Media Mischief

It’s nothing new to see science misrepresented in the media. After all, this is one of our biggest battlegrounds as skeptics; trying to educate the public to see beyond sensational headlines to the nuance that often lies beneath.

Bumming around on Twitter this evening, I noticed this article, pointed out by Friend of Skepchick tm The Friendly Atheist himself, Hemant Mehta.

Atheist doctors ‘more likely to hasten death’

It warns. The subtitle is even worse:

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


Seriously, that’s not too much of a stretch. The piece clearly correlates atheist doctors with patient death, then supplies a quote to color this as being unethical and outrageous. Well, interestingly enough, if you read the article, you’ll notice that it has pretty much nothing at all to do with the headline. In fact, I’d say it flat out contradicts the spirit of the headline.

Sarah Boseley, Health Editor for the Guardian newspaper, reports on a survey, published today in the Journal of Medical Ethics, which asked 8500 doctors about their religious attitudes and how they’ve handled end of life care and communication with patients regarding these matters in their practices. Of those, 4000 responded to the survey. I’d love to see the full questionnaire, but unfortunately, I, like most lay people, don’t have access to the journal. (If any of our readers do, please let me know.)

The main focus of this article is on the fact that, according to this survey, doctors self-identifying as atheist or agnostic were twice as likely as their religious counterparts to “take decisions that might shorten the life of somebody who is terminally ill”. Unless there is some vast difference in American and British usage of the word “take”, I read this as meaning that non believing doctors are more likely to discuss and respect the decisions of said patients, not to influence or make those decisions themselves.

Also, the reference to “controversial decisions” in the subtitle is completely twisted. “Hospital clinicians admit controversial decisions”, as though there is some scandal involving mass elder killings. Upon further reading, however, it seems this refers to patients who want to discuss euthanasia or other end of life decisions that some religious people disapprove of; making them “ethically controversial”.

In fact, the way I read this entire article would lead me to a completely different conclusion than the headline seems to come to: Regardless of your particular beliefs, you’re better off with an atheist doctor. Why? Well, to quote the piece itself:

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

Read it a few more times. Let it really sink in.

That’s right. Religious doctors are the ones allowing their beliefs to influence their patients’ care. They were the ones likely to not consult them at all!

A quote from the the author of the cited study further solidifies this as the more reasonable interpretation (as he himself seems to share it):

“It is easy for clinicians to present themselves as neutral appliers of science, but values do come into it,” he said. That is accepted in abortion care, but the issue has not yet been widely discussed in the care of the dying. “I had a GP who was powerfully committed to not legalising euthanasia,” said Seale. He has now changed his GP.

Right. So the guy who did this study actually switched doctors because he found out his GP was anti-euthanasia. He changed docs because he wanted to be in the hands of someone who would actually discuss these issues with him and respect his decisions on them.

If I were to write the headline, neutrally, it would read something like Doctors’ Religious Attitudes Can Impact End of Life Care. If I felt the need to sex it up a bit, I’d probably go with Religious Doctors Less Likely to Respect Patients’ Wishes. Both would be far more responsible than what the Guardian ran with.

This is one of the worst examples of science reporting from an ostensibly respectable news outlet I’ve seen in awhile. Especially annoying is the way it plays into the fear of atheism, while missing the point of the study entirely. I encourage you to comment and/or write to the Guardian demanding more responsible journalism.

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  1. It is interesting to note that virtually all the comments on the Guardian page support your interpretation of the story and call the headlines misleading. (11 out of 13 comments.) If this were a US newspaper … :-(

  2. Also whoa — “That is accepted in abortion care”??

    Not by me it isn’t. Get your fucking values out of my or anyone else’s uterus, thank you, unless your speculum is named “Values.”

  3. @OP:

    You can get the article with the free trial advertised on the JME’s website. If you can’t get the free trial for whatever reason, I’ll send you the .pdf.

