A blog about science, medicine, media and the ramblings of Irish hack....

Friday, July 5, 2013

Fun and frolics with the Iona Institute

Last week I had an Irish Times piece on the misrepresentation of research by religious conservatives, which generated quite a bit of a response. I am firmly of the belief that anyone is entitled to whichever religious or irreligious views they like - if someone is opposed to same sex marriage or abortion on grounds of their faith, I respect their right to feel that way and hold those beliefs. But I have little truck for those who try to force their beliefs upon others, and especially those who misrepresent research in a cynical attempt to scaremonger and fortify their religious standpoint. This is essence is what the piece was about; perhaps inevitably, I highlighted some Irish examples of this from the Iona institute. They have taken the liberty of replying, and this piece contains a retort to some of their points.

First off, the piece itself: as with any Irish Times thread relating to abortion or religion, the comment thread became a flame war; it hit 517 comments rapidly before commenting was suspended. It probably goes without saying that is an editorial decision by the paper - of course even if I was to know of the legal or moderation issues which lead to this decision, I would not be liberty to discuss it. Rather annoyingly, there were an awful lot who seem to think that *I* have the authority to demand that comment threads be pulled from a national newspaper: this is charming, but false. It didn't stop a barrage of e-mails, tweets, and facebook messages accusing me of all sorts. Like...

Oddly,  this same individual was on a DIFFERENT IT thread a few days later, telling everyone who would listen that I had got the comment section pulled because I was afraid of his brilliant arguments. *facepalm*

Ah my old nemesis anonymous egg - still unable to distinguish between a liberal / libertarian / librarian

Sadly, in reality I have no control over the bottom part of the Internet. I have a simple policy when it comes to comment threads on my articles: I try to keep my interactions to a minimum, and only comment to clarify a point if it is ambiguous or being deliberately misconstrued. Despite the abandoning of the comment section, the piece was popular and was retweeted by several high profile folks like Richard Dawkins and Dr. Jen Gunter. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the Iona institute responded not one, but twice: In a strange postscript to an unrelated article, Breda O'Brien wrote:

"PS. David Robert Grimes, in an article on Wednesday, accused me of misusing research by Dr David Fergusson into the effects of abortion on women’s mental health. Did he miss the clarification on Morning Ireland on May 9th by Cathal Mac Coille stating that Dr Fergusson expressed no unhappiness whatsoever with how the Iona Institute has presented his research? As for his allegation that David Quinn effectively misused research about the effects of different family forms on children, may I suggest he reads David’s article in the current issue of The Village? That will set him straight. "

This is laughable; I accused Ms O'Brien of both misrepresenting AND cherry-picking; Ferguson is on record as complaining about such abuses of his work and a legal statement from some Irish radio-host (who I never mentioned in the article, incidentally) doesn't change that one iota. All that suggests is the Iona institute have very good lawyers. Moreover, I accused Ms O'Brien of ignoring the scientific consensus, cherry-picking to suit her religious conviction, which she continues to do here with aplomb and merely re-iterates the entire point of my original article And why in Christ's name would David Quinn's opinion on family matter? Has he recently been conducting peer-reviewed research? No. Has he misrepresented research in the past? Certainly. This is precisely the problem I wrote about and it is one that continues unabated here. Even more bizarrely, John Murray (also of the Iona institute) dedicates an entire piece to me, but has insurmountable problems keeping even a semblance of logical consistency:

"He says her “championing of this study is textbook cherry-picking” that can’t stand up to “even a cursory examination”. Frankly, it is Dr Grimes’s accusation that doesn’t stand up to a cursory examination..Previously, Breda had correctly summarised the study in her column in this newspaper. Fergusson et al , she wrote, “decided to examine the research in order to ascertain whether there were any mental health benefits to abortion. The findings are stark: ‘at the present time there is no credible scientific evidence demonstrating that abortion has mental health benefits' ... So Breda never claimed this study shows “abortion damages women”. Dr Grimes should have checked his facts first."

Let's pretend for a moment Ms O'Brien has 'correctly summarised' the study (a charitable stretch, but play along with me for a moment here...): she has STILL used this to imply something which is at best irrelevant and totally misleading: Ms O'Brien's original argument (viewable here)  was an utterly disingenuous straw-man of an argument; the evidence suggests abortion is not damaging to a woman's mental health, but there is PLENTY of evidence that denying women a choice IS damaging, and it is something O'Brien ignores either out of ignorance or because she is aware it would fatally cripple her argument. Moreover, the vast majority of women who opt for an abortion do not regret it (Fergusson 2008, Munk Olsen 2011, JHU 2008, RCP 2011)  further eroding O'Brien's weasel words. Surely if the Iona institute were so concerned with research, they'd have quoted the 2012 Lancet study which found women in areas where access to abortion is limited actually have a higher proportion of abortions and far more unsafe abortions (Sedgh et al 2012)?  In either case such questionable reading of Fergusson's admittedly limited research IS cherry-picking. I'll include a definition here just in case anyone from the Iona institute bothers to read this. Murray continues, undaunted:

"Based on research to date, we simply cannot say with any real precision how children raised by same-sex couples are faring. Until sufficient good- quality research is conducted, we must withhold judgment and not even consider redefining marriage, which is so valuable as our most child-centred social institution."

Non-Sequitur alert: re-defining marriage for whom? Why would same sex couples getting married make an a modicum of difference to the marriage of others? Nor is this a point I ever made: I merely challenged Quinn for MISQUOTING research with the intention to mislead. Nor was I the only person to do so. The research to date is actually pretty convincing, with over 150 studies providing a good basis for comparison. What Dr. Murray is doing here is simply what other opponents of LGBT have done for quite some time. In any case, one twitter user hit the nail on the head;

Paul makes a good point: Most people in favour of same sex marriage do so on human right grounds.It is a happy bonus that contrary to Murray's assertion, the evidence is pretty clear that if children are involved, they fare equally well raised by same-sex parents. The whole "defending marriage" and "re-defining marriage" are poorly founded tangents betraying a certain attitude: marriage is not just about raising kids. This mindset is at the root of such contrivances. At the risk of repeating myself, I make this abundantly clear in the original piece:

If the Iona Institute want to oppose same sex marriage and abortion on religious grounds, I'm all for it - that is their right, and one I would never begrudge them. But I re-iterate, it is not alright to ignore the scientific consensus and misrepresent research to bolster their views and scaremonger people into supporting them. Surely if their religious conviction is strong enough, they don't require secular validation anyway? The scientific consensus is that abortion does not damage a woman's mental health and that the vast majority of women do not regret their abortions; similarly, the evidence to date suggests strongly kids fare just fine when raised with loving single-sex couples. Religious conservatives may still disagree with both trends, and that is their right - but when they engage in cynical attempts to paint the research as somehow bolstering their viewpoint, it erodes their own moral position drastically.

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