Moon Drivel


Two weekends ago it was Halloween, which seems to be going from strength to strength of late. The streets normally patrolled by scallies in hoods were patrolled by small children wearing binliners and demanding sweets from strangers. I think the idea is that kids demanding things for seemingly no reason is supposed to be cute on public holidays, but bugger that, I remember trick-or-treating as a kid and I just remember feeling like a prick. There I was, in a plastic mask, demanding money and sweets from neighbours whose garage doors I had repeatedly kicked a football against for about five years. I felt dirty, evil and wrong. And you should, too.

Anyway, this Halloween didn’t just bring out small wannabe witches and devils, it also brought out those absolutely terrible articles that papers like the Daily Mail and the Express seem to wheel out at least once a year when they think they need to rouse their readers from their dark and terrible slumber. Here, have some woo… enjoy its tasteless additives… it will take your mind off hating immigrants and single mothers….

One which caught my eye appeared in the health pages of the Express. I don’t read the Express for fun, I’m just wrong in the head. This was a two-page spread that discussed, despite the scientific consensus, claims that the moon directly affects our health. Apparently, ‘studies’ (should anyone ever trust that word?) continue to appear that “confirm the moon has a mysterious and often inexplicable influence on the body. In some quarters [I’ve no idea what these quarters might be], the phenomenon is dubbed the Transylvania effect“.

Oo-er.

One theory is that the moon’s gravitational pull upsets the balance of fluid in the body’s cells, in much the same way as it affects the seas. Another is that this pull somehow alters the glands and organs. Areas of health the moon is supposed to affect include: medically unexplained stroke symptoms, seizures, bladder problems, gout (!?) and heart attacks. Most of these apparently increase during full moons, though there is good news for heart attack victims: heart attacks decrease during a new moon. Hang on, I hear you ask, if there are less heart attacks during a new moon, doesn’t that mean there are more during a full moon? Well, yes, you may think that. Maybe you’d think they just flipped it round to make one of their ‘studies’ look positive. Hm. Actually, I think that’s exactly what they did. Wow, my readers are so smart. I love you all.

Ok, so it all sounds ridiculous, but this is a skeptical site, and I shall give them the benefit of the doubt. They go to some effort to point towards genuine research (sort of) so I’ll discuss some of it here. There may be some truth in it, I’m not a scientist, I’m not an expert on the moon or on health, so I should be properly skeptical. I find it hard to believe that if the moon can affect the health of the animals on the Earth’s surface (not that I think it does), that they haven’t adapted by now to a point where it is irrelevant, but I’m as ignorant as these journalists are, so I’ll put my concerns to one side.

I chased down the study regarding unexplained stroke symptoms (such as headaches, numbness and co-ordination problems). It was published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research in 2008, and consisted of an analysis of the admissions database at the Western Infirmary Acute Stroke Unit for the years 1993 to 2006. They supposedly found a ‘statistically significant’ association between admission to the stroke unit with unexplained symptoms and lunar phase. So far, so good. However, I have three problems with this study. One: they say they found a statistically significant increase; but out of the numbers over the whole thirteen year period of the study, only 129 people had the unexplained stroke symptoms (2% of the overall number of people). That’s an average of ten people per year. Even if the numbers do fall more on full  moon dates than others, I fail to see how such a small number divided over a period of thirteen years can produce anything remotely statistically significant. Two: in the methods section of their study, they say they calculated the association  between admission rate, phase of the moon and a series of other ‘culturally significant’ dates. I couldn’t find any mention of what these culturally significant dates might be, or what relevance they had, and I’m a bit wary of what the phrase ‘culturally significant’ even means. What does culture have to do with cold, hard statistics? Maybe they mean days like Christmas, when hospital admissions for various things soar? Maybe they were just comparing full moon days to new moon days, but if so why not say that? Three: with regard to the statistically significant  number of admissions, they say their data do not support a convincing  biological or psychosocial aetiology. Well, why would they? They’re just looking at the figures for admissions, not patients’ medical histories. That kind of information isn’t included within the realm of the study. How could you draw a conclusion about information that isn’t even there? Nurse! I need more pills!

The other studies referred to by the Express also either display fuzzy thinking, or the Express displays it in its own interpretation. For example, the study showing a 6.5% drop in heart attacks during a new moon. As a statistic, it implies nothing. There’s no indications for causation, no data that would imply a link. It was done along the same principle of the study we’ve just looked at; by compiling statistics from an admissions database. Yet the Express claims that it means lunar cycles are good for your health. They also claim that the reason could be that fewer people go out during a new moon (because there’s less moonlight), thus reducing the risk from life-threatening activities. So, nothing actually to do with the moon then? They had heart attacks because they had dodgy hearts. Also, it’s  just an idea they have. They don’t have any evidence for these random conclusions. Plus, I doubt that moonlight, or the lack thereof, makes any difference to people’s decisions to venture outside their house in these days of that wonderful invention, the streetlamp. These aren’t scientific discoveries. These are half-arsed statistics that the Express is trying to spin some words out of in order to fill a page or two. The other ‘studies’ are worse:  a rise in people who can’t urinate properly during a full moon, a rise in stomach bleeding, people making bigger meals when there’s a full moon (oh, for f**k’s sake), a rise in animal bites (I reckon it’s vampire bats)… What about all the billions of medical problems which don’t have statistics coinciding with lunar phase? Is the moon selective; does it just go for the illnesses it finds funky?

It’s all so fanciful. For example, an Italian study (I’m beginning to feel dirty saying that word. Anything can seemingly be a study. I looked at a couple of websites for this blog entry. Whahey, I’ve done a study!) looking at birth rates over three years apparently shows a higher number of babies born in the two days after a full moon, especially to women who already had two children. So? By the time you’re discussing women with two previous children, you’ve narrowed the bandwidth of statistics enough to make any results meaningless. Plus, a full moon lasts about three days. A lot of these studies talked about the two days before or after a full moon. That’s up to seven days. Quite often the period of the new moon was held to be as influential as the full one, as in the Slovakian study on Gout. That’s up to ten days. A third of a month. You may as well just say that the statistics vary over time. That’s the fair thing to say.

Statistics are the key here. You can find correlations between anything. There’s the old skeptical chestnut, ‘correlation does not necessarily equal causation’, but you could also throw any statistics together you wanted and it wouldn’t mean anything. Everything that happens in the world happens at the same time as other things also happening in the world. Statistics are easily manipulated.

For example, I tend to write my blog entries in the evening. Statistically, this means I’m more likely to write when there is less sunlight. If this was an Express article, I could say that this means that the excess sunlight my brain recieves during the day dampens my creative impulse. This means that humans should sleep during the day and stay awake at night, so they can be more creative. Without the application of common sense, statistics can mean any damn thing you want.

Now give me some sweets. Statistically speaking, people are more likely to give sweets to people during Halloween.

  1. #1 by Michael on November 9, 2009 - 20:32

    Nice one Colin. It is just more ‘Flat Earth’ news. As every Pastafarian knows, Global warming is due to the Lack of Pirates. I’ve seen the correlating data which proves it. On the other hand, many moths and other insects are attracted to a Full or Gibbous Moon. They use it do find their way out and back home. This is why they are attracted to lamps- they think it is the Moonlight. The only other thing I can think of that may have an effect is the penial gland (although this is another woo artifact) but some reptiles can possibly sense moonlight through theirs. So watch your moths and keep an eye on your lizard.

(will not be published)