Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Nadine Dorries - Fact and Fiction

Nadine Dorries MP wants women to see 'independent' counsellors before they have an abortion, not go to abortion providers like Marie Stopes International or the British Pregnancy Advisory Service because they have (she says) a vested financial interest which she compares with pension mis-selling. She is proposing an amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill on September 6th to ensure this happens, along with Frank Field MP.

She is also on record saying that her political blog is '70% fiction and 30% fact... I rely heavily on poetic licence'.

Let's take a look at her being poetry in motion.

Research by Education For Choice has found that 'independent' is a word that belongs in Dorries' 70% category. And her comments about the 'financial interests' of BPAS and others are based on about as much evidence. [ETA] On Newsnight last night, Dr Evan Harris pointed out that the Department of Health’s own website warns against independent advisers.

Dorries is being backed by the Right To Know campaign. Despite describing this as 'our campaign', she now says 'I have no idea how they're funded'. She's also being poetic about their motivations, saying 'They may be ideologically driven'.

She has said that abortions are currently done before women have time to think what they're doing. Does she really mean this? Has she thought through the implications of saying that women are incapable of making their own rational decisions? Be careful you don't get distracted by thinking about shoes or you might accidentally have an abortion.

Then she claimed that Dr Evan Harris 'lost it' on an interview with Sky TV - an interview which she refused to share with him, insisting on being recorded separately. In it, Evan pointed out yet more flaws in her argument. It's not obvious what he he lost. His bus pass, possibly.

Dorries is being advised by the Christian Medical Fellowship, whose own interesting relationship with the truth I've already covered, for example here. So not only are her words 70% fiction, she is also consorting with fictionalists (I've made that word up because I'm bored of calling them LIARS).

The Right To Know campaign are bandying about the 'fact' that 30% of women who have abortions go on to suffer mental health problems. This claim is based on a paper from the British Journal of Psychiatry. The paper's conclusion is, quite reasonably, that abortion is not without consequences for some women.

However, the paper also states ‘The evidence is consistent with the view that abortion may be associated with a small increase in risk of mental disorders’. That's may be. It also states that ‘the overall effects of abortion on mental health proved to be small’ and could be the result of ‘uncontrolled residual confounding’. This means there could have been other factors influencing the results that they failed to rule out. That's being honest because it's an academic paper not a work of fiction.

Most tellingly, the conclusion says: ‘Specifically, the results do not support strong pro-life positions that abortion has large and devastating effects on the mental health of women’.

So that's another bunch of fictionalists she's consorting with.

She claims that the number of abortions would be reduced by 60,000 a year if women had independent counselling. Presumably she arrived at this figure by thinking of a number and then adding a load of noughts as there is no evidence to back it up. Her story-telling stops at this point rather than considering what might happen to these 60,000 babies in terms of supporting both them and their parents. For her, the happy ending is a full-term pregnancy. In this respect, she's close to the Catholic Church's position.

Dorries wants us to go back to being a Christian nation with Christian values. But the ruling classes' relationship with these values has always been a marriage of convenience, using them to justify or condemn whatever and whenever it suited them. Moreover, 'Christian Britain' is a nostalgic idyll for a time and place that existed alongside the land of the Care Bears and belongs in the 70% of words put together in a sentence that look like they might be true but in fact aren't. Besides, back in the days of Yore when we were at least nominally a Christian nation, the only people who really benefited were upper middle class white men - much like the ones who still dominate the House of Lords and the Tory party.

The latest from Dorries is this gem 'I wonder why someone would provide a quote to a national newspaper when they obviously have no idea what they are talking about?' I'm not even going to go there.

She has also said 'I have chosen the 'fact' I wish to believe'. That would be the fact that is 70% fiction, presumably.

It's almost too easy to take her arguments apart. When her bill amendment was first raised, many people said it was nothing to worry about, it would disappear and pro-choice campaigners were getting worked up about nothing. But now it looks like the Government could turn her fictions into fact, which means that no one will live happily ever after.

There's a good analysis of the almost total lack of evidence for changing the current abortion counselling position on the Nothing Special blog.

Next time will be less of a tirade, honest.

UPDATE 1 September 2011: The Government has done a U turn on abortion counselling but the free vote could still go either way next week. This means that MPs can vote according to their conscience rather than the party line.

UPDATE 2 September 2011: It's gone up from 30% to 'twice as likely' to suffer mental health problems post-abortion. She's done a loaves and fishes job on the stats.

