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Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Recently, my observation of Conservapedia has been more pointed than usual because I've been waiting for something. Specifically, I've been waiting for them to notice a recent newspaper article that paints atheists in a rather poor light. And, indeed, I was not disappointed as the demented trolls on that website have, as always, delivered:

For those of you who don't want to expand the pic, I'm drawing your attention to a shitty graphic of the grim reaper with the following text beneath:

Atheist doctors are more likely to hasten death. Hello, I am your atheist doctor. Take two cyanide pills and call me in the morning.

And you might well respond by asking, "What?" Such would be a reasonable reaction, especially if you follow the link for Atheist doctor, thereby ending up with this:

Which includes this fictional* exchange:

Atheist doctor: I think it is time we ended your life now.

Patient: Doctor, I have no health insurance. If I die now, I will never be able to pay you back.

Atheist doctor: Well, upon further deliberation, I think you should fight this condition with every fibre of your being. And if I were you, I would also call my friends and family and ask if they would loan me some money.

And, indeed, we might ask about this degree of whatthefuckery yet again, only then noticing that at the bottom this "essay" is categorized under both "humor" and "satire". I'm fairly sure it actually contains neither, but if there's one thing we've all learned from Left Behind it's that uber-Christians do not necessarily grasp the concept of humor. But I digress... the question is, what the hell are these morons referring to?

Well, they're actually reacting, albeit nonsensically, to a recent article in the Guardian that claims that Atheist doctors are more likely to hasten death. No, really, that's the headline: "Atheist doctors 'more likely to hasten death'". Well that sounds pretty crappy, doesn't it? Yeah, well, the devil is, as always, in the details, and in this case one only has to read the subheading in order to catch their first glimpse of old scratch:

For those of you playing the home game, it reads:

Study finds medics' faith affects care of terminally ill, as hospital clinicians admit 'ethically controversial' decisions

And that's an interesting detail indeed for two reasons. First, it isn't just any patients who may find their deaths hastened, but specifically terminally ill patients. So, in other words, folks who were going to die anyway and quite possibly in horribly painful ways. Many of you can probably guess where this is going. Regardless, however Conservapedia- or even the main headline- might be spinning it, we're not talking about atheist doctors treating a broken leg by taking the patient out back and shooting them in the head.** Second, now the story has shifted somewhat to "ethically controversial" decisions, which is interesting because some people think that blood transfusions are ethically controversial.

In any case, as it turns out the article is based on a survey of more than 8,500 doctors, of whom less than 4,000 participated,*** examining the factors that may lead to different treatment outcomes for terminally ill patients. One of the findings from this study, as the headline suggests, is that religion, or lack thereof, matters:

...doctors who described themselves as "extremely" or "very non-religious" were almost twice as likely to report having taken these kinds of decisions [an ethically controversial decision expected or partly intended to end life] as those with a religious belief.

And all that sounds a bit scary and explains why the headline is screaming that atheist doctors will kill you. The thing is, the story itself contains some other little details that should be mentioned:

Detail one is contained in the third to last paragraph:

The chances of a doctor making an ethically controversial decision expected or partly intended to end life was largely unrelated to the doctor's ethnicity, but was strongly related to his or her specialisation. Specialised doctors in hospitals were almost 10 times as likely to report this than palliative care specialists. [emphasis added]

So, just to sum up: atheists and agnostics are twice as likely to make such decisions as the religious, and the headline screams "Atheist doctors will kill you". On the other hand, specialists in hospitals- regardless of religion- are TEN TIMES more likely to make such decisions as palliative care doctors, and that information is buried at the end of the article. We don't see a headline that reads, "Hospital physicians may hasten death," which would actually capture by far the stronger finding.

Detail two comes in the last paragraph, although I'll concede it's mentioned in passing earlier:

The most religious doctors were significantly less likely than other doctors to have discussed options at the end of life with their patient.

And this is equally interesting to me, because it seems that part of the issue isn't that atheist physicians are wandering around euthanizing patients left and right, but that they differ from their more religious colleagues in giving their patients a choice. The issue isn't that the atheists are going to kill you, but that they at least let you choose how you meet your end when you're terminally ill. And that's a very different kind of situation than we might have been led to believe. Again, the headline might as well have been, "Religious doctors may deny patients' choice" and it would have been equally justified.

Spin is an unavoidable part of modern media but is it too much to ask for just a touch of fairness?****

* You might ask how I know it's a fictional exchange. And to that I would simply respond, are you f-ing kidding me? Did you read that shit?

** Although, if I'm not mistaken, some HMOs do include that on their list of pre-approved treatments.

*** That would be a response rate of no better than about 47%, so we should be aware of the possibility of selection bias here.

**** I have, on occasion, heard religious folks complain that any time a priest of religious person is depicted on television they are almost invariably a serial killer or pedophile. I think this is actually a somewhat fair complaint, but I would also observe that this is probably because the juxtaposition of a generally positively-regarded trait with something negative (i.e. religion with violence) is gripping to the viewer. Or, to put things more simply, "dog bites man" is common, but "man bites dog" is news. Given that the Guardian is a paper based in the UK, where there are a LOT more atheists than there are here, I'm forced to wonder if the same process is at work- atheists are seen as good people, so the notion that they might hasten death seems interesting. I can only hope so, because here in the US that type of spin would only be part of the general "atheists suck" attitude we've cultivated so efficiently.

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OpenID sassafrasjunction said...

I was just reading Susan Jacoby's Freethinkers last night and this entry reminded me of Roosevelt referring to Thomas Paine as "that filthy little atheist"

No face-palm is too great for Conservapedia.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010 6:04:00 AM  

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