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Caveat lector

FACTS COME LAST! Is Carroll’s charge of bias correct? You can’t tell. In our world, facts come last:


FACTS COME LAST: The usual suspects are having a ball with John Carroll’s memo on liberal bias. Carroll, editor of the Los Angeles Times, was unhappy with reporter Scott Gold’s report about a Texas abortion law (front page, May 22). Under terms of the new Texas law, doctors must tell patients that having an abortion increases the future risk of breast cancer. In his memo, Carroll said the story showed “liberal bias.” In response, the usual crowd has been braying triumphantly. Often, as is their long-standing wont, they’ve even embellished the things Carroll said.

As usual, eager conservatives have used the occasion to thrash that ol’ debbil, Liberal Bias. But few observers have made any effort to determine if Carroll was right on the merits. Do Carroll’s complaints against Gold stand up? Inquiring minds should want to know. But you simply can’t tell from what Gold and Carroll wrote—and no one has really tried to resolve the conundrum. In modern press culture, facts come last—and the flap over Gold helps to show that.

Does abortion increase the risk of breast cancer? According to Gold, two big health orgs say no:

GOLD: In February, the National Cancer Institute—the federal government’s cancer research organization—asked more than 100 of the world’s experts to review more than 30 studies that have been conducted and attempt to resolve the issue. Their conclusion: Having an abortion “does not increase a woman’s subsequent risk of developing breast cancer.” The American Medical Assn. has not taken a formal position on the issue, but most large health-care organizations, including the American Cancer Society, agree with that conclusion.
“We’re not going to mislead people about this,” an ACS board member told Gold. “We spend $100 million a year on research. We know what we’re talking about. There is just no research that supports this claim.” But Carroll, the editor, wasn’t convinced. He criticized Gold for citing the ACS and the NCI without citing a health org with the opposite view. He suggested that Gold should have hunted harder for a medical authority which believes in the link.

Should Gold have done that? It’s hard to say. Let’s tote up the ambiguities in his piece. We find two—and they must be resolved before we can judge Carroll’s criticism.

First: According to Gold, both the NCI and the ACS say that having an abortion “does not increase a woman’s subsequent risk of developing breast cancer.” He says that “most large health-care orgs” agree with that view. But do any big health orgs believe in the link? Gold’s words imply that such orgs may exist, but he never resolves the point. Note: It may be that all health orgs which take a position agree that no link does exist. Gold’s article is highly unclear on this matter. If anyone cares about the facts, the confusion here must be resolved.

Meanwhile, another bit of ambiguity gets in the way in Gold’s piece. According to Gold, studies say that “having an abortion” doesn’t increase the risk of breast cancer. But that construction may be too narrow. In one part of his article, Gold says that some researchers “believe that hormonal changes associated with the final stages of pregnancy can help protect a woman from [future] breast cancer.” If that is true, then termination of a first-time pregnancy might increase the future risk (since those protective hormones would never develop). (Gold himself suggests this at one point.) The abortion itself wouldn’t raise the risk—but for women who had never given birth, the results of the abortion might do so. Did those 30 studies only look at the narrower question? We assume that they studied the broader question, concluding that even a woman who has never given birth suffers no increased risk from abortion. But you simply can’t tell from Gold’s report. It’s a point which should be resolved.

People who want to resolve this issue must ask the following questions:

First, are there major health orgs which do believe that abortion increases the cancer risk? If no such major health orgs exist, then Carroll’s critique is hard to sustain. By contrast, if credible health orgs do hold this view, then that fact should probably have been mentioned.

Second, what was at issue in those 30 studies? Did the ACS conclude that, even for a woman who has never given birth, there is no increased risk from the results of abortion? If some researchers “believe that hormonal changes associated with the final stages of pregnancy can help protect a woman from breast cancer,” how can those beliefs be reconciled with the 30 studies?

Did Gold’s reporting tilt the tale? Does Carroll’s critique hold up on the merits? We’ve heard a lot of big-time screaming, but few attempts to determine the merits. As always in our hapless “discourse,” screaming and spinning must come first. It’s a hard press corps law: Facts come last.

MUST-READ NYT: Once again, Michael Winerip’s ed column demands to be read. We’ll discuss it in full Friday morning.

