Minority Retort

November 3rd, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in religion | 28 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
The Guardian
Saturday November 3 2007

Parliamentary select committees are one of the few places where you can see politicians sitting down and doing the kind of thing you’d actually want them to do, like thinking carefully about policy. This week the science and technology committee delivered its report on scientific developments relating to the Abortion Act, and even as a man with a very low boredom threshold, I genuinely recommend reading it for pleasure: because it is a masterclass in spotting fallacious science, and that is exactly what was offered up, in spades, by the anti-abortion activists who gave evidence.

Here is an excellent example, on the question of abortion and breast cancer risk, in which a parliamentary document explains to you the importance of choosing the correct control group.

“Dr Richards told us that ‘if you compare women who keep their pregnancy with those who have an induced abortion, those who have an induced abortion are more likely to get breast cancer later on’. This is the comparative group that Dr Brind favours and the result is expected, since carrying a first pregnancy to birth is protective against breast cancer. However, if you look at the rates of cancer between women who have had an abortion and those who have not had children, the effect disappears.”

This is the bread and butter of science, it is a thing to behold, and they give similarly rigorous and transparent treatment to the foetal pain people, the neonatal survival figures, and more.

Two Conservative MPs on the committee who favour tighter restrictions on abortion were unhappy with this report. They have issued their own minority report, published as an appendix. Does this differ in approach, or moral values? No, it differs in something much more simple: the quality of the science, the selectivity of the quoting, and the quality of the referencing.

There isn’t space to debunk it in this column, it’s so riddled with holes – and bafflingly most aspects of it are already debunked by the main report it accompanies. If you want a good example of how spectacularly weak the evidence behind this 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 could only have been passed on to the journalist concerned by a member of the select committee. There should be an inquiry 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 contain detailed information about Prof Wyatt’s evidence, as you may remember, but I suspect that any inquiry 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 and oral evidence, published openly and in full on the parliament.uk website during the select committee hearing. I bravely downloaded the PDF, and then I read it.

Note:

This column had lots of extra material but it got cut, and I haven’t got the original on this laptop. Also the dog ate my homework. I’ll post something fun to make up.


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28 Responses



  1. pv said,

    November 3, 2007 at 2:08 am

    Well, ok you downloaded the PDF. Anyone could make that mistake. But you must know you’re not supposed to actually read the thing. PDFs are for cluttering up your computer desktop. Shame on you. :-)

  2. marcdraco said,

    November 3, 2007 at 3:11 am

    MPs are scientists, but some of them are quite religous. Need I say more?

  3. marcdraco said,

    November 3, 2007 at 3:12 am

    In fact, I should say more. I meant to say that MPs are NOT scientists… That’s what I get for not sleeping when my body tells me I ought to.

  4. curranhung said,

    November 3, 2007 at 9:15 am

    How do these religious MPs explain the higher than average breast cancer rates among nuns?

  5. Ministry said,

    November 3, 2007 at 10:10 am

    Actually, I quite like the way the Guardian cut this one: ending with the bald, simple fact that you downloaded and read the .pdf ridicules the MPs objection quite nicely.

  6. jackpt said,

    November 3, 2007 at 10:29 am

    Agree with Ministry, it’s a pretty good edit, punchy. Like a bit in P.E. except without the deficiencies.

  7. Kess said,

    November 3, 2007 at 11:05 am

    Reminds me of that declassified PDF document the US released a few years ago (something to do with Iraq, I think). Lots of text was blacked out. However, the blacking out had been achieved by simply drawing black rectangles over the text; the original text was still there and could be revealed by, er, turning off the rectangles.
    I wonder if the US blamed sneaky journalists for that cunning below-the-belt move too?

  8. stever said,

    November 3, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    your headline is better than the guardian one.

  9. Dr Aust said,

    November 3, 2007 at 1:56 pm

    Kess’ comment makes me nostalgic for the days when the US Govt declassified / censored things for FoI release with a big black felt-tip pen and then released a terrible Xerox (photo) copy.

    A lot of these docs are now online, but they have usually PDFed a 2nd or 3rd generation copy of the “original” Xerox copy, so that you need decent eyesight and a text-reconstruction able brain to read the full version – available transcripts are usually “selected quotations”.