Pro-choice groups are supporting an amendment by the Libdem MP Julian Huppert:

All organisations offering information or advice in relation to unplanned pregnancy choices must follow current evidence-based guidance produced by a professional medical organisation specified by the secretary of state.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Doctor Jesus - Curing Cancer With Ribena

Ofcom has ruled against the evangelical channel Believe TV for promoting Ribena and an olive-oil soap as a cure for cancer and other diseases, including heart disease, ovarian cysts and a bit of an achey back. The soap can also 'grow new kidneys'.

There's no need for a scientific analysis of why these things can't cure cancer or anything else. There's no need for randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, peer reviewed testing. Whether it's olive oil, Ribena or any other substance, these are just props. They have no inherent curative properties, which is why they are not cures for specific problems. Paul Lewis of Believe TV has also claimed that a bath with Miracle Olive Oil Soap can help if you're behind with your mortgage. What really cures is faith - it's the active ingredient. God can work through anything if you believe. If they don't work, it's because of a lack of faith.

It's the products' USP and a marketing ploy that must be the envy of all advertisers - if a product doesn't work, there's no money-back guarantee because it's the consumer who's faulty, not the product.

What's more, if a tumour or a bad back does disappear, it can't be proven that it wasn't cured by faith even if the patient was receiving conventional treatment at the same time.

This is where miracle cures are different from other forms of alternative medicine, which always have some sort of pseudo-science theory behind them.

Many adverts involve an element of faith, which could be described as the triumph of hope over reason. We believe that products will make us more successful, more attractive or thinner, that they will make us live longer. We have faith that the companies will do what the adverts say they will. If they don't work, we often have legal recourse or we can switch to another brand.

Paul Lewis and others like him are not selling a lifestyle, they're selling life. The stakes are much higher than promising shinier hair. And there is no other brand, he has a monopoly.

There is a kind of transformative magic at work like the one that changes the communion wine and wafer into the real body of Christ. Any bit of bread or bottle of wine will do. It's the same process that shamen and witch doctors have used for millennia, an infusion of magic.

As cultural norms evolve, so does who we trust and believe. Miracle workers are culture-specific; the shaman evolves into the tele-evangelist. Their props are also culture-specific; Ribena wouldn't work in a culture where it wasn't a known brand, for example. The transferable commodity between cultures and down through history is faith, the human propensity to believe the unbelievable.

Paul Lewis knows that people who buy Miracle Olive Oil Soap wouldn't rub a toad on themselves because that's not the current cultural practice. He and others like him know that they can operate only within certain cultural parameters using culturally familiar artefacts and familiar practices like taking a bath. Olive oil is a benign substance (with Biblical connotations) and while Ribena may seem an odd choice, it's comfortingly familiar with overtones of childhood nostalgia. It's just good marketing sense.

With culturally-embedded practices and a clause to prevent claims for refunds, it's a win-win situation. It's also why, no matter how many times Ofcom or the Advertising Standards Authority ban the promotion of a cure, there will always be another one.

The Doctor Jesus series is here, here, here, here and here.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Bell, Book and Candle

Exorcism is not just unscientific - the concept of evil makes us all Bart Simpson.

BBC's Sunday Morning Live today had a discussion about exorcism and a woman claiming that it cured her alcoholism. Leaving aside the scientific aspect - regular readers will know what I'd say on that - there is another aspect to consider.

Belief that bad things are caused by an outside agency is the supernatural equivalent of the Bart Simpson defence - a bigger boy made me do it.

The word 'evil' is problematic. It's used by non-believers to describe certain sorts of human behaviour and by believers to describe the agency of the devil. Both use it to identify something that is allegedly inhuman, alien or Other. And that's the problem. Whether it's alcoholism, homosexuality, mental illness, unruly children, child abuse or serial killing, 'evil' sources the cause as something outside human nature.

Even though many non-believers use it as a catch-all with a whole range of nuances, there is still too often a sense that this is not regular human behaviour. But it is, everything humans do is human nature, we can't just pick the bits we like or easily understand. Neither is it evidence of our 'animal nature', something to be tamed or that we must rise above, it's part of human complexity.

A secular authority uses the judicial system to deal with this 'evil', some religions use exorcism.

Exorcism - or deliverance as some churches call it - is founded on a victim mentality that is perversely comforting. We are not responsible. We are at the mercy of supernatural attacks and only God can protect or liberate us. In addition, sometimes it's the most religious who are the most assailed so it becomes almost a badge of piety to be possessed. The woman on Sunday Morning Live who blamed possession for her alcoholism was handing over responsibility. She saw alcoholism and other afflictions not as a disease or as a choice but as something that was inflicted on her, something which she had no power herself to overcome.

