Parlour games

October 27th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, religion | 10 Comments »

Here’s a fun parlour game suggested by reader Evan Harris aged 11½.

“It would be fun to Google John Wyatt and find all the references to his 23 week data in the national newspapers, BBC on-line, MPs etc. You could also find other people’s references to it (ie where you can’t pick it up via searching “Wyatt”, searching on 23 weeks perhaps, or “42%+abortion”, especially where MPs refer to it). Comparing that to the exposure that the proper Epicure references got would be helpful and interesting.”

Don’t let me distract you from the parlour game but Evan Harris (probably the best MP in parliament on badscience issues) has recently been subjected to a bizarre onslaught of very personal attacks from the Christian posse, whilst himself being rather restrained and factual (eg this produced this followed by this and then the baffling this in return).

I find it endlessly fascinating how the same rhetorical cultures show up time and again in pseudoscience, whether it’s quack cures, anti-vaccination campaigners, or anti-abortion christians: it’s always dodgy unpublished data, unreferenced claims, ideology masquerading as evidence, anecdote, and then, when they’re questioned on the data, the ad hominem attacks and the hissy fit.

Realistically, the anti-abortion campaign’s position has little to do with science or evidence: this talk of elevated risks of subsequent obstetric problems, or nonsense about abortion and breast cancer, is a distraction. Their stance is built on morality, faith, and gut feeling, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But just like homeopaths, the Christian campaigners now seem to be using science as window dressing, instead of playing to their strengths. Ho hum.

The interesting question is, how much did the media play along with that, how much did they use the iffy 42% figure, against the proper Epicure data, and what efforts did they go through to check that figure?


Good work on this from JDC here:

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! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

10 Responses

  1. maibee said,

    October 27, 2007 at 5:21 pm

    I’ve had breast cancer but I haven’t had an abortion. Yes, there is a feckless woman out there who has not had an abortion. Reading the headlines it would at times feel that I am entirely alone and would appreciate a support group for those who have not ‘used abortion as a contraceptive’.

    Anyone want to use me as a statistic? Or are all my friends who know me well now assuming following the issuing of this abortion/breast cancer link now thinking that I have kept something from them all these years. Sigh.

    Hello everyone.

    This abortion debate has raised my hackles. Concur utterly with the idea that it is not actually about the science and medical advances but it is about people using these things (spuriously) to determine the future of women and their bodies. And that this can go on in select committees and so forth without measure is appalling. It’s a long time since I marched against the Alton bill back in the early nineties (or was it late 80s?). Then the arguments were very ‘humanities graduate’. Thank you for the ammo here though for the 21st century version of the same old same old..

    Keep the faith. Oops I mean keep the rational analysis of the facts coming. Cos as one contributor said on another thread, the opposite of access to legal, safe abortion is far less palatable.


  2. jackpt said,

    October 27, 2007 at 5:50 pm

    The malignant woo guide to argument:

    Portray an issue as a crisis and appeal to common sense
    Portray an issue as being far more subjective than the statistics would suggest
    Cherry pick evidence and portray those that produce counter evidence The Enemy
    Create the appearance of public debate by leveraging internet groups and pressure groups
    Attempt to shift the context of the debate into a favourable context
    Accusations of prejudice against personal belief rather than opposition to policy based upon belief
    Homogenisation of The Enemy (e.g. It’s better to put all atheists in the same category as Dawkins, or all moderate Christians in the same boat as the Archbishop of Canterbury)
    Ridicule The Enemy as being ‘politically motivated’ without any sense of irony
    Appeal to common sense “stastics/science don’t tell you everything”
    Ad-hominem attack on The Enemy

  3. doris said,

    October 28, 2007 at 3:34 pm

    I recently saw the very excellent Evan Harris putting the secular,sensible position on abortion legislation to a religious audience on a BBC Sunday morning slot.
    Predictably,he was harassed by various evangelical and islamic zealots,who called on all the usual mumbo-jumbo.
    During my career(s),I had occasion to ofer advice and asistance to women seeking abortions in two very diferent environments.
    The thought that such an essential,safe and discreet service could be restricted and ultimately,withdrawn,because of manipulation of public opinion by the religious lobby,fills me with disgust.
    However,dawn Primarolo has seen them off once more.
    My catholic sister is actively involved in some pro-life outfit:conflict beckons…

  4. pv said,

    October 28, 2007 at 11:35 pm

    Abortion is the one issue that illustrates with perfect clarity the inhumanity of organised religion and exposes, particularly with regard to its leaders, its fundamental purpose. Control.

  5. Forest Pines said,

    October 29, 2007 at 8:08 am

    I can’t help noticing that Evan Harris and Nadine Dorries are both members of the relevant select committee. I’m wondering if committee meetings are getting a little frosty since that Guardian letters exchange. What do you say to someone you work with, when they’ve been attacking you in a national newspaper? What’s the etiquette on what to say to a colleague who you’re about to attack in a national paper?

    I’m also wondering if Dorries sneaks up behind Harris when he’s questioning those giving evidence and makes rabbit-ears behind him, or similar gestures. Because that seems to be about the same level of logic as shown in her newspaper letters.

  6. emmer said,

    October 29, 2007 at 10:28 pm

    Drove me nuts too emily, but dammit I persisted:

  7. used to be jdc said,

    October 31, 2007 at 2:24 pm

    Hey, thanks for the mention Ben.

  8. emilypk said,

    November 2, 2007 at 2:48 pm

    Thanks 🙂

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