Sunday, 30 November 2008

An excellent article by Ben Goldacre at Bad Science. The gist is that the media this week have been full of stories about the fact that more babies are being born with Down's Syndrome and that this indicates we live in a more warm and caring world. The 'logic' is that since screening is now readily available, more people must be choosing to have children, knowing that they will be born with the condition.

Ben shows that this is nonsense: in fact, there are simply more babies with Down's sydrome being born (probably because people are getting pregnant later in life), with the percentage of people who abort foetuses with the condition remaining constant. It's a very good example of how the media refuse to let facts get in the way of a 'good' story - particularly where science is involved - and probably a better example still of pure journalistic laziness.

Perhaps the more important point is the strange idea that choosing not to abort a foetus with Down's Syndrome is somehow 'warmer' and 'more caring'. Who is to say that parents' decision to abort is uncaring? To be fair, the articles in question seem to be claiming it is society that's becoming more caring (and therefore tolerant of conditions such as Down's) rather than individual parents, but the logic seems to be the same: why should aborting Down's foetuses be automatically regarded as uncaring? The logic escapes me and the conclusion depresses me a little. I'm by no means in favour of indiscriminately aborting foetuses with genetic conditions, but I can't accept that doing so marks individuals or society as uncaring.

Most of the comments to the post are sensible, but one poster seems determined to twist other people's words into an attack they never intended. She (I assume 'she' from the username) says:

“For whatever reason the number of Down Syndrome births rises, it’s good news, because how is someone going to change their views on Down Syndrome, if one never meets a person with it?”

-- The Gonzo Girl

This is startlingly odd logic and others have rightly called her on it:
"Oh, quite. And how can we learn to accept smallpox victims if these meddling WHO people have eradicated the disease?"

-- CDavis
"So… um…. would you be opposed to ANY way of lowering the Down’s Syndrome birth rate? I mean, if it could be done by drinking green tea (or something equally unlikely)?"
-- The Nameless
The Gonzo Girl seems unable to distinguish between eradicating the disease and eradicating people who have it:
"And to avoid people like me being seen as a burden, we must be eradicated, as this will make our disabilities more tolerable.
Is this what you call logic?
And why are you mentioning green tea?"

If you think mental retardation is as bad as smallpox, you should work on your own intellectual deficits."

-- The Gonzo Girl
This is an astonishing reply because it seems to misunderstand the points being made so comprehensively. They are just arguing that an increase in the number of people with a debilitating condition is not necessarily and of itself a good thing. Why this argument should even have to be made is beyond me.

CDavis also says:
"What happens when the - predominantly older - parents are no longer around to exercise their improved caring and warmth?"
-- CDavis
Again, this seems like a good point. CDavis is pointing out that the decision to not abort a Down's foetus is not necessarily the most caring one in the long run. However, The Gonzo Girl takes exception to this too and throws in some Godwin to boot:
"Oh, I see, only people, who can support themselves have a right to exist then.
I’ve heard that argument before, from the senior citicens in my country.
I’m German, you see."
-- The Gonzo Girl
CDavis didn't say that at all, of course. He/she has said nothing at all about anyone's 'right to exist' (whatever that even means).

I don't mean to seem like I'm picking on The Gonzo Girl. I just wanted to share this as an example of how people who have already made up their minds on an issue can see just about any vaguely contrary position as an outright, personal attack. In fact, she is the one making unpleasant personal attacks, such as questioning people's intelligence and comparing them to Nazis.

This dogmatic behaviour is common in the religious and otherwise superstitious. Not only do they refuse to listen to anyone with a different point of view, but they see even the attempt as a personal attack. It's depressing.

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