Recognizing bias

This post will not deal with statistics (I know, 3 posts in and I’m already breaking with my proposed theme), though it does have to do with one of the reasons I think we let bad stats persuade us. Once we make our mind up about an issue, it seems all too easy to just take anything that conforms to our view of reality as true without any real verification.  If I intend to blog about others drawing dubious conclusions, I figure it is only fair that I point out when I do it as well.

It should surprise no one that this started with social media.  Yesterday I saw a post or tweet linking to a story about Idaho representative Vito Barbieri asking if a woman could swallow a camera for a remote gynecological exam.  Here is an example of one such article1. I fell for it hook, line, and sinker.

What I should have done is tried to find the hearing transcript or video of the testimony.  Instead, I had no problem believing that a white, male, Republican from a conservative state would say something that showed such a profound lack of knowledge of the female body, ala Todd Akin.  I also made the requisite snarky comments on the internet.  Had I bothered to do my research, here is what I would have found:

The hearing in question was on Idaho House Bill 154.  The stated purpose of House Bill 154 is as follows:

This legislation requires a physician to conduct an in-person examination and counseling of a pregnant woman prior to prescribing abortion-inducing drugs.

The issue here was purportedly one of safety 2. As part of the hearing, Dr. Julie Madsen testified opposing the bill and part of her testimony was about the relative safety of abortions.  Her full testimony can be heard here starting at ~1:15:49. Part of her argument was that abortions were much less risky than even colonoscopies, which are generally considered to be a safe procedure.  Here is where all the controversy started.  At 1:27:20 Rep. Barbieri appeared to be trying to make the point that comparing colonoscopies to pharmaceutical abortions was not a valid comparison3 and so he asked the following:

You mentioned the risk of colonoscopy, can that be done by drugs?

Dr. Madsen, wanting to bring up an applicable corollary to telemedicine answered as follows:

Mr. Chairman, Representative Barbieri – it cannot be done by drugs. It can however be done remotely, where you swallow a pill and this pill has a little camera and it makes its way through your intestines, and those images are uploaded to a doctor who is often thousands of miles away who then interprets that.

It was here that Barbieri found an opportunity to make a point that this whole issue was really about safety.  One of the supposed risks of allowing doctors to prescribe abortion drugs through telemedicine is that if a doctor is not there to monitor the patient, there could be excessive bleeding that might go untreated. While, in the case of colonoscopies, a camera pill could be swallowed, there is not an easy way for a patient to get a camera into her own uterus.  So he asked, rhetorically:

Follow up – can this same procedure then be done in a pregnancy? Swallowing a camera and helping the doctor determine what the situation is

At this point, Dr. Madsen delivered her now famous reply:

Mr. Chairman and Representative – it cannot be done in pregnancy, simply because when you swallow a pill, it would not end up in the vagina.

To which Barbieri sarcastically responded:

Fascinating, that certainly makes sense, Doctor.

It was at this point that the internet went into the usual hysterics, which I bought into without hesitation. Now it is one thing to pass this story along without question, but what really disappoints me in this case are the actions of people that knew what actually went on.  In case you can’t tell by some of my earlier comments, my opinions on the issue of abortion are decidedly pro-choice.  As such, I have made donations to Planned Parenthood (as well as abortion access funds).  In this case, however, I find the statement released by Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest to pretty blatantly misrepresent the situation.  If you listen through the rest of the testimony you will hear from Planned Parenthood Idaho Legislative Director Hannah Brass Greer, so we know she was at the hearing.  However, despite knowing what actually happened, here is what she had to say:

Today’s comments demonstrate exactly why politicians should not be in the business of making medical decisions. In Idaho and across the country, women deserve the freedom and privacy to make the private decisions that are best for themselves and their families.  We already knew that these politicians are only interested in restricting access to essential medical services, and after today we can confirm they don’t even have the most basic knowledge of the human body to have an informed opinion. Women deserve better leadership from our elected officials.

To their credit, PPVNW does provide a link to an excerpt of the testimony as well as a brief transcript of what was said, but I still struggle to describe their statement as anything short of deceptive.

My overarching point here is that when looking at evidence on a subject you have a pre-existing opinion of, it is particularly import to verify that the information is actually credible and not just accept it at face value because it agrees with what you already believe to be true.

Oh, and pro-tip to Idaho Republicans.  If you want people to believe your bill is actually about women’s health & safety4 and not just a a thinly veiled attempt to decrease abortion access, in the future you might want to avoid having the bill drafted by the Executive Director of Idaho Chooses Life

  1. I believe the original article I saw was here, however it has since been updated to include some more relevant details
  2. That is pretty clearly bullshit, but I’ll get to that later
  3. The irony here is that the reason why this isn’t a fair comparison is part of the Dr’s point – in general even low risk surgery is likely to be riskier than a properly prescribed prescription
  4. For some reason their concern’s for a women’s safety never seems to consider the risks of pregnancy

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