On Monday the 25th of November 2013, prominent anti-vaccination group the Australian Vaccination Network lost its appeal against the New South Wales Department of Fair Trading and was ordered again by the New South Wales Administrative Tribunal to change its name. This is fantastic news for those of us who believe that the AVN’s name is misleading and misrepresents their anti-vaccination stance. Reasonable Hank has done an excellent job of covering the news in his blog post “Australian Vaccination Network ordered to change duplicitous name“.
On the evening of the decision, ABC’s Lateline aired a report by Steve Cannane discussing the court’s decision, with interviews with Dr Rachael Dunlop and ex-president of the AVN, Meryl Dorey.
With thanks to Anne Blake for uploading the video.
I would like to say that the following quote from Meryl Dorey surprised me, but having followed her public statements for some time now, I am quite familiar with the Big Pharma Shill gambit. From the transcript of Lateline:
STEVE CANNANE: In response to today’s decision, Meryl Dorey claimed she was a victim of hate groups and vested interests.
MERYL DOREY: Many of those people either work in the pharmaceutical industry or work for the pharmaceutical industry and it is apparent that some of these people are quite close with certain members of the NSW Parliament and of our government. So, you know, you can call it a conspiracy theory, but I’d say that there is evidence.
Well Meryl, where is this evidence? I have asked twice on Twitter, but so far have had no response.
Tumbleweed .gif from RationalWiki page "List of scientifically controlled double blind studies which have conclusively demonstrated the efficacy of homeopathy"
Meryl, if you are going to make public claims which assert that there is a conspiracy between those who campaign against the AVN, pharmaceutical companies and the Australian government, you’d do well to back them up. If you can or will not, I suggest that the public would do well to apply Hitchens’ Razor to your statements.
“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”
NB: Given Meryl Dorey’s tendency to take her critics’ words as threats, I would absurdly like to point out that Hitchens’ Razor (coined by the interminably quotable late Christopher Hitchens) is an epistemological law regarding the onus of burden of proof and not a literal razor.
“The truth is like a lion. You don’t have to defend it. Let it loose. It will defend itself.”
The above quote, attributed to St Augustine, has been doing the rounds as an inspirational meme for some time. Occasionally it will pop up on one of my social media streams, posted by somebody who I assume has faith that fact will prevail in the face of falsehood. And of course, I certainly hope that it will – but I disagree strongly with St Augustine’s sentiment. Based on my observations, I believe that the lion of this metaphor is vulnerable and that we do need to fight to defend it.
Ethical truths, which are highly subjective (and as such, it is highly debatable whether they are indeed truths at all), do not defend themselves – if they did, surely I would not be repulsed by honour killings, as those who commit them are behaving in a manner according to the ethical truth with which I find indefensible, that bringing dishonour to one’s family is a greater crime than murdering them. We would not have an anti-abortion/pro-choice debate, nor a euthanasia debate, nor disagreements regarding the death penalty. If ethical truths could defend themselves, should they not convince us all of their merit?
Likewise, logical truths are not agreed upon by all – be it through a lack of exploration or exposure to concepts, alternate well-argued conclusions or cognitive dissonance.
The clearest of all truths though, factual truths backed by solid evidence, are still vulnerable to falsehoods – some of which when taken as truth present real risks to our society.
The truth that vaccination is the safest and most effective means by which we can protect ourselves from vaccine preventable diseases (and that these diseases are a real threat to human health and life) is continually under attack from anti-vaccination advocates – and to some in our community, the anti-vaxxers can be persuasive, resulting in both danger to individuals’ health and lowered herd immunity in our communities. As such, I find it imperative that vaccination advocates defend the truth; and I am honoured to know many people who spend a lot of their time and energy doing just that.
Likewise, fluoridation of our water supply is a safe way to ensure that our population’s dental health is maintained, but anti-fluoridation activists believe differently. Not only are these activists able to convince individuals with their rhetoric, they can also influence policy to the extent that entire regions remove fluoride from their water supply as a result of their campaigning. In this case, to maintain evidence-based public health policy, we must defend the truth.
The truths that fringe conspiracy theorists deny – that the moon landing occurred, that chemtrails are merely contrails, that the reptilians or Illuminati control the world behind the scenes – arguably cause far less harm to communities and relatively little to the individuals who believe them (this moon landing hoaxer aside), but they do serve as examples of situations in which the truth is not defending itself. I’m inclined to spend less time defending these truths, though I do tend to take issue with the conspiracy theorists’ undermining of rational evidence-based thinking.
It is probable that St Augustine was referring to the biblical truth in which he believed – that the truth of his god would prevail without his defense. Clearly at this point in human history it has not, given the wide array of beliefs and lack thereof held by the people of this planet. His biblical truth is not defending itself.
We humans are capable of manipulating our world, both with concepts and with actions. Both metaphorically and in reality, we have rendered the lion vulnerable; and it relies our protection if it is to prevail. The benefits of defending the lion and whether we have a moral imperative to do so are truths to be explored.
Ethically, logically and factually, St Augustine’s truth, that truth can defend itself, does not hold true for me.
I am currently staying in Melbourne to attend laboratory classes and have been catching the tram in to the city morning and afternoon to get to university. A couple of mornings ago as I was looking out the window, I noticed some anti-abortion picketers with banners and signs standing at either side of the gates to the Fertility Control Clinic in East Melbourne. They were displaying signs decorated with the pink ribbon symbol and slogans claiming that abortion increases women’s risk of developing breast cancer. On my way home, I was prepared to disembark from my tram so that I could take a photograph of the banners that the picketers had set up and ask them a few questions on where they were obtaining data to support their claim, but when I passed the fertility clinic, I saw that they had gone. They were not present when I went past the next day either.
I wish to note that as disagreeable as I find the distressing messages voiced by anti-abortion picketers, I am an advocate for freedom of speech and I do not want to take away their ability to peacefully state their views; though I do appreciate the argument for exclusion zones around abortion clinic gates and would proudly volunteer to be an escort for women who use the clinic’s services, given the appropriate training.
What I do very much object to though, is when they – or anyone, for that matter – tell lies about health risks in order to scare people in to doing as they wish.
There is no credible evidence to support the claim that having an abortion or experiencing miscarriage increases the risk that a woman will develop breast cancer. When I first saw the protesters this morning and tweeted about their appropriation of the pink ribbon symbol, @danientifically (who I recommend you follow if you enjoy tweets from reasoned, compassionate people with a fine sense of humour) asked the Cancer Council Australia how they felt about it. They kindly responded with this link, which contains a brief run down of credible information regarding the myth of a link between abortion and increased risk of breast cancer.
Having had time to look into it since, I’ve found that anti-abortion protesters have been using this myth for quite some time – and as such, there is much literature citing evidence which refutes their claim. From the American Cancer Society:
In February 2003, the US National Cancer Institute (NCI) held a workshop of more than 100 of the world’s leading experts who study pregnancy and breast cancer risk. The experts reviewed human and animal studies that looked at the link between pregnancy and breast cancer risk, including studies of induced and spontaneous abortions. Some of their findings were:
- Breast cancer risk is increased for a short time after a full-term pregnancy (that is, a pregnancy that results in the birth of a living child).
- Induced abortion is not linked to an increase in breast cancer risk.
- Spontaneous abortion is not linked to an increase in breast cancer risk.
The level of scientific evidence for these findings was considered to be “well established” (the highest level).
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) Committee on Gynecologic Practice also reviewed the available evidence in 2003 and again in 2009. ACOG published its most recent findings in June 2009. At that time, the Committee said, “Early studies of the relationship between prior induced abortion and breast cancer risk were methodologically flawed. More rigorous recent studies demonstrate no causal relationship between induced abortion and a subsequent increase in breast cancer risk.”
In 2004, the Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer, based out of Oxford University in England, put together the results from 53 separate studies done in 16 different countries. These studies included about 83,000 women with breast cancer. After combining and reviewing the results from these studies, the researchers concluded that “the totality of worldwide epidemiological evidence indicates that pregnancies ending as either spontaneous or induced abortions do not have adverse effects on women’s subsequent risk of developing breast cancer.” These experts did not find that abortions (either induced or spontaneous) cause a higher breast cancer risk.
The picketers’ stance against abortion is presumably a moral one, at times supported by religious belief, and I’m sure that they have moral arguments that they feel they can back up their position with. Certainly, moral positions can (and in my frank opinion, should) be backed up with fact – but when the fact being used is a blatant falsehood, I am very much compelled to call that out. Especially when those falsehoods are being used to distress people who may be feeling vulnerable.
As a person who is strongly pro-choice and an advocate for bodily autonomy, it can be very easy to demonise anti-abortion picketers – especially given the outcomes of their protests; both the harm they cause individuals and the political influence that they hold. The use of graphic images disgusts me, harassment and attacks on both women seeking abortion and abortion providers should be dealt with strongly via the legal system. Something I try to keep in mind when I see them however, is that they genuinely do believe that their view is right – that they are fighting to save the lives of vulnerable beings. Alongside anti-vaccination campaigners who truly believe that vaccines are harming children, and religious prosthelytisers who honestly hope to save our souls from eternal damnation, the majority of anti-abortionists do believe that they are trying to stop a terrible and unjust harm that occurs within our society. It is rare that a passionate campaigner for a cause does so to do evil.
As such, I suspect that it is entirely possible that some anti-abortionists may know that the abortion/breast cancer myth is a falsehood. When I discussed my thoughts on the matter with Felix (who lacks a Twitter account for me to link to), he relayed to me an experience he had years ago, when a friend was trying to convert him to Christianity. Felix went and had a discussion with his friend’s minister and questioned the minister’s claims that homosexuality presented dangers to people’s health. When confronted with somebody willing to question the credibility of his claims, the minister actually outright admitted that they were false, but he felt that telling a lie was an acceptable and minor wrong when looking at the bigger picture; the fate of a person’s eternal soul. Likewise, perhaps some anti-abortionists realise that their claim regarding breast cancer is less than credible, but feel that it is justifiable to use it as a scare tactic in the hope of preventing women from having abortions.
It is a complex situation and I do not believe that I have the requisite knowledge or skills to have a productive conversation with anti-abortion protesters and be able to convince them that their claims regarding breast cancer are scientifically unsound and can not be ethically employed as a part of their argument. However, what I am capable of to a degree is publicly stating that their claim regarding abortion and increased breast cancer risk is incorrect – and in publicising that they are perpetrating a falsehood, I hope that anybody who has been misled by anti-abortion propaganda on this topic can be assured that it is an outright lie.
NB: I have chosen to use the term “anti-abortion” to describe what is also referred to as the “pro-life” movement, as I consider it to be a more accurate descriptor.
Abortion – Breast Cancer Hypothesis – Wikipedia
The Truth About Abortions and Breast Cancer – Cosmopolitan Magazine
Yesterday evening, I was horrified to read this article in the Daily Mail, reporting that Salafist religious leaders in Tunisia are calling for a 19 year old woman to be stoned to death. The woman, known only as “Amina”, published photos of herself on the Facebook page of the feminist activist group FEMEN-Tunisian posing topless with the phrases, “fuck your morals” and “my body belongs to me, and is not the source of the honor of anyone” written defiantly in Arabic across her chest, statements expressed against the oppression she lives under as a woman in Tunisia under a newly democratic but culturally theocratic regime.
Reportedly, Amina has since been placed in detention by her own family and has not had contact with the outside world. There are rumors that she has put into psychiatric care.
Clementine Ford has written an excellent article on Daily Life outlining Amina’s situation and the cultural context surrounding her protest, while Ruby Hamad has explored the potential implications of topless protest for women in Arab countries, also very much worth reading. Maryam Namazie on Freethought Blogs has been publishing regular updates on Amina and news of her supporters as it comes to hand.
FEMEN have called to arms, amassing supporters and declaring a “Topless Jihad” for April 4th, for women worldwide to protest in solidarity with Amina against oppressive Islamist leaders.
Incidentally, I have been asked today whether I stand with FEMEN – I do not. FEMEN condemn the sex industry, while I support the rights of sex workers, their clients and the removal of stigma surrounding the sex industry.
I found myself questioning FEMEN’s intentions regarding Amina and how they relate to myself, a proud atheist woman in Australia who is almost certainly already considered an infidel and morally bereft by the sorts of preachers who call for the stoning of a woman. I had trouble imagining how any action I took could even register with those being protested against, let alone affect any change in their attitude – frankly, I’m not really sure that FEMEN themselves are capable of changing the attitudes of the hardened misogynistic institutions that they protest against.
I also didn’t consider that I could be particularly relevant in an awareness-raising capacity – Amina’s photographs and story more than speak for themselves.
Still, I didn’t feel able to let go of the inclination I had to do something. Evidently I can get a little entrenched in practicality at times, as it took me more than an hour to realise that it was perfectly fine – and I was perfectly fine with – the idea of making a statement with no particular expectation, but primarily as a means to express a sentiment that I strongly wished to articulate – that it is a hateful thing to declare that a woman should be stoned and that if you believe that your god would want you to perform such an atrocious act, I do not believe that you, your faith or your culture should be tolerated or respected.
I am a privileged woman in many respects and recognise that the culture that I live in affords me an existence that is incomparable to the experiences of many women who live in regions where fundamentalists are in power. My act of removing my top is barely one of defiance and has not placed me at any risk. Still, I wish to stand up and make this statement:
I support the right of all women to have autonomy over their own bodies, to express ownership over their own bodies, to experience the freedoms that I do. I deeply criticise those who shame, oppress and punish women for defying fundamentalist demands for “modesty”. I thank those who stand with me, I am privileged to stand with them and I support Amina.
Since I summoned up the courage to post this on Twitter, I have been very pleasantly surprised by the overwhelming positivity of responses. I’d especially like to extend my appreciation to Donovan (@MrOzAtheist), who thought my statement worthwhile enough to share with his 20K+ followers (twice!) and to Dane (@danientifically) who wonderfully posted a photo of himself in solidarity with Amina.
If you are so inclined, please consider signing this petition to several institutions including Amnesty International and the United Nations requesting protection for Amina.
Addit: 31/03/2013 – My photo has been posted on Reddit on r/atheism here; I have created a Reddit account (joalabaster) and am participating in the resulting threads if you wish to join in.
Addit: 03/04/13 – I’ve Tweeted the photo again here, with a link to this blog post. Recursive! If you are considering retweeting the image (and you’re most welcome to), please use this one.
Addit: 03/04/13 – Another excellent post from Maryam Namazi, Why An International Day to Defend Amina?
Addit: 20/09/13 – Just realised that I didn’t link to the second Reddit r/atheism thread that my photo was posted on, here. I participated in the commentary there also.
Well. I have been incredibly busy catching up with uni work after taking a break over the holiday season and have not been able to find the time to write a blog post for a couple of weeks now. As I don’t like to go for too long without putting something up here, have this:
I feel very fortunate that my “mummy instinct” is to understand the importance of evidence and reason when making decisions regarding my children’s health and wellbeing.
Please feel free to share this image if you find it entertaining or pertinent to a discussion that you’re having.
Image created using Success Kid template on quickmeme.com.
On Twitter last night (or to be honest, very early this morning), I saw a statement which I took umbrage with and would like to address here.
“Isn’t pseudoscience just a tax on stupidity?”
There are two points that I would like to make in response to the above suggestion.
Firstly, nobody, regardless of their ability to analyse claims made by charlatans and woo-peddlers, deserves to be swindled or to have their health compromised. Nobody deserves to be taken advantage of by liars and thieves. I believe that, barring cases of extreme wilful ignorance, the blame for harm caused by belief in pseudoscience rests squarely on the shoulders of those who propagate it.
Second, to a degree, critical thinking is a learnt skill. We should be mindful of assuming it to be a marker of intelligence, or suggesting that a lack of critical thought denotes a lack of intelligence.
Simon Singh was generous enough to retweet my first point (frankly, I’m honoured – he’s a wise and accomplished person and has put me in some amazing company) and it received a reply from Mark Pentler, who stated,
“that should be the mantra of every skeptic. Educate the masses for the good of the species, not to feel smug”
I agree with Mark’s sentiment. Those of us with the ability to see through deception can use this skill to help others and to take down those who lie and take advantage of the credulous. We can also encourage others to develop the same skills, by which they will be better able to look out for themselves. And while it is satisfying for many reasons to point the finger at a lie and loudly call bullshit, I feel that the greater satisfaction comes from doing good with our faculties, rather than the smugness of being right for it’s own sake.
I am relatively new to skepticism and as such, tend to veer away from making generalised statements regarding such (or, indeed make grand claims regarding my own skepticism – I openly admit to my amateur status), but I’m willing to overlook my hesitation today because I feel that these are points worth making.
Skepticism is a tool. It can be used to protect others and taught to others so that they can protect themselves. The greater the number of people who are empowered by skepticism, the less successful the pushers of pseudoscience will be.
Me on Twitter: @joalabaster