  10. emmer said,

    November 3, 2007 at 2:45 pm

    I thought the published article smacked of editing brutality. I’d like to read the longer version if it had interesting bits in it. Boo hoo.

  11. Ministry said,

    November 3, 2007 at 6:57 pm

    emmer: the longer version is Ben’s previous entry here, isn’t it?

  12. pv said,

    November 3, 2007 at 9:35 pm

    curranhung said,

    November 3, 2007 at 9:15 am

    How do these religious MPs explain the higher than average breast cancer rates among nuns?

    Sorry if it’s a millimetre off topic, but this prompts a question for any IDers creeping about this forum:

    Why do nuns have breasts?

  13. curranhung said,

    November 3, 2007 at 10:21 pm

    I reckon those nuns who get breast cancer have all had abortions. How’s that for logic? ;-)

  14. pv said,

    November 4, 2007 at 12:45 am

    Great logic!
    Obviously there isn’t room on the planet for more than one virgin birth. Think of the confusion that would cause. You’d have wise men and shepherds wandering all over the place and getting in each other’s way. And it would certainly put up the price of stabled accommodation.
    Abortion’s the answer.

  15. csrster said,

    November 5, 2007 at 9:52 am

    “I bravely downloaded the PDF, and then I read it.”

    You’ll never make it as journalist that way. Why can’t you just repeat soundbites from press conferences and reproduce snippets from press releases like a real journo?

  16. nekomatic said,

    November 5, 2007 at 11:26 am

    “the original text was still there and could be revealed by, er, turning off the rectangles”

    I think that could technically be construed as a breach of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. Your one-way ticket to Guantánamo sir, window or aisle?

  17. boatie said,

    November 5, 2007 at 11:39 am

    I had real problems getting on to Bad science over the week end.

    Was the “missing material” related to this or was there something more sinister and government related behind it?

    Sorry I havent created a conspiracy theory for a while, I needed a fix.

  18. Kess said,

    November 5, 2007 at 7:11 pm

    “I think that could technically be construed as a breach of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act.”

    I’ll push my luck further – the original report (dealing with the US’s trigger-happy shooting of an Italian secret agent in Iraq a couple of years ago), complete with all those black rectangles, is at download.repubblica.it/pdf/rapportousacalipari.pdf

    I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to work out how to get the text from behind the rectangles.

    Hang on, is that a knock at the door…

  19. emilypk said,

    November 5, 2007 at 7:47 pm

    I am no geek but simple cut & paste easily selects the ‘hidden text’

  20. Filias Cupio said,

    November 6, 2007 at 1:30 am

    Offtopic:
    BBC story on those “scientist discovers formula for the perfect bottom” stories:
    news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/more_or_less/7078866.stm

  21. used to be jdc said,

    November 6, 2007 at 10:09 am

    Cheers for the link Kess. Kess?

  22. manigen said,

    November 6, 2007 at 1:11 pm

    That’s it, the black helicopters have got him.

  23. JRanderson said,

    November 9, 2007 at 11:19 am

    You may be interested in [off-topic spam link removed x]

  24. oldpillman said,

    November 9, 2007 at 8:35 pm

    What is really worrying is that one of the MP’s has a science related PhD!.

    At least, when he was first was elected, that’s what he said. Can’t either recall, or find, where he was awarded it, though.

  25. Ben Goldacre said,

    November 9, 2007 at 8:43 pm

    heh

    he also talks about “dark forces” in research

    www.epolitix.com/EN/MPWebsites/Robert+Spink/0f77a5e7-5d28-4ea6-bde3-3fddd428bfe7.htm

    and took out an ad in his local paper saying “What bit of ‘send them back’ don’t you understand Mr Blair?” a couple of years ago.

    politics.guardian.co.uk/election/story/0,15803,1459087,00.html

    mind you he got re-elected in a marginal afterwards so there you go.

  26. Victoria said,

    November 10, 2007 at 12:39 pm

    Here’s a more logical way to express the same information: once a woman becomes pregnant, she can reduce the chance of getting breast cancer by having the baby or forgo this benefit by having an abortion. This information could be provided along with all the other thousands of points to be considered when making this incredibly difficult choice.
    By trying to make the facts seem even more on their side, anti-abortion groups consistently undermine what little evidence they have. I almost feel sorry for them.

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