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Over at Grant’s, a commenter on one of his posts noted that, in its ‘World News’ pages, the Dominion-Post included an article entitled: “Pioneering’ astrology analysis may help women get pregnant after IVF treatment has failed”. The commenter said he’d nearly choked on his weetbix when he saw that, & I can sympathise.

I’d like to have read the item on the Dom’s website but unfortunately our Waikato Times subscription doesn’t give me access. But – never underestimate the power of the internet! This would have been a syndicated article & there it is on several other ‘news’ pages, including here at The Australian. So, with breakfast out of the way & no coffee anywhere near the keyboard, I pressed on…

Now, the use of the word ‘analysis’ in the headline makes this sound sort of science-y, so maybe there’s something in it, right? But no, this ‘analysis’ hasn’t actually happened yet, so we don’t know if astrology actually has the claimed effect. The article is built upon anecdote: testimonials from two women who had undergone multiple (failed) attempts at pregnancy via IVF before becoming pregnant at times suggested by the astrologer, & a statement by said astrologer that “she has helped many women in Britain and her native Cape Town to conceive.”

Interestingly, she went on to admit that “success may be due to coincidence, a placebo effect, or the power of suggestion.” Of which, coincidence is the most likely. After all, one study of Dutch women who’d had several cycles of IVF found that “1349 of the women (16 per cent) had conceived naturally after stopping IVF treatment (in a maximum timeframe of 13 years). Forty-five per cent of these had conceived within 6 months after their last IVF cycle.” And Cahill et al (2005) report similar odds of natural conception following a series of unsuccessful IVF treatments, commenting that factors such as maternal age and the reasons for infertility affect the likelihood of success.

We’re told that a group of IVF clinics in the US is going to test the astrologer’s ‘abilities’, providing her with the birth dates of clients, asking her to calculate the best dates for them to attempt to get pregnant, and comparing these with actual dates of conception. Given that other studies of astrology have found that it failed to perform at a level better than chance, I hope that the researchers will be allowing for the impact of coincidence in analysing their results.

D.J.Cahill, J.Meadowcroft, V.A.Akande & E.Corrigan (2005) Likelihood of natural conception following treatment by IVF. Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics 22(11/12): 401-405. doi: 10.1007/s10815-005-6655-y