A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

FactCheck Mailbag, Week of Jan 17-23

This week, readers sent us comments about emergency contraception pills, and causation and correlation.

In the FactCheck Mailbag, we feature some of the email we receive. Readers can send comments to editor@factcheck.org. Letters may be edited for length.


‘Pious Baloney’ Leftovers

Thanks for the fact check on the South Carolina Gingrich-versus-Romney ad [“Gingrich’s ‘Baloney’-filled Attacks on Romney,” Jan. 11]. Confusing the public about emergency contraception pills (ECP) is deliberate, pervasive, and routinely served by opponents of contraception.

Although fact-checking the fact-checking seems tedious sometimes, it is important to explain that available research on Plan B One-Step (“the morning after pill”) shows that it prevents pregnancy by preventing ovulation and/or fertilization.

Ron Hamel, a Catholic ethicist publishing the conclusions of five years of scientific review in the January-February 2010 issue of Health Progress, said: ” … virtually all of the evidence in the scientific literature indicates Plan B has little or no post-fertilization effect, that is, it has little or no effect on the endometrium that would make it inhospitable to implantation. Its mechanism of action is to disrupt ovulation.”

One objection frequently repeated by Plan B opponents is that there is language in the pill package that the drug may prevent implantation. However, Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, a priest, theologian, and scientist also studied the active drug’s effects and determined that it has no post-fertilization effect. On the argument of labeling, he stated that: “ … labels mean nothing without the scientific data to back up their claims.”

These conclusions are reinforced in the 2010 World Health Organization’s fact-sheet on levonogestrel (LNG) which states: “… LNG ECP use does not prevent a fertilized egg from attaching to the uterine lining.”

The important answer to the question on emergency contraception is that there cannot be an abortion before there is a pregnancy; therefore, preventing unwanted pregnancies prevents abortions. But even if you believe pregnancy is the same as fertilization, you no longer have to put up with the warmed-over baloney that Plan B is an “abortion pill.”

Thanks, again, for your excellent work.

Lon Newman
Executive director, Family Planning Health Services
Wausau, Wisc.


Causation and Correlation

I was disappointed when fact-checking articles on FactCheck.org seem to focus on niggling details like whether a number was 77 percent or 76 percent, rather than glaring logical errors and faulty conclusions. In the article [“Santorum Wrong on Marriage,” Jan. 17], there were a couple major flaws in Santorum’s statements that need to be pointed out, regardless of whether specific figures he cited were accurate.

The first is the classic conflating of causation and correlation. A study like the one cited — [which found that young adults who finished high school, worked full time and got married after age 21 and before having kids “had a … 74 percent chance of winding up in the middle class”] — may find some correlation, but that is in no way proof of causation. If you look at National Basketball Association teams, you’ll find that the average height of players is quite tall, but that doesn’t mean we should have our children play more basketball, so they will be taller, does it? It seems like FactCheck should point out glaring flaws like this as a matter of course. (In fact, for each article it would be neat to have a little table/chart/checklist of all the fallacies invoked.)

Second, the claim that 77 percent of people can be above average [in income] is very unlikely from a simple mathematical standpoint, so even if we believed that forcing people to work, graduate high school and get married, that would not result in 77 percent of people having above average income. (We might have a higher average, but that would probably just lead to inflation.) It is mathematically possible to have 77 percent of people be above the average, but it would require a strange distribution and is quite unlikely.

It is no fault of Factcheck, but it could be pointed out in the article that the important question the debate moderator failed to ask is what executive policies a president can implement to cause all people to work, graduate high school and get married before having children. It is dandy for a politician to yammer about these and other “family values” things, but what power does the executive branch have to change them and what evidence do they have that those changes would have the results they expect? Politicians like to make “if we do X then Y will result” type of claims, but rarely back them up with any kind of evidence.

Once again, checking the specific facts and numbers is important, but it would be really nice to have more validation of the logic, exposition of fallacies and general analysis of the arguments and claims.

Matt Gerrans
Bellevue, Wash.