ON RARE OCCASIONS YOU GET A FEW FACTS: We thought of Jonathan Chait’s TNR piece when we read Ruth Marcus in the Post this morning. In TNR, Chait cited basic facts about Reagan tax policy that citizens are rarely asked to hear (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/3/03). Similarly, you can sit through a thousand debates on “partial-birth abortion” without ever hearing the basic facts which Marcus presents in today’s second paragraph. (We also recommend the later quote from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.) Our discourse is fueled by spin, lies and fable; over and over, facts come last. After you take in Marcus’ facts, you can make up your mind about SCPBA. But time and again, Americans can’t make sensible judgments in our press culture—a culture where facts come last.

The Daily update

CHAIT CHAT (PART 3): What happens when the federal government cuts taxes? Duh! In almost all instances, revenues decline from where they would have been if tax rates had stayed the same. But over the course of the past quarter-century, the talk-show right has been fed some pure cant—cutting taxes increases revenues! This dogma makes little sense on its face. After all, if cutting the top rate to 33 percent increases revenue, why not cut it to 30 instead? But our discourse thrives on spin, lies and fable. And Bush likes to tell this tale too:

CHAIT: Bush and his allies have three responses to critics who point to the negative effects of long-term structural deficits. The first is that tax cuts will, over the long run, boost economic growth to such a degree that tax revenue actually rises. This is the most extreme claim of supply-side economics, and Bush makes some reference to it in nearly every speech he delivers. “The way to deal with the deficit is not to be timid on the growth package; the way to deal with the deficit is to have a robust enough growth package so we get more revenues coming into the federal Treasury,” he asserted earlier this month in California.
In recent weeks, top spinners have begun adding prime weasel-words—“eventually” is one—when they make this iconic presentation. This suggests that the government will lose revenue in the short run, but “eventually” it will come out ahead.

But as Chait points out in his TNR piece, conservatives sometimes speak more frankly, offering a completely different rationale. Sometimes they drop all the cant:

CHAIT (continuing directly): A second defense, put forward by Bush’s defenders but not by Bush himself, is that tax cuts will starve the government of revenue, thereby holding down spending and perhaps even leading to balanced budgets. (One notable thing about this justification is that it contradicts justification number one—either tax cuts cause revenue to rise, or they cause it to shrink; both cannot be true.)
As Chait notes, this contradicts the Bush rationale. Bush said he would cut taxes to bring in more revenue. Others recommend cutting taxes in order to bring in less.

Two weeks ago, a good example of this second school appeared on Andrew Sullivan’s eponymous dotcom. The blogger had criticized Bush’s deficits. A reader called Sully a chump:

E-MAILER: I’ve said this to you on more than one occasion—there is a singularly good reason for MASSIVE deficits...GW’s real job, like Reagan before him, is to ensure that all the money is spent, that when a Dem takes office, 33 percent or more is paying off debt. This is called preemptive handcuffs. [Sullivan’s deletion]
This e-mailer suggests that Bush is lying when he says he’s trying to increase federal revenues. And he suggests that Bush is lying when he says that he’s trying to get back in balance. Indeed, if this e-mailer’s understanding is accurate, Candidate Bush was probably faking when he promised to pay down trillions in debt. Indeed, if this e-mailer’s understanding is accurate, then the Bush Admin is probably trying to produce a train wreck—a fiscal train wreck which would curtail future spending, and lead to the changes in Social Security which Bush proposed in the 2000 campaign.

What makes this e-mailer’s outlook so intriguing? This e-mail—from a Bush supporter—implies that Paul Krugman is right on the money when he says that Bush is seeking that train wreck. Of course, when Krugman wrote such a column last week, conservative bootblacks flew into action, insisting the pundit was out of his mind. He was spinning “conspiracy theories,” they said. (The herd must always be fed.) But right there on Sullivan’s widely-read web site, an e-mailer showed how conservatives talk when they aren’t throwing feed to the herd. Chait’s TNR piece has a good many merits, but the strange dichotomy noted above is a valuable part of his primer. For our money, Chait is really too polite when he says the two tax-cut claims “contradict” one another. These explanations are in mortal combat—and as we’ve noted, the explanation given by Bush seems to fly in the face of all logic.

Does Bush really think that tax cuts increase revenue? Timorous pundits in DC’s inner circles will rarely address this claim’s absurdity; don’t expect to see the president asked about this in a press conference. But the next time you hear conservative bootblacks trashing Krugman for conspiracy theories, remember that mailer to Andrew Sullivan. On special occasions, conservatives have voiced this rationale for years. So which is it, cons—the lady or the tiger? It’s a simple question, lodged in Chait’s piece. It’s time that we all learned to ask.

TOMORROW: Our grand finale! What ever happened to that consensus about the baby-boomers?