Oooooh I’m in the Minority Report!

October 31st, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, religion | 87 Comments »

This is officially the most exciting moment of my hobby as a writer. The Parliamentary Science and Tech Select Committee have published a very sensible report about the evidence for and against a change in the Abortion laws. The Minority Report is an extra report, bolted on as an appendix: they are there for when there are members of a select committee who don’t like the actual report.

In the case of this Minority Report on abortion, it’s a rollercoaster ride of pseudoscience and dubious data, signed by one Tory MP with the support of one other, and I highly recommend giving it a read. I’ve posted the PDF here, until it appears on the parliament website.

If you want a good example of how spectacularly weak the evidence behind this “Minority Report” is, then you need look no further than the bit where they talk about, er, well, me, bafflingly:

We were greatly concerned to read in the Guardian on 27 October an article clearly aimed at undermining the credibility of Professor John Wyatt, which contained detailed information about Wyatt’s evidence, which was passed by him to the committee after his oral evidence session, and which could only have been passed on to the journalist concerned by a member of the Select Committee. There should be an enquiry about how this information got into the public domain and as to whether such a personal attack represents a serious breach of parliamentary procedure..

My article did indeed contain detailed information about Prof Wyatt’s evidence, but I suspect any enquiry set up to examine how I managed to obtain that information would finish its work well before the first set of tea and biscuits arrived, since all the facts came from the written evidence published openly and in full during the select committee hearing. There’s nothing clever about what I do, let me promise you.

In fact as I made perfectly clear at the time, if you look here:

You will see in full all of the documents I used to write my article, examining the striking inconsistencies in Prof Wyatt’s unpublished claims.

How could I know that the committee contacted Prof Wyatt to ask him for the abstract for the research claims he made? Come with me, students of subterfuge, into my cave of secrets. Memorandum 52 on page 334 reads: “As requested I enclose the abstract referred to in my oral evidence.”

How could I know that the committee had gone back to Prof Wyatt and asked for clarification again? Because “Supplementary Memorandum from Professor John Wyatt 23 October 2007” (Memo 53 in the PDF of written evidence to the committee, page 337, if you love me, you love me for my disproportionate anality) begins: “This further memorandum has been provided at the request of Dr Chris Tyler in order to clarify the data presented in my earlier evidence.”

Seriously, it’s next level investigative journalism, this stuff. It’s like Watergate. It’s like those guys who got shot at in South America in the 1970s exposing CIA involvement in coups. This is the real deal. I totally downloaded the PDF. But I turned on the taps and put the radio on full blast first, just in case they’d bugged my flat.

In fact every single thing I wrote about in that article was freely available, a matter of record, in the public domain, when I wrote about it, no conspiracy, no nonsense, anyone could have written about those figures, and I wish we lived in a world where lots of other people had.

To be honest, I’m “greatly concerned” that a pair of tory MPs are “greatly concerned” about me having access to the written evidence for a select committee enquiry. Perhaps they’d prefer it if everything was done in secret behind closed doors, but luckily this has turned out to be a perfect illustration of exactly what science – and indeed government – should be about: transparency.

I respectfully invite you to contrast this transparency with the impossible task of getting in touch with Prof Wyatt through either UCL or UCH, or finding any of his claims published in a peer reviewed academic journal, or indeed any journal whatsoever, despite the data being collected between 7 and 11 years ago, and presented at a conference over three years ago.

Investigate that.

“Minority Report” indeed.

At least give it a grown up name.

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

87 Responses

  1. Ben Goldacre said,

    November 1, 2007 at 11:41 am

    er okay look i hate to be over involved in my own xmas present,

    but the petition that’s been submitted makes it look like real scientists have genuinely called for an enquiry and are concerned,

    can someone put the sarcastic one up instead?

    three alarmed people have already emailed me about this. frankly i’m all for being childish but they might well have a point.

    maybe someone change it to:

    we support the demands made by conservative MPs Nadine Dorries and Bob Spink for an enquiry into how the guardian was able to get access to publicly available oral and written evidence submitted to the parliamentary select committee looking at abortion.

  2. MJ Simpson said,

    November 1, 2007 at 1:09 pm

    How about this. We call on the PM to…

    Commission a public enquiry into how the Guardian journalist Ben Goldacre was able to view and write about evidence presented to the Parliamentary Science and Technology Select Committee which, as stated by Bob Spink MP and Nadine Dorries MP in their minority report appendix to the Select Committee’s report on abortion “could only have been passed on to the journalist concerned by a member of the Select Committee” and may represent “a serious breach of parliamentary procedure.”

