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.
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.