Theo Boer's extraordinary smoke and mirrors

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A forensic analysis exposes Theo Boer's smoke and mirrors on 'suicide contagion'

In my most recent article in the Journal of Assisted Dying, I forensically analyse Dutch ethicist Professor Theo Boer’s 2017 paper purporting to find suicide contagion from assisted dying in the Netherlands. It doesn’t go well for Professor Boer, to put it mildly. You can find the full article here.

I also find an astonishing coincidence that occurred in 2014, the year Boer went feral against the Dutch euthanasia law.

Multiple fatal flaws

In the ‘analysis’ outlined in his article, Boer commits a number of fatal scientific no-noes, including failing to analyse the variable he actually surmised might cause suicide contagion, cherry-picking data that supported his conclusion while ignoring or offhandedly dismissing data at odds with his conclusion, and wrongly forming a causative conclusion from a simple correlation while failing to control for any confounding variables of which there are many.

A litany of scientific offences

In addition to the fatal flaws, Boer’s article contains numerous other scientific and academic offences. My forensic analysis concludes:

“In summary, Boer’s article contains a litany of scientific and scholarly failures. Its speculations are ill-informed, poorly-assembled, incoherent in places and mostly uncited, the data cherry-picked and invalidly interpreted, and the laissez faire methodology incapable of validly supporting its conclusion.
 

Boer conjures up mere smoke and mirrors to argue suicide contagion from VAD in the Netherlands. The article should be retracted.”

The article also reflects badly on the journal that published this smoke and mirrors: the Journal of Ethics in Mental Health. Neither peer review nor editorial effort identified or attempted to correct any of the nonsense in the article.

What was he thinking?

Professor Boer is an expert in Reformist Protestant theology. As a religious ethicist, it’s astonishing that he considered himself suited to conducting and publishing a ‘causative’ scientific study.

In his article, Boer proposed VAD as the only factor to contribute to changes in the Netherlands’ general suicide rate (and dismissed the Belgian data which contradicted his theory).

In reality, numerous risk and protective factors affect the suicide rate, and in the Netherlands as I’ve established using their official government data, just one factor — unemployment — explains 80% of the variance in the Dutch suicide rate since 1960. Boer casually dismisses this without providing the faintest fume of an empirical analysis himself.

Boer’s article did little but amply demonstrate his underlying anchoring and confirmation bias on the subject, his unfamiliarity with the complexity of suicide, and ignorance of proper scientific principles.

For good measure, he casually threw in a comment about “suicide contagion” or copycat suicides, without understanding that in suicide, copying is the method of causing death. But by definition, general suiciders don’t follow the provisions of the euthanasia Act.

His endeavour made as little sense as me writing a conclusive article about Reformist Protestant theology, about which I know very little.

A copycat analysis?

Coincidentally, the structure of the storyline, the litany of scientific offences committed, and the conclusions reached in Boer’s article were surprisingly similar to those in an ‘analysis’ of Oregon’s suicide rate in another paper by Jones and Paton. Like Boer, Jones and Paton start out by surmising that assisted dying ought to lower the general suicide rate, and conclude the opposite.

Boer approvingly cites the Jones and Paton article, even though a forensic analysis found no fewer than ten major scientific flaws in it and provided multiple sources of empirical evidence at odds with the article’s conclusions.

But Boer manages to cock even the citation up, referring to the article’s authors as Holmes and Paton.

Will the real Theo Boer please stand up?

Boer notes that he’s always been a euthanasia sceptic. Nevertheless, as a Reformist Protestant, he had long accepted assisted dying in “emergency” situations, of which intolerable and otherwise unrelievable suffering is a ‘qualifying’ criterion, and which is the substance of the Dutch euthanasia law (it’s regarded in legal circles as a law of “necessity”). He also opined that the Dutch model was a decent one that other jurisdictions could emulate.

Boer served as the ethicist member of one of the five Dutch euthanasia review commissions, examining every case reported to it between 2005 and 2014.

In 2014 he publicly quit his post on the review committee, slamming the Dutch assisted dying system. He’s been badmouthing it to anyone who will listen, since.

In preparation for this analysis, I asked Boer if his vocal opposition to the Dutch assisted dying model was now based on an in-principle opposition to assisted dying, or only in regard to more recent practice under the Dutch euthanasia Act. Despite a couple of iterations, I didn’t get a specific answer.

The law hasