Laughable 'secret' anti-assisted dying poll

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Research results must be judged in relation to the study's methodology.

In his latest blog, titled “Who are you going to trust?”, anti-assisted dying lobbyist Mr Paul Russell says:

“Polling noted today in the Australian shows a significant level of distrust in our political classes to get the issue of euthanasia and assisted dying right.”

He then goes on to quote some select statistics from said poll. In his blog, he mentions nothing about the sponsorship or conduct of the poll. After some searching, I found no other reference to said poll on his ‘HOPE’ website.

This is rather curious, because The Australian article he quotes, points out that the ‘poll’ was commissioned by him (his website is called ‘HOPE’).

Thus, Mr Russell tries to add credibility to his ‘poll results’ in his blog by citing only that it has been reported in a national newspaper. This ‘quote-someone-else-so-it-must-be-authoritative’ rhetorical strategy has been used before by opponents of assisted dying (see Box at end).

But as Mr Russell has himself promoted — happily republishing the opinion of the CEO of Christian Medical Fellowship (UK) — “opinion polls add up to very little.” That’s quite true… when they’re poorly designed and run, including the big no-no, ‘push-polling’, in which the researcher attempts to get the answer they want by crafting questions more likely to get it.

I searched hard for any reference to the methodology of said ‘poll’, but was unable to identify any despite a diligent search. Therefore, we don’t know what approach Mr Russell took: robust or otherwise.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument (and the absence of public evidence) that a poll of some kind was actually conducted. If it were a truly legitimate poll, you’d think that Mr Russell would be shouting about the study from his own rooftop (the ‘HOPE’ website). But so far, he hasn’t.

Mr Russell, while quoting statistics, has said absolutely nothing about the methodology — that I can find via a quite diligent search.

Results can only be interpreted in light of how the research was actually conducted, so quoting a 'study' while failing to publish its methodology in full is an absolute no-no. It only invites derision.

Rebecca Urban, for The Australian, quotes a number of ‘statistics’ from the ‘poll’ seemingly without question. But she’s hardly to blame: she’s skilled at journalism, not primary research.

So, for the benefit of Paul Russell, Rebecca Urban and all journalists reporting claimed statistics, here’s your minimum standard of conduct if the public are not to guffaw at the claims. All reported results must be in relation to properly disclosed methodology:

  • Who commissioned the research? (✔ Ms Urban reports who)
  • Who conducted — actually carried out — the research (e.g. a reputable research company)?
  • What precise population were respondents drawn from, how were they recruited, and screened in or out? What were the counts and percentage participation (approached/participated)?
  • What were the dates of the fieldwork?
  • What procedures were used to establish and maintain the authenticity of who was sampled (e.g. if an online poll, could people from anywhere technically participate in this Victorian poll)?
  • How was the questionnaire administered (e.g. paper self-complete, online, CATI)?
  • What was the script of stimuli administered to respondents? In other words, what prompts were given and what questions were asked: exact order and wording?
  • What results were obtained for each question (i.e. full rather than selective crosstabs)?
     

Until Mr Russell publishes in full how his ‘poll’ was conducted, the only honourable course of action for him to pursue is to withdraw the claimed results.

Until then, we can only see them as untrustworthy and a bit of a joke.

 

Rhetorical tactic — “Not” quoting yourself

This rhetorical tactic is also used by Mr Russell’s fellow Catholic, Prof. Margaret Somerville. For example, in her 2015 book Bird on an Ethics Wire, in relation to the supposed (but fanciful) fear of being euthanized in the Netherlands if adequate pain management is accepted, Somerville says in Chapter 4:

It has been alleged that Dutch physicians have interpreted patients’ consent to pain management as consent to euthanasia.38

If you’re like most people, you’d assume, given the effort of a citation (38), that an independent source had made the statement based on some evidence. Indeed, if you look at reference 38 you’ll see that the author is Lauren Vogel, and the source article is in the Canadian Medical Association Journal. All sounds like solid, legit stuff, doesn’t it?

However, Ms Vogel is a journalist, not a Dutch medic or a researcher, and what she reports in relation to Somerville’s claim is merely a quote of what someone said. And who is that someone? Why, it’s Margaret Somerville — what a coincidence!

Somerville could have just said “I’ve argued this before…”, but instead gives a seemingly robust reference to a source that has the appearance of independence and scholarship. Yet obviously she knows that the source is merely herself saying so.

Let’s be clear: something is not true just because someone alleges it. Even if they allege it twice or more. And happen cite themselves via someone else in the process.


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