Aug 8, 2014

Rundle: Abetz and the sleazy switch from moral campaign to scientific irrationalism

Eric Abetz says there is a demonstrated link between abortion and breast cancer (he now says he didn't, despite it airing on national television). Won't anyone stand up for science anymore?

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


Good god, government watching these days is turning into an Augean stables-type gig. No sooner have we had the unveiling of Team Australia, the call to suspend debate and dissent, the co-option of the dead, the 40 jobs a month farrago, than we now have Senator Eric Abetz reviving that most discredited of charges: the spurious, discredited and mendacious suggestion of a link between abortion and breast cancer. Revived by Abetz on The Project last night, the abortion-breast cancer hypothesis -- the suggestion that having an abortion results in a higher risk for breast cancer -- has a long history in Australia. One of its decade-long champions has been Babette Francis, chair of the Endeavour Forum, one of the myriad of quasi-independent front groups set up around Bob Santamaria and the National Civic Council in the 1970s, and hosts of the World Congress on Families conference, where this stuff will be aired. The Australian anti-abortion movement latched onto the abortion-breast cancer hypothesis more strongly than elsewhere for one simple reason -- abortion, once it began to be de facto decriminalised in Australia, steadily acquired substantial public support. In the United States, it’s at the centre of the culture wars; in Australia, by the '90s, it was decisively shoved to one side. The anti-abortion lobby was then faced with a choice -- they could stick to their guns and maintain their religious-ethical objects without hope of victory, or engage in subterfuge and propaganda. Guess which? The abortion-breast cancer hypothesis had emerged in the late 1950s in Japan, but began to be examined more systematically in the 1980s, based on rat studies. The proposed mechanism was that pregnancy and raised oestrogen levels stimulate the growth of breast cells, which remain immature when the pregnancy is terminated, thus exposing them to higher risk of cell mutation. While full-term pregnancy does associate with a lower risk of breast cancer, there is no higher risk of breast cancer from abortion, relative to non-pregnancy. Much of the work done to put the hypothesis front and centre was led by a single endocrinologist, anti-abortion campaigner Joel Brind, who banged the drum for it through the 1980s and into the '90s. Brind published a meta-analysis of research in 1996 and used it to claim a significant correlation. Though the research was found to be widely flawed, it became the core of a new push for an abortion-breast cancer link. Following the non-crediting of his 1996 research, Brind set up the Breast Cancer Prevention Institute with Dr Angela Lanfranchi, who’s speaking at the Melbourne conference. The continued agitation for a link -- ultimately taken up by the Dubya administration -- led to a 2003 US National Cancer Institute conference on the matter, in which 99 of 100 experts agreed that no link was demonstrated. The dissenter was ... Joel Brind. That does not mean no more research should be done on this, or any, line, but the absence of evidence for any correlation means that, as a principle of public medical practice, the debate is over unless new evidence should emerge. Brind et al’s evidence/interpretation has been demolished as anything that could give reasonable ground for an alternative hypothesis or model of practice. Eric Abetz is now trying to wiggle out of the remarks he made on The Project -- using the Tony Abbott model of denying blind what you’re caught on tape saying, and hoping that News Corp will muddy the waters for you. It worked in the election, stopped working soon after that, and doesn’t have a hope in hell with The Project’s audience. The truth is that Abetz is using the irrationalist, anti-science model of reasoning that the Right has adopted for climate change denial -- and which is spreading to their whole approach to science. Science of the type that involves mass epidemiological studies generates many easily falsifiable hypotheses and relatively fewer useful but as-yet unfalsified ones (which is the closest physical science gets to verification). So stray or fleeting correlations can always be found, but if they do not show systemic or repeatable effects, they offer literally nothing by way of describing a real-world process. The scepticism that right-wing irrationalists use (one correlation equals an unproven hypothesis) is pre-scientific, in that it takes the sceptical 18th-century philosophy of David Hume and others -- who argued that there can be no proven correlation between anything -- which had to be transcended in order for scientific method to have grounding. Abetz and others latch onto scepticism when it suits, and then go to the doctor and shape their whole health regime around the exact opposite practice -- consolidated science, based on overwhelming and repeated evidence. Whether someone like Abetz knows he is even doing this is doubtful. One of the appeals of the breast cancer-abortion hypothesis to religious fundamentalists is that it suggests an embedded punishment for those who seek an abortion -- or for those who have abortions without later having children. The sleazy switch from a moral campaign against abortion to a pseudo-scientific one is thus rationalised at a deeper level. There is neither desire nor even ability to question one’s own deep and disabling bias -- instead, as for a rat in a political Skinner box, a spurious phenomenon that suggests the world works exactly as you picture it and provides a pleasure burst, and on you go. Let people run whatever crackpot congress they like. But once again one asks -- are there no members of the "Liberal" Party, always ready to talk about the "religion of the Greens" -- who will talk back to an anti-scientific irrationalism that is now returning to its natural home on the Right?