  3. emilypk said,

    November 1, 2007 at 2:23 pm

    Whereas posting only supporting comments doesn’t make you uncomfortable at all?

  4. emilypk said,

    November 1, 2007 at 2:24 pm

    (I suppose I should have typed “her” as she is unlikely to visit here…)

  5. used to be jdc said,

    November 1, 2007 at 5:06 pm

    If you have written a comment on Nadine’s blog and can’t see it then you’re not alone!
    I’m pretty disgusted (but not surprised) that she cherry picks comments. Some other blogs have dealt with ‘Dorries +abortion’ – I found a few on google this morning.

  6. DrJon said,

    November 1, 2007 at 6:12 pm

    Where’s this petition? I can’t find it in the open petitions or the rejected petitions 🙂

    I understand moderating MPs blogs, but the positive only comments policy was truly frightening.

  7. NickConnolly said,

    November 1, 2007 at 7:15 pm

    Sorry Ben but this e-mail came back from Number 10:
    I’m sorry to inform you that your petition has been rejected.
    Your petition was classed as being in the following categories:

    * Issues for which an e-petition is not the appropriate

    Oh well, looks like you’ll be getting socks again for crimbo…

  8. MJ Simpson said,

    November 1, 2007 at 7:19 pm

    I think the facet of this which is worth pointing out is that Dorries and Spink were sitting on a Select Committee without understanding how a Select Committee works.

  9. Ben Goldacre said,

    November 1, 2007 at 7:30 pm

    well that’s it then.

    they’ve ruined christmas.

  10. NickConnolly said,

    November 1, 2007 at 7:35 pm

    Darn, and all that homeopathic egg-nog I made will go to waste…

  11. Citizen Deux said,

    November 1, 2007 at 8:47 pm

    “And just where did you get such sensitive company information?”

    “It’s in the company’s annual report…”

    Michale J. Fox in The Secret of My Success

  12. nix said,

    November 1, 2007 at 9:14 pm

    There could have no better result for a pro-choicer than to have Nadine Dorries on the other side. Not for nothing is she known as `Mad Nad’. If there’s a cause that’s unpopular for good reasons, she’ll back it, from supporting blatantly astroturfed PR campaigns for large leisure firms to devoting enormous energy to pissing off her fellow MPs by threatening to piss with Parliamentary procedure for the hell of it. (e.g. she was reported last year in _Bedfordshire on Sunday_, the unofficial anti-County, pro-Borough Council organ[1], as threatening to put her antiabortion stuff in as an early day motion every single day until she was stopped. In fact she made a huge noise, did it once, was comprehensively defeated, and then tried this approach to get it in through the back door.

    In that alone her political anti-genius is seen.

    The only downside is that this lunatic is my only Parliamentary representation. Still, the man she replaced was much worse, getting into major disciplinary trouble, having the whip withdrawn, and then being given a choice between resigning and being bashed by the Standards and Privileges Committee for corruption (he’d already been hit with the conduct unbecoming stick).

    [1] the County and Borough Councils aren’t talking to each other and haven’t for ages, so most of their debates take place in the BoS’s letters pages, and, soon, in court, what a nice use of my council tax

  13. nix said,

    November 1, 2007 at 9:40 pm

    It’s just occurred to me that I hold a winning moral card, as a pro-choicer constituent of Nadine Dorries who was born at 25 weeks and whose identical twin suffered severe anoxia and was allowed to die (he could theoretically have been saved but would have been horribly damaged) yet who *still* supports women’s right to choose whether or not to give birth up until the current legal threshold.

    I could go over to Nadine’s blog and annoy her by waving this in her face and implying irrationality.

    Would this be too cruel?

  14. Bloggerheads said,

    November 1, 2007 at 10:34 pm

    Merry Christmas, Ben:

  15. Ben Goldacre said,

    November 1, 2007 at 10:55 pm


    actually for a very long time i’ve wanted to get involved with some people in setting up an internet-wide site called

    it’ll need a bit of coding, but it couold easily go viral and win the internet. basically whenever someone has a comment rejected from a site, they fill in the url from where their comment was rejected, and post their comment on instead, which puts all rejected comments of one thread together, along with a link back to the context.

    in my opinion if i get run over tomorrow i am still officially a genius for having this idea, albeit a flawed one for failing to follow through on it.

    if anybody wants to get involved (ie do it) i’ll set up a google group, it could be massive. i’ve registered the domain.

