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.
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.
Essentially, it may as well read, ZOMBG!!! ATHEIST DOCTORS WANT TO KILL ALL THEIR PATIENTS SO MAKE SURE YOUR DOC ISN’T ONE OF THOSE EVIL, AMORAL AUTOMATONS!!!111one
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.