Abort! Abort! Abetz, Abortions, Breast Cancer and Science Denialism

Two nights ago (7 August 2014), Senator Eric Abetz, leader of the Australian Government in the Senate, appeared on television to defend his involvement in the World Congress of Families conference to be held in Melbourne soon.

He was asked a simple question: whether he believes the view promoted by one of the speakers at the conference that there is a link between abortions and breast cancer. The footage can be viewed here.

He starts his response by referring to studies dating back from the 1950s that assert that there is a link between the two. When challenged about the scientific invalidity of those findings, he defends his previous statement on grounds that the host making the assertion (Mia Freedman) is not qualified to argue about the science.

When it is put to Mr Abetz that it is not Ms Freedman’s opinion, but that of the Australian Medical Association, he points to other associations with a differing view and retreats to the “I’m not an expert” trench, a wholly inappropriate strategy for someone with political power and the ability to be fully informed about such an issue before the interview.

The following morning Mr Abetz released a statement denying media reports that he believes that there is a link. He then says that although he doesn’t endorse all views held by all speakers at the conference and the speaker at the conference promoting the link (Dr Lanfranchi) is a qualified surgeon with the right to express an opinion.

Dr Lanfranchi is an advocate of the “The Pill Kills” movement, one of the pro-life groups desperate to find a scientific basis on which they can promote their beliefs. These groups cherry-pick reports that agree with or bolster their beliefs and promote those reports without any care about their reliability. Personal tastes on sexuality and equality by themselves are going to be difficult to impose on the rest of the community. But if the impartial authority of the scientific process can be bent to promote those tastes, a more rational argument can be made as to why individuals and governments should share them.

The truth is not sought. What is sought is the authority of an article published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, devoid of any of the criticisms that have been levelled at it or the conclusions reached by more reliable studies. Scientists and doctors are not beyond reproach for falling victim to their own bias. Caution must be used when evaluating the opinion of experts touting a scientific basis for their moral world views, even if it is published in a journal.

Reliable cohort studies that avoid the biases either cultivated or unwittingly included in self-reporting studies (such as this one) conclude that there is no link between abortions and breast cancer.

There is significant harm caused by championing authorities to promote a debunked view. The harm fall on those who find themselves in the position where an abortion is being considered and information is being sought on the risks of the procedure.

But the greatest harm must be to the credibility of Senator Abetz and his fellow legislators who continuously fail to act on facts supported by impartial scientific enquiry and instead deferring to opinion promoted by interest groups.

I don’t believe these politicians are credulous fools. Their stupidity on scientific subjects is a smokescreen to their true beliefs, beliefs that they will defend in the face of overwhelming contradictory evidence.

I presume Mr Abetz has advisors able to inform him of the science on this issue. I presume that he knew what he was appearing on The Project to discuss this issue. I presume that a person representing the interests of all those in his electorate will seek the truth and act on it even where it conflicts with his own personal tastes.

Instead his first response to the question about his view on a discredited opinion was to begin reciting the authority on which the opinion is based.

Mr Abetz, you do not need to be a scientist to have an understanding of what conclusions have been reached by reliable scientific enquiry. You know that the opinion you are defending has been discredited by reliable scientific enquiry. You claim that you do not endorse the discredited opinion, but are yet to specifically state that you disagree with it. And to attempt to end the criticism levelled at you by relying on freedom of Dr Lanfranchi to express her opinion shows just how clumsy your attempts to withhold your true beliefs from the public really are.

Mr Abetz must clarify his position on whether he agrees with the assertion that there is a link between abortions and breast cancer as his statement does not clarify it. The same issue should be put all politicians attending the World Congress of Families:

  • Robert Clark – Victorian Attorney-General
  • Kevin Andrews – Federal Social Services Minister
  • Cory Bernardi – Federal Senator
  • Bernie Finn – Victorian Member of the Legislative Assembly

Given the propensity of politicians such as Mr Abetz to cling to their opinion when there is a differing fact, all politicians should be required, even by their own ethics, to disclose the realities with which they disagree.



Portland Wave Energy Project – Cancelled

Unfortunately, the Wave Energy Project off the coast of Portland I posted a report on recently has been cancelled.

Although I expressed some concern about the ability of the project to meet energy production targets, I was looking forward to seeing the project in operation and developing a better knowledge of wave power production.


Quantitative assessment of the proposed wave energy demonstration farm off the coast of Portland, Victoria

The attached report is another that I wrote as part of my studies and which I thought may be of interest.

It is an assessment of the viability of a wave energy farm off the coast of my home town Portland, Victoria, Australia.

The proposed wave energy farm is being developed using buoys which rise and fall with the passing waves. The heaving of the buoy, which consists of a stationary lower section under the water and an upper section moving up and down, in turn drives a mechanical generator.

One of the problems with the viability of wave energy technology is that the current devices tend to have optimum wave height and frequency ranges; the further away conditions are from ideal, the greater the drop in the efficiency of energy production. Ocean conditions are highly variable and difficult to predict.

Fortunately, immediately prior to researching the project Sustainability Victoria had just finished compiling 2 years worth of wave height and frequency data at a location not far from where the project is planned to be installed. The plethora of wave data in the area of the project allowed a reasonably detailed analysis of average wave height and frequency and standard deviations on either side of the average. January and June were selected as months providing an indication of wave conditions in summer and winter conditions and data from those months were analysed to get an idea of the range of conditions that the buoys would encounter.

My conclusion raised concerns about the particular buoys to be used combined with the variability of conditions being able to efficiently convert the energy stored in the passing waves into electrical energy.

Qualitative assessment of wave energy demonstration farm off Portland, Victoria

Sustainable Dairy Farming – Eutrophication and Greenhouse Gas Mitigation

This is my first foray into posting a paper that I originally produced for my studies, something I hinted at doing in a previous post.

This paper was written as part of a subject exploring the human effect on the natural environment.

I chose to explore the prospect of sustainable dairy farming; particularly, the obstacles top sustainability created by nutrient run-off from dairy farms into waterways (eutrophication) and greenhouse gas emissions.

Although focusing on dairy farming, parts of the paper are applicable to other farming activities.

Preconceived ideas as to who will have any interest in this work, I have none. Hopefully, someone will gain some ideas of the scale of these two problems and possible practical solutions, and be able to put the paper to use.

I would be glad to receive any comments.


Sustainable Dairy Farming – Eutrophication and Greenhouse Gas Mitigation

Lies, Damn Lies and Killing Sharks (Part 1)

On 15 January 2014 Greg Hunt, the Commonwealth Environment minister, approved a request by the Western Australian Government to be exempted from the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999 (Cth) so that it could proceed with plans to set up 72 baited drum lines in order to cull white sharks, tiger sharks and bull sharks greater than 3 metres long. The exemption is required due to the listing of those species being listed as threatened species.

The predominant reasons for granting the exemption were:

1. A statistically significant increase in shark attack strikes in Western Australia in the years 2010 to 2013 compared to population increase;

2. As a result of point 1, people are scared of entering the water and there is anecdotal evidence of tourist businesses suffering financially;

3. The proposed cull will reduce the incidence of shark attacks and will provide useful information to other states in dealing with the same problem;

4. The Western Australian government have implemented measures to reduce the risk of death to other sea life from the exercise; and

5. It is in the national interest (due to points 1 to 3 above) for the cull to be allowed, and therefore within the class of reasons the EPBC Act gives as being the basis for an exemption to be allowed.

1. Statistically significant rise in shark attacks

At the outset, I am not formally trained in statistics and have only learned small sections of statistical analysis in passing. I would be grateful for any comments from those with greater knowledge about my analysis and conclusions.

The assertion made is that, when adjusted for population increase over time, the number of shark attacks has risen by a statistically significant degree. The paper this is based on (here) doesn’t provide the population or shark attack numbers used. However, a comparison between graphs on pages 10 and 11 of that paper (showing frequency of attacks per year and frequency of attacks per year per 100,000 people respectively) don’t show any major distortion. On the basis of this lack of distortion, my analysis will use the non adjusted figure of shark attacks per year, which I have obtained from the Shark Attack File.

However, before doing so, one variable not taken taken into account for which it could be argued must be accounted for in order to properly analyse the data, is any increase in average time spent per person in the ocean. Such a variable could result in an increased number of attack incidents due to the same number of people entering the water, the same number of sharks in the water, but an increase in the chance the two will interact.

Below is my tabling of shark attack data over the past 30 years extracted from the Shark Attack File. The data represents number of people injured per attack. Therefore, there may be incidents where one incident injures two people. Further, I’ve attempted to remove all reports listed as a hoax or reports where a shark has been caught in Australian waters with human parts found in their stomach contents (therefore not necessarily an incident which has occurred in Western Australia), but I cant guarantee that all instances of such data points have been completely removed.

One other point to note is the greater number of reports of minor incidents in the later years of the data. Data in the earlier years appears to be limited to incidents with either very serious or fatal outcomes, while there are greater reports of minor incidents or incidents where no injury is reported in the last decade or so. This may be a common finding in databases reliant on the reporting of events which are gaining increased importance or scrutiny for some particular reason. This skewing of the data can lead to false trends being extracted from it.

Incidents Fatalities Incidents Fatalities
2013 18 3 7 2
2012 22 3 7 2
2011 18 5 6 3
2010 16 2 5 2
2009 30 0 5 0
2008 18 2 3 1
2007 18 2 2 0
2006 12 1 2 0
2005 17 2 2 1
2004 16 4 6 1
2003 9 1 3 0
2002 12 3 1 0
2001 13 1 3 0
2000 18 5 2 1
1999 2 1 0 0
1998 4 2 0 0
1997 10 2 3 1
1996 15 1 2 0
1995 7 1 2 1
1994 3 1 1 0
1993 7 3 1 0
1992 6 1 0 0
1991 7 1 2 0
1990 8 1 0 0
1989 12 2 1 0
1988 7 3 1 0
1987 4 2 1 0
1986 5 0 2 0
1985 2 1 0 0
1984 3 1 1 0

Given the assertion about shark attacks being significant above the average in the years 2010 to 2013, I’ve decided to use the chi-squared test to assess the statistical significance of the number of attacks over those 4 years compared to the average of the proceeding 26 years (1.77 incidents per year):

Year Expected Average ( E ) Observed Number ( O ) O – E = D D²/E
2010 1.77 5 3.23 10.4329 5.8942937853
2011 1.77 6 4.23 17.8929 10.1089830508
2012 1.77 7 5.23 27.3529 15.4536158192
2013 1.77 7 5.23 27.3529 15.4536158192
      Sum D²/E   46.9105084746
      Degrees of freedom = 3    

A chi-squared value of 46.91 with three degrees of freedom gives an absurdly high, statistically significant p value of much less than 0.05, meaning that the likelihood of the increased number of shark incidents in those years could occur by chance alone is less than 5% (this is the level considered to give high enough confidence for the null hypothesis, such as “shark attack incidents per year remain static, to be rejected). This does not mean that shark incidents are definitely increasing, or that there is some underlying cause for an increase in shark incidents (such as a greater number of sharks in the ocean).

There may well be a better way of analysing this data than the chi-squared test given we are using a yearly data set and the chi-squared value I got being extremely high (and I’m open to suggestions in the comments).

There is a further assertion in the exemption statement that the increase in average attacks from 1995 on-wards is also made. Whether this is correct or not is not my main concern.

My concern with basing public policy on statistical analysis of this data is that the low number of attacks per year means any analysis will be of low statistical power. With such a low average number of attacks per year figure and a sampling of a small number of years to compare to the long term average, small deviations above or below the average can result in a statistically significant, but none-the-less erroneous, conclusion. Similar problems arise in medical trials when small sample sizes can lead to either significant improvements in effectiveness of, say, a specific treatment, not being found to be statistically significant, or, as in this case, statistical significance is found in a sample set which, after a few more years worth of data is collected, could yet be seen to be no more than a ‘blip’ in the data based on chance alone (see here, which I found to be useful in explaining the difficulties in making positive assertions about statistical significance test in large sample sizes and small sample sizes equally, and about drawing conclusions for analysis of single data sets by themselves).

Further, debate continues about the ability reliably draw conclusions based on a statistically significant finding from a single or small number of experiments or trials – how reproducible the result is is a greater determinant of whether the statistics are describing an event or occurrence that is really occurring, as does the debate about whether some tests are actually useful in drawing meaningful conclusions from otherwise good data. See here, here, here for example.

Statistical analysis is an extremely useful tool to study a given hypothesis and be able to draw conclusions as to the probably that an effect shown in the data gathered is due due to chance alone. But these tools are subject to limitations. The presentation of statements about statistical significance give undue legitimacy to policy decisions where the limitations to the analysis are not provided or explained.

2. Effect on people entering the water and on tourism businesses

Statistics are given of the number of holiday makers to Western Australia, how many intend to enter the water and what percentage of the State’s economy comes from tourism. A further generalised assertion that “There is substantial public concern about the safety of water based activities in Western Australia, and anecdotal evidence that the frequency of shark strikes is impacting on businesses in Western Australia”, and this is followed by a report of report of dive business saying that it had had a 90% drop in people wanting to learn to dive.

If the improper use of data and statistics is the failing in attempting to give legitimacy to the assertion that there is problem with shark attack frequency, then the lack of legitimate, grounded, provable evidence of these asserted problems is the failing with this trumping up of the effects of the ‘problem’.

One would be excused for thinking that the application for exemption has been put forward by people have done no more than read the newspapers and searched holiday stats from their own tourism department website to create a narrative it could use to promote the plan.

The real difficulty with realistic concern about increasing shark safety is the ‘zero infinity problem‘ – the chance of it happening to any particular person is so low that it barely warrants concern, but the effect on the victim if it does occur are infinite (in a non-mathematical sense of that term). To, at least in part, base policy decisions with likely deleterious effects on a population of any living thing by playing on heightened concern of something so unlikely to happen, and then in turn superimpose that on financial reasons, must be considered poor leadership.


Reliance on these two factors to support such a move as actively killing threatened species is significantly flawed. Statements about the statistical significance of a problem on minimal data points, followed by generalised statements of the effect of the problem with no proper basis in evidence, cannot pass as being reasonable premises to infer that action must be taken, let alone the mode of action to be taken.

John Spooner – A cartoonist’s view of climate change

I read this commentary piece by John Spooner in the Age on 29 December 2012 with utter bemusement at the logic used.

Somewhat hastily, I wrote a letter to the editor that day as follows:

“John Spooner’s opinion piece “Sceptics weather the storm to put their case on climate” employs all the same logical fallacies and misstatements of fact that look and feel like scientific scepticism as the heroes he portrays throughout his piece do.

Beginning the article with the unfulfilled Mayan end of the world prophecy adhered to by only the ardent of true believers of such pseudo science to introduce his readers to his list unfulfilled prophecies of climate scientists will surely only lure in the most gullible readers.

To then provide his list of evidence to his readers, the “jurors” of his trial of climate change science, so that a verdict may be handed down in the same way as the judicial process does, is nothing but a false analogy. He presents his expert witnesses on the question to sway the jurors. Unfortunately for him, if this were a real trial, his experts would be ruled inadmissible for lack of expertise on the question being tried. He has effectively brought a psychic to present expert opinion on DNA evidence.

For instance, apparently “everybody agrees that the warming trend paused 16 years ago”. Assuming the MET office data and the original journalism on this issue has not been read by Mr Spooner, I can only suggest he and others look at the data properly, and take a truly scientific (read “truly sceptical”) view of how it can be concluded that warming has stopped from it. Cherry picking data so that it appears how you want it to appear is not scepticism, it is to hold onto a belief or point of view – something not at all scientific or sceptical.

As for the failings of the scientists themselves in the so-called “climate gate” scandal, these “god is in the gaps” arguments only serve as a straw man and deflect attention from the real data, and fail to report the outcomes of every investigation, either of the scientists themselves or the data and conclusions that they have contributed to this issue.

For anyone willing to truly make a decision on where the weight of evidence lies, well over 30 years of predictions and massive amounts of data can be found online in trusted journals by proper climate scientists. Make a decision from the data and the science itself, not from unscientific viewpoints on either side of the belief scale, and not from a cartoonist and his merry band of non-climate scientists.

Cameron Tout”

The letter didn’t get published (it may have been over the 200 word limit and was definitely not as eloquent as other letters with the same view that were published), but a great response was published on 7 January 2013 by Roy Robbins-Browne of Melbourne Uni, which is definitely worth reading in detail.

Although it delves into ulterior motives of Mr Spooner and using minority opinion to inform public policy, it also comments on the often used “16 years of no warming” argument (usually used by Andrew Bolt and like-minded commentators) that Spooner used, and Craig Kelly used in his article I commented on earlier, and how such tactics of cherry picking data is used by those attempting to frame the evidence to their own belief.

Robbins-Browne also explains in the limited space he had the complicated process that is the scientific method and how it is used to advance what we understand about the world around us. It is this process that anyone wanting to investigate the basis of human knowledge in any area of science must be aware of and understand, and it is the avoidance of participating in this process, and instead using the media or other outlet to publish an opinion, that must set the context for any such piece that proposes an alternative to scientific consensus.