Jun 10, 2011

Newsnight: Nadine Dorries on science and abortion

Nadine Dorries has appeared on Newsnight (currently available on iPlayer here, about 40 minutes into the show) and claimed that her stance on abortion was based not on faith, but on The Science. I have transcribed a brief section of the interview for your reading pleasure (I missed out all the umming and ahhing, but the rest of her comments have, I hope, been faithfully reproduced).
Well, none of the issues that I champion particularly, although they would be deemed to be faith issues, if I were to approach any of them from a faith perspective I would lose before I’ve even begun. And I’ll give you an example: I moved to have the upper limit at which abortion takes place from 20 weeks to 20, but that wasn’t on any faith basis, that was on the basis of the science and the morality of that it just seems to be wrong to aborting babies who could live if born at that particular gestation.
So... Dorries seems to be claiming that the science backed her position that the limit should have been changed from 24 weeks to 20. Did it?

Well, Ben Goldacre didn't seem to think so. Dr Goldacre referred to a study called Epicure, which found no significant improvement in survival rates for babies born at 22 or 23 weeks. Dorries seems to have based her position not on a large study, but on the claims of John Wyatt, a member of the Christian Medical Fellowship who gave evidence to a Commons committee on science and technology in 2007. It's not altogether clear what Prof Wyatt did to come up with his figures for improved survival rates.

Wyatt's original reference for his claims regarding improved survival rates was not a peer-reviewed, published study. It was an abstract for a conference presentation. A presentation that did not contain the figures he was quoting.

Wyatt then said that he had produced a spreadsheet especially for the committee he was giving evidence to. Unlike the large study I referred to earlier, Wyatt was working with small numbers, from just University College London hospitals. Goldacre described the data as:
...non-peer reviewed, non-published, utterly chaotic, personal communication of data, from 1996 to 2000, with no clear source, and with no information about how it was collected or analysed.
This is apparently what Dorries was referring to as "the science" - data that was clearly less reliable than the large study. If, rather than simply accepting that the best available evidence has findings that are inconvenient to your cause, you decide to quote less reliable evidence then you cannot claim that your move to change the limit on abortion from 24 weeks to 20 is based on the science. It simply isn't true.

Why did Dorries claim that her stance was "based on the science"? Well, this was her example of an issue that she could not approach from a faith perspective. She claims that if she did so she would lose on such issues before she'd begun. Perhaps that is the reason?

Or perhaps she really did believe that The Science supported her point of view? I suppose that is plausible. I mean, if you are scientifically illiterate enough to be taken in by the hand of hope hoax, and so lacking in insight that you believe your version of events is more likely to be correct than that of the doctor conducting the operation, then I suppose it's quite possible that you might be sufficiently scientifically illiterate to believe that citing the back-of-a-fag-packet calculations of one man (when a large, well-conducted study has different results) means that the scientific evidence supports your position.