completely fabricated claims that have no basis in reality and which, not coincidentally trade on the gullibility of lay people. And it always contains citations to scientific papers that often don’t actually support the claims being made.

What do you really need to know to evaluate the safety of homebirth, particularly in the case of high risk like Kerr’s twins? Obviously, you need a thorough grounding in basic science and advanced knowledge of obstetrics. You need to have read and analyzed all the relevant textbooks and especially the relevant scientific papers (not simply the abstracts), and that, of course, requires an understanding of statistical analysis.

But wait! Science is hard and that’s unfair. Who has the time, the background or the ability to read and analyze all the relevant papers on homebirth? Not homebirth advocates. They lack knowledge of basic science and of obstetrics.Their math ability often trails off at arithmetic, leaving them no way to understand statistics, even if they bothered to read the relevant texts.

So if they’re not reading obstetric textbooks, and if they’re not reading the relevant scientific papers, and if they’re not analyzing statistics, what exactly are they doing when they are doing “research?” They are simply imbibing the views of other people who know just as little as they do.

Consider the lay bloggers. Who in her right mind could imagine that reading the nonsense spewed forth by simpletons like January of Birth Without Fear is “research”?

How about the self-described “experts”?

Barely a week passes on this blog without a lay person parachuting in to boast of all she has learned from her “research” encompassing the works of Henci Goer, Amy Romano, Barbara Harper or Ina May Gaskin. Don’t even get me started on Ricki Lake; she just makes it all up as she goes along. Their assertions mark them just as effectively as if they had tattooed “gullible” on their forehead.”

When it comes to homebirth and natural childbirth advocates their “research” is worse than worthless because they’ve acquired nothing more than pseudo-knowledge. Just about everything they think they “know” is factually false.

The truth about health education is both simple and stark. You cannot be educated about any aspect of health without reading and understanding scientific textbooks and the scientific literature. Period!

Don’t bother to claim that you are have done “research” on the internet or by reading the books and websites of other homebirth advocates. You haven’t acquired knowledge, you’ve acquired pseudo-knowledge, as well as the dangerous conceit that you know far more than you really do. Internet “research” marks you as a fool. That becomes a serious problem when you, like Sarah Kerr, decide to risk your baby’s life on no better foundation than your own “research.”

Adapted from a piece that first appeared in October 2010.