  16. stever said,

    November 1, 2007 at 10:58 pm

    well done bloggerheads. superb idea. i’ve posted already, being very pissed off that my Nadine comments didnt make the cut, before she stopped taking comments altogether.

    Ben – brilliant idea. im right behind it. let me know what i can do.

  17. Bloggerheads said,

    November 1, 2007 at 10:58 pm

    “interesting”…?! Next time, I’ll just get you some socks, shall I?


  18. JonnyB said,

    November 1, 2007 at 11:35 pm

    Hullo – I went to in order to leave a comment, but there was no facility. I am thinking of registering commentrejectedrejected.

    Seriously – that is a superb concept.

  19. Ben Goldacre said,

    November 1, 2007 at 11:56 pm

    anybody who wants to get involved writing code and building the site sign up here, this rests on you…

  20. Robert Carnegie said,

    November 2, 2007 at 1:24 am

    Hmm. There may be effective reasons why a comment is rejected. Specific, damaging, and false allegations about the sex life of Sue Lawley perhaps. Setting up an open house for anyone’s rejected comments is risky. The DMCA could apply, depending where it’s hosted and how. You may not be able to tell what’s wrong with comments as they go up. And the spelling! My goodness, the spelling!

  21. igb said,

    November 2, 2007 at 8:11 am

    What the MPs in the Minority Report (*) clearly haven’t heard of is the somewhat confusingly named Open Source Intelligence. There’s a whole subclass of intelligence work, with big computers and clever people, which works on distilling down newspapers, public websites, Usenet (back in the day), blogs (today), plus information whose classification is so nugatory that it’s for practical purposes open (`Restricted’ and `Confidential’, clearances honoured more in the breach) and so on to extract classified material.

    That’s why a clearance that permits you access to Secret, say, is also required for sufficient volumes of Confidential that allow information marked Secret to be deduced. An acquaintance some years ago had had to hold DV (ie sufficient clearance for TS and above) in order to work on an ERP system in the 80s, because one thing being planned from food and clothing deliveries to the nuclear deterrent, from which cruise plans could be deduced.

    This is, in passing, why all those stories about “classified orders for biscuits” show a lack of understanding. If you were German and the date was May 1944, and you heard about a large order of biscuits being delivered to the depot Portsmouth but no similar order going to Dover, what would that tell you?

    As Groklaw has demonstrated, Eric Raymond’s thing about “given sufficient eyes, all bugs are shallow” applies to legal documents: informationa bout the SCO/IBM thing has emerged simply because enough people are prepared to cross-correlate documents and extract latent meaning. N documents cross-referenced is (N(N-1))/2 comparisons, which requires computers, people or both.

    What Ben’s done is take documents that even ten years ago would have been tedious to obtain and search, and extract information that was put there with no real expectation of being read. Do you remember the row about the inquiry into the Stephen Lawrence affair, where the initial downloadable versions of the evidence contained the addresses of the witnesses, a botch that cost about half a million in relocation? Not a problem in the past: how many people, Denning’s report into the Timothy Evans affair notwithstanding, buy HMSO reports? But today, in download city, all documents like that travel quickly.

    So the MPs probably live in a kinder, gentler age in which HMSO reports are more for the private consumption of the political classes who play by Queensbury rules, not for Guardian-reading doctors who might, you know, _use_ the information.

    Sorry, bit of a ramble…


    (*) Along with Magnolias and Collateral proof that Tom Cruise is actually rather a good, albeit limit, actor.

  22. manigen said,

    November 2, 2007 at 10:29 am

    Ramble nothing, that was fascinating.

  23. JoanCrawford said,

    November 2, 2007 at 11:31 am

    Actually, this cartoon is appropriate to most of the site, in fairness.

    Made me chuckle, anyway.

  24. Dr Aust said,

    November 2, 2007 at 3:38 pm

    Nice one, igb – I think I was was kind of getting at the same thing eariler on here.

    Thinking back, this has always one of the classic non-sequiturs of Official Secrets Act: that something could be viewed by the Govt to be a secret when in fact it was a logical deduction from lots of freely available non-secret information (aka journalism).

    A lot of what I think of as “proper” investigative journalism, and some of the political stuff depended on this kind of “sifting and piece-ing together” (think Woodward and Bernstein). Which is why I am often disappointed (though not surprised) that broadsheet coverage of science and technology questions doesn’t seem able to do the same thing.

  25. PalMD said,

    November 2, 2007 at 9:35 pm

    You are one sneaky mamzer…seriously though, it took at least a little work to dig up and read primary sources–while not nefarious, it’s worth a few journalism points.

  26. nickyb said,

    November 3, 2007 at 5:46 am

    From Dorine’s blog about Evan:

    “Anyway, he took longer in make-up than I did, which is saying something. I was begining to worry they may replace us with another item.”

    Am I just a prissy, hysterical, uber-sensitive queen, or there more than a hint of homophobic smearing in this?

    That’s after she has had her fill of effectively calling him “Dr Death”.

    What a vile woman.

  27. JohnD said,

    November 3, 2007 at 9:31 am


    Is it just me?
    Clicking on your link (“I’ve posted the PDF here, until it appears on the parliament website”) to this Minority Report leads me back to the main report.

    If it is me, I’ll Google for it, or else please post the full URL.
    If it isn’t – has no one except you read it, including the above?


  28. Mojo said,

    November 3, 2007 at 11:16 am

    The minority report is in the “Formal minutes” section, starting on page 71 of the report (page 75 of the pdf).

  29. Diotima said,

    November 4, 2007 at 9:06 am

    ‘Abortion’ is mainly performed by the uterus(the uterus perfoms quality control on its products). Ben could probably direct us to the very interesting US experiment in which a statistically significant sample of nurses, using no contraception and hoping to become pregant, allowed their menstrual blood to be checked regularly for evidence of foetal cells. It was (as I recall) found that up to 25% of pregnancies were ending in miscarriage quite early in pregnancy. So if there is an ‘abortion industry’ we must point the finger at the uterus itself.

  30. Trez75 said,

    November 6, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    Its not the uterus’ fault.
    Well, not according to “Christian Voice” anyway.

    Apparently its all down to “Gordon Browns cronies” and other “Pro-Death MP’s”.

    Having said that, they’re also against the HPV vaccinations, as it will encourage promiscuity. They want to prevent something will reduce deaths due to cervical cancer on the grounds that in order to stop young unmarried people from ‘doing the deed’ that we have to keep the threat of it killing them.

  31. Robert Carnegie said,

    November 7, 2007 at 12:22 am

    Can you find out who “Christian Voice” actually is, or do anything with the site besides join and send money? I see that “Post hoc ergo propter hoc” is their test of success, which I guess does make sense theologically. Like praying for the Moon not to fall on the Earth – try it, it works… I also notice that members get “a free copy of Britain in Sin”, is that the edition with foldout map?

  32. used to be jdc said,

    November 7, 2007 at 10:22 am

    But Christian Voice do have a knack of picking up on the really important issues too: Sunday trading, homosexuality in the police…

    *Britain in Sin is also available as a PDF. 31 pages of comedy gold. They even list the EU treaties that have broken the second commandment.

  33. Trez75 said,

    November 7, 2007 at 1:37 pm

    Christian Voice is basically a guy called Stephen Green. No-one knows how many other members there are because he won’t tell anyone. The Co-Operative Bank closed his account because of his quite frankly fascist opinions and the BBC now won’t allow him to speak on there either.

    He basically has the opinion that if its against the word of the Bible then it needs to be discouraged no matter what the consequences. I was going to write to him and (jokingly) suggest that he should also campaign to withdraw NHS treatment for HIV to homosexuals or intravenous drug users. Or stop treatment for alcohol or smoking related illnesses.
    The Bible says that the body is a temple, and homosexuality a sin, so we deserve what we get.
    Anyway I’m going off thread here

  34. Robert Carnegie said,

    November 11, 2007 at 1:29 am

    Trez: do you think the Church, or this particular member, isn’t ahead of you? All disease is a sin. Some sins can be forgiven and the disease cured. Some should not be. Or something like that. Materialist cures for sin, I think he’d be persuaded to say, are an abomination.

  35. PRJ said,

    September 22, 2008 at 10:03 pm

    It should be noted

    A French cohort study involving 12,432 women suggested
    that “a history of induced abortion increases the risk of preterm delivery, particularly for women who have had repeated abortions”.


    We recommend:
    1. That in the context of conflicting expert evidence on fetal pain and viability, this lack of consensus should be fully acknowledged in the report and the committee should
    adopt the precautionary principle giving the fetus the benefit of the doubt, until a clear consensus emerges.

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