Science, Breastfeeding and the Media


Are you open to new scientific research?

Are you willing to look at evidence objectively and adjust your ideas (which is basically what ‘science’ is)?

Had the theory of Evolution been unknown until last week – had Darwin and others appeared on TV with their sketches and fossils and shown them to us for the first time – I like to think that we, as a nation, would have looked… and thought….  and snapped it up, with a cry of ‘YES! This makes sense! – and perhaps, for some ‘...although it does challenge how I think about Genesis.

So let’s have a look at some science that hit the news last month.

This study was carried out at Ohio State University by Dr. Cynthia Colen.  Colen looked at data collected through a previous survey following American kids through childhood.

She analysed a total of 8237 children (all with siblings).  She checked whether the children had been breastfed as babies. She checked health-related, behavioural and academic statistics from their childhoods.  With one exception (the incidence of asthma), breastfed children faired significantly better in all of these tests, which you might have seen coming.

So why do breastfed kids come out tops?  Some say ‘because breast is best’ but others suggest that parents who breastfeed tend to be richer and better educated, so their kids are bound to come out looking better – and that the breastmilk has nothing to do with it.

1,773 of Colen’s children were ‘discordant sibling pairs.’ In order words, they were siblings raised in the same household where one was breastfed and one was bottlefed.  If these children were compared against one another, any bias stemming from family of origin would be eliminated.

Comparing just these kids, Colen found the difference between the breastfed and the bottlefed to be insignificant. She even said that breastfed children suffered more from asthma.

I am in no position to comment on the science, other than to say that I have not even seen the study.

But what I do want to comment on is other people’s opinions.  Here is a selection from the first page of a google search.

Some blatant negativity was inevitable:

A Blogger called CrushZion: The hook nosed so-called ‘doctor’ Colen (Cohen) advises non-Jew mothers to feed their babies powder milk from big Jew-owned pharmaceutical companies

From Malim Balik’s Official page (Facebook):

– Colen or Colon?

– A Doctor wrote this? WHat is wrong with those people?

The Lavtavist:    – Prime Crap     – Twaddle

But mostly, the mood was: ‘Sod thinking about research; I’ve already made my own mind up:’

Daily Mail page, Facebook:  –  undoubtedly, breastfeeding is best

 – Breast is best.  So many scientific studies into this already (this person might have missed the point).

Midwife forum:   –  I’d like someone to tell me that their breastfed babies are better than their bottle fed ones!

Facebook:  – I don’t think breastmilk is important.  My kids are fine

The Lactavist comments:  – Has there EVER been a recall for breastmilk?

In fact I read through pages and pages of comments like this, thinking:  Hasn’t anyone even looked at, or thought about Colen’s Study or commented on it?  Why is this?

An intelligent trainee midwife on a forum hit the nail on the Head:

‘Badly reported.’

Indeed it was.  The Daily Mail headline?

Breast milk is NO better for a baby than bottled milk

It’s not Colon who needs lynching but whoever reported it.  As far as I know, Colen hasn’t claimed this at all.  For a start, she is only looking at long-term outcomes: I think she states that breastmilk has been shown to be greatly beneficial to babies in the first few weeks of life.

I know what you should be thinking (that is – What more than dumb sensationalism and polarisation can you expect from The Daily Mail?) but other papers have done worse still: several have ignored the study.  Why do you suppose my favourite paper, The Guardian, chose not to review it?

For an industry supposed to report the news, Britain’s Press have done a poor job.  If the mainstream media won’t look at the evidence, preferring to sensationalise or ignore it, no wonder such a widely unintelligent reaction.

So what would an intelligent reaction have been?

Well, ideally people would have looked at Colen’s original article and worked out whether or not there was a point worth making and if so, exactly what that point was.  They could then consider whether, for example, anything needed to change about Britain’s public Health Policy or what further evidence was needed.

But Colen’s paper, fifty-seven pages long, is tucked away inside a Sociology journal and one has to pay to see it.

On seeing a paper, one would normally have to wade through a few pages of explanations and scientific analysis to understand whether there was really a fair experiment. You will not have been trained to do this unless you are a scientist with some knowledge of statistics (it is harder than it sounds).  You would also have to do some background reading to provide context (for example, the ‘outcomes’ that were measured – are these the same things that previous research has claimed are benefitted by breastfeeding, or not?)

What is desperately needed is an expert’s neutral analysis of the paper in a reader-friendly format.  But that is hard:  who is neutral about such an emotive issue as breastfeeding?

My search only found one article, anywhere, written by someone who even claims to have read the paper, so well done AllParenting:

It’s just a shame that the author – Rebecca Bahret – is anything but netural.  She confesses to extreme prejudice in her first paragraph.  She uses words like ‘gloating’ to make the paper sound horrific. Such papers are generally written in a prescribed format and while I have seen plenty of flakey ones, I have never known an author ‘gloat.’  It’s hard to separate her opinion from the facts.

Bahret (who isn’t a scientist) spends a lot of time picking apart the author’s prose (which, being unable to see in context, I find difficult to comment on) but less time making relevant points about the evidence.  When she does pick, I instinctively distrust her: She says that Mums were split into ‘breastfeeders’ or ‘not’ with a single tick-box. If unacceptable numbers of Mums ticked the wrong box, how does she explain a significant difference between breastfed kids and not in the ‘overall’ group but not in the discordant sibling pairs?

The fact is, that many papers can be painted to look bad in an article.  One should be suspicious of a paper that doesn’t admit any flaws.  But could I find Bahret even trying to break down and criticise the nitty-gritty of a ‘benefits of breast-feeding’ type article?  Of course I couldn’t.  Why would she?  She is not interested in analysing research but in creating her reader’s distrust of this research, in order to strengthen her pro-breast-feeding postion.

So: Are you open to Scientific research? – there is a litmus test for this:  Have you by now formed an opinion in your head as to what this article will show?

If so, then maybe, actually, you are more closed-minded that you think you are.

But if the media doesn’t discuss such things intelligently, how will we ever be able to make up our own minds?


2 thoughts on “Science, Breastfeeding and the Media

  1. Great post. I should be able to get behind the paywall and read the article, so will try to do so later. That said, I try to avoid research on breast feeding because then I end up getting drawn into the arguments you’ve summarised here so eloquently (when the writers are all so entrenched I just don’t see the point in arguing).

    I wondered though why this research is so buried? A sociology journal? Does that mean the methodology is too crap for a medical journal (sociology not being known for its medical expertise I mean, not that sociological research is sub-standard. But I do wonder about the expertise of they reviewers, etc). Behind a paywall: no longer necessary in this day and age, and surely a bad thing to do if you actually want the message to get out? Or perhaps the authors only wanted the press release read? Or maybe the authors are naive, and really thought only the academic community would be interested. I don’t know, it’s just a bit strange.

    • Thanks Ellie. I hadn’t really considered what the authors were trying to acheive – that’s thought-provoking. I’m currently ploughing through a copy of the paper myself, would be interested to know your thoughts.

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