  4. The coverage of this by the Today programme (BBC Radio 4) this morning was equally poor. At one point it looked like they were going to tackle the flaws in the study (and it sounds like they may be significant) but the interviewer steered the conversation back to the headline-grabbing anti-atheist false conclusion.

  5. How about “Religious doctors more likely to extend pain and suffering in patients”. That is equally provocative, says the same thing, and is also horribly misleading to boot.

    I have a pdf of the article and can send a copy to you.

  6. I read Animal Farm when I was a very young lad. After all these years, the one thing that really stands out in my memory is the way that “All animals are equal” eventually became “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

    Such a post-hoc modification of an otherwise well intentioned sentiment reminds me of how many religious people seem to view the teachings of their own religions.

    In this particular case “Thou shalt not bear false witness” has become “Thou shalt not bear false witness, unless it makes a non-believer look bad.”

  7. I just want to point out that there actually is a difference between American and British use of the word “take” here — “take a decision” is the normal British idiom used in exactly the same way that Americans would say “make a decision” (though I have the impression that the latter may be becoming more common there as well.)

    Also keep in mind that this story is about a country which does not have the same kind of religious culture as the US — abortion isn’t nearly as controversial an issue there, for instance, and physician assisted suicide has broad support — Terry Pratchett’s very personal article about it gives you some idea. He says “Recently, the British Social Attitude Survey found that 71 per cent of religious people and 92 per cent of non-religious people were in favour of medically assisted dying for patients with incurable illnesses if they should request it.” So I don’t think the headline is meant to have the scary connotations you’re seeing — British people, even the religious ones, won’t find the idea so scary.

    Basically this seems like a total non-story to me. Anyone who’s even watched an episode of House or MASH or even Scrubs knows that doctors are forced to make “ethically controversial” life and death decisions every single day. So this study seems to be saying that indeed, doctors make the decisions according to the dictates of their personal consciences values, including, yes, their religious values. So what? They should make them according to some checklist instead, ignoring their consciences? Of course the decisions they make are going to vary according to their personal beliefs. I wouldn’t have it any other way. If a patient doesn’t share the values of their doctor (whether because the doctor is religious or the patient is or because they simply don’t have the same kind of personality), it’s their responsibility to educate themselves and influence their own treatment, or seek another doctor.

  8. I remember a BBC article that I blogged about (when I could be bothered to blog), it was about an utterly ludicrous scientific paper that found a correlation between high rainfall and autism rates in NW America. In the rest of the article the paper is completely rubbished by three different researchers. However, the headline read – Rainfall autism link suggested. It should have read – Rainfall autism link complete bullshit. Headline writers always let science down.

  9. Great post, Carrie!


    The story itself may not have much of an impact in the UK, but Carrie’s point, I believe, is not so much about what the meet of the story suggests, but about how irresponsible it is to basically lie in the headline.

  10. I understand its standard practice for the editors to title pieces and not the writer.
    I can’t imagine how angry I would be if someone did that to my article.

    In personal experience – My mother is elderly and we are focused now on making sure she has quality of life rather than trying to fix things like a spot on her lung. This is her decision.
    While in the hospital, I had to justify this position to two different doctors until I finally had to ask her primary care physician (who was fully on board with Mom’s decision) to intervene and stop the badgering.
    I have no idea what any of their religious views are (including that of our primary care md) but my sister was convinced that Mom was a cash cow to the specialists if she fought the disease and not if she didn’t.

    Of course that viewpoint would not apply in England.

  11. I can ‘almost’ sympathize with religious doctors, since most religions teach that suicide (which could include assisted) would lead to more suffering in the afterlife (or next life, in the case of those whose religious belief includes karma and reincarnation).
    Unfortunately for them, it’s not their damned decision! No-one but the person whose life it is (and possibly their family/ loved ones, but even then only when the patient can no longer speak for themselves) should have any say in matters like this.
    Physicians who feel they cannot respect the wishes of their patients in such matters should have a disclaimer prominently displayed so that people who don’t wish such disrespect can avoid them.
    Quality of life is something that can only be determined by the person living said life.

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