Like many of us, she wanted to blame someone or something for what happened to her. No one can help being born with a propensity for alcoholism or psychopathic behaviour but 'blaming' our genes or environment isn't satisfying. As humans, we look for something with human-like intentions because that is both easier to conceptualise and to distance from ourselves.

One response to her was that whatever gets you clean is good. But this way of thinking leaves people like her open to further possessions. Anytime something bad happens, responsibility is handed over to the devil. If God doesn't deliver you the first time, keep going until he does. Not only does this attitude make us victims, it infantilizes us, holding us in a suspended state of child-like irresponsibility, pushing away both blame and understanding.

A watered-down and more secular version of this Devil-think is the idea of luck, which looks to ascribe outside causes to agencies that can be propitiated or neutralised through ritual. It may appear less harmful than a belief in possession, but it's part of a continuum, a position that acknowledges science but then over-rides it. It's like instances where people know there is a scientific reason for something happening - livestock dying or being burgled, for example - but then go on to ask why here, why now, why me? And the answer is something Outside.

Calling behaviour evil can be a way of saying 'it couldn't happen here, we're not like that'. But as we saw in Norway recently, it can and does happen in all of our 'heres'. Putting photos of killers with red-eye in the paper and calling them the face of evil really doesn't help prevent that. We're all capable of behaviour that we're not proud of and the only way to prevent it, either as an individual or a society, is to recognise it, not to think of it a some sort of alien invader.

We're not Mediaeval peasants who can execute a pig for killing a child or blame a curse for making our crops fail but our minds haven't changed in just a few hundred years. Belief in exorcism or even (bad) luck is still a kind of contamination theory: something infects us or attacks us or breeds inside us - something that can be contagious and that has a cure of the same order. Whether we think it's the devil or some sort of allegedly secular evil, this is sci-fi/horror movie thinking.

Max von Sydow is not going to turn up to fix us and neither is Sigourney Weaver. The Alien is us.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Lying for Jesus (Yet Again)

The pro-choice charity Education for Choice has first-hand evidence that pregnancy crisis centres based on a 'Christian ethos' are using scare-mongering, emotional blackmail and lies to try and put women off having abortions. The Guardian coverage of the story tactfully talks about 'inaccurate information' but let's call it like it is. Lying.

EfC sent women undercover to centres including some run by the organisation Life. One of the undercover EfC women was given a leaflet that claimed 85% of abortions are carried out using vacuum aspiration. It stated that 'the unborn child is sucked down the tube' and that 'the woman should wear some protection. She has to dispose of the corpse.'

Another centre tried to persuade the woman to put off the decision and another handed out its 10-step 'road to abortion recovery', including steps entitled 'guilt and shame' and 'forgiveness'. The EfC women were shown baby clothes and talked to in emotive terms to manipulate them. There were also the usual lies about mental illness and cancer caused by abortion.

I'm confident in calling these lies because I've looked at some of the research the claims about cancer and mental illness are based on.

The Government is considering farming out services to 'independent' organisations, which would include those with religious motivations. In this instance, it appears that 'independent' mean 'independent of scientific fact and the NHS's own guidance on abortion'.

MP Nadine Dorries wants women to be forced to go for counselling before they can have an abortion - and this counselling cannot be provided by any organisation that also carries out abortions, for example Marie Stopes International.

Her original intention was to make this change an amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill but it is now possible that the change will be made without a parliamentary vote. It appears that her ally Frank Field MP could be working with the Department of Health to introduce these new counselling arrangements via regulatory change instead.

If practices at the organisations investigated are anything to go by, this would be very bad news indeed for women and their partners. Only two out of the ten centres EfC visited gave accurate advice and only one mentioned centres which provided abortions. These are not good odds for someone who chooses to go for counselling and even worse odds for anyone being forced to have it.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a consultation on advertising pregnancy advice centres. The proposal is that they must state whether or not they will refer for abortion. Perhaps they should also be required to display their beliefs on large signs outside the building. Then women would really be able to make an informed choice about whether to go in or not. Some would and that's up to them.

This Government is constantly banging on about transparency so any proposal to use organisations that base their activities on lies, subterfuge and ulterior motives masked as offering 'choice' does not bode well for the Big Society.