Science of the Bleeding Obvious

A recent report has just revealed, in the clichéd terminology of science journalism, that massaging babies helps them to sleep better, cry less and be less stressed.  I’m not sure anyone’s going to be surprised by that.  It makes perfect sense that a baby that is stroked and cosseted is more likely to be content.

I used to attend News Editorial meetings at 9:00 am every day when I was at the BBC World Service.  I knew from bitter experience that this sort of research would bring mutters of “it’s the science of the bleeding obvious” and “why waste money on this sort of stuff”.  Both valid points but both fail to grasp what is going on here.

First of all, the bleeding obvious.  It does seem to be common sense that massaged babies are more relaxed but that’s the problem, common sense is not science, nor is it scientific.  Take the example of drinking and life expectancy.  Drinking is harmful and that harm is directly related to the amount of alcohol consumed.  The heaviest drinkers tend to die younger.  So common sense would suggest that teetotallers live the longest.  Yet this doesn’t seem to be the case. Teetotallers actually tend to live slightly less long than moderate drinkers, suggesting that an occasional glass or too is good for you.  This has been shown in a number of studies and there are all sorts of different ideas about why this is the case.  The one thing it isn’t is the bleeding obvious.  Had the research simply shown that any alcohol shortens lifespan then it, too, would be open to mutterings of “I knew that”, but in fact it showed something unexpected and important.

There is no way of knowing what research will turn up until its done.  The baby massage study does seem obvious, but that is only with hindsight.  Unless we have this formal study, or more accurately review of studies, then the only information we have is anecdote and gut feeling, neither of which are reliable data on whether to decide how effective a treatment might be.

Which brings me onto the second point, why waste money on this type of research?  Somebody seems to think it was worthwhile as it is published in the Internationally respected Cochrane Library.  The Cochrane Collaboration aims to bring together the best evidence from clinical research as an aid for doctors diagnosing and treating patients.  The publication of the baby massage data here is significant as it brings it closer to the fold of conventional medicine.  It has been given an important stamp of acceptance.  Without that it would linger on the fringes of medicine and even with this apparent approval there will be some who see it as new age nonsense.

The news, therefore, for baby masseurs the world over is that modern, high tech, evidence based medicine recognises that massaging a baby might have health benefits.  It is one step closer to becoming accepted into the pantheon of acceptable treatments.  And that means it stands a better chance of being used.  The cynical view is that baby masseurs will be rubbing the hands at the expected extra income.  The more optimistic outlook is that a simple technique that appears to help babies, and their parents, be happier, might be used more widely.

written by Toby Murcott, lecturer on CASE’s MSc Communicating Science, and taken with kind permission from his Blog

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