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48 thoughts on “Rundle: Abetz and the sleazy switch from moral campaign to scientific irrationalism

  1. klewso

    I’ve heard that believing what Limited News tells you leads to levophobia?

  2. Electric Lardyland

    Yes, and in Bravenewtonyworld, there is no correlation between what I said and what I said. And anybody who says that there is, is not a member of Team Australia.

  3. Shaun Cunniffe

    I agree, Abetz can be a bit of a clown, however, in this case he is being mis-reported.

    I note that you don’t give the details of the conversation in which you alledge he said he believes the link between abortion and breast cancer. According to the ABC it went …

    Freedman: “What about the fact that one of the speakers at this conference promotes the factually incorrect statement that abortion leads to breast cancer. Do you believe that?”

    Abetz: “I think the studies, and I think they date back from the 1950s, assert that there is a link between abortion and breast cancer.”

    Freedman: “It is conclusively and scientifically incorrect in the same way that linking immunisations and autism are incorrect. So when this scientific non-information is being put out there, how can you be comfortable being part of something that promotes this non-science?”

    Abetz: “Well I don’t know what your scientific expertise is to be able to run that commentary, I must confess I don’t have that … ”
    Freedman: “It’s not me. It’s the Australian Medical Association.”

    Abetz: “Well there are other organisations that have differing views as some of these speakers are clinical professors … ”

    He is simply saying that some people who can be influential do believe it. He did not say he believed it. He didn’t deny it; he didn’t say it though.

    I agree with the AMA guy on Triple-J this morning who pointed out that the research is from the 1950’s and should be treated as such, because we have learnt a lot since then on this subject.

    Please don’t “Murdoch” Crikey by ranting on about what you think someone should or should not say or do, you’re a news service, not a religion.

  4. Tamas Calderwood

    “So stray or fleeting correlations can always be found, but if they do not show systemic or repeatable effects, they offer literally nothing by way of describing a real-world process.”

    Say… like our CO2 emissions and global warming? Record emissions and no sign of any systematic or repeatable effect on the world’s temperature for the past 15 years.

    Is it irrationalist and anti-science to point out that the temperature data simply don’t fit with the global warming hypothesis?

  5. JohnB

    “Whether someone like Abetz knows he is even doing this is doubtful.”

    Is anything that Eric Abetz “knows” not doubtful?

    Name one example. This miserable excuse of a Federal Minister has set a new low, far below the achievements of those who he criticises.

    The Libs will need to replace more than a few of their current crew if they wish to retain office in a couple of years’ time. Since they seem to have difficulty managing their own preselections, here are a few for starters.

    Eric Abetz
    Tony Abbott, for obvious reasons,
    Warren Truss,
    Christopher Pyne,
    Julie Bishop, who the Chinese refer to as “the fool”,
    Bronwyn Bishop, who deserves Julie’s nickname,
    Phil Ruddock,
    Greg Hunt, the environmental vandal,
    Scott Morrisson, the Minister for Cruelty to Refugees,
    Mathias Cormann,
    Andrew Robb,
    Ian McFarlane,
    Kevin Andrews, another outright religious nutter.

    Who’d want any one of this baker’s dozen as a neighbour, let alone as their parliamentary representative?

  6. Sir Leigh Curmudgeon

    Good lord Guy, we all know that old Betsy is a ninny but we of the old school have to win our arguments somehow. The ladies should just do as they are told as they did in the good old days of yore.

  7. Steven Grant Haby


    You left out Dopey Dutton as well.


  8. michael dwyer

    For some strange reason the Brind research does not appear to cover women with miscarriages, who seriously outnumber those with induced abortions. Is breast cancer rare amongst virgins?

  9. David Camfield

    It takes 10 years to get a PhD, and another 10 years to establish a respected scientific career for a reason.

    This government is a massive insult to every scientist in Australia.

  10. Guy Rundle

    Tamas! You’re back!

    The Co2/temperature isn’t fleeting or stray. It’s the exact opposite of such. The two graphs match each so tightly that the only way to falsify AGW is to find a better explanation for this correlation and causality. It’s the minor variation in warming that you guys like to cite, that is the stray data, amplified by applying a limited time frame

    As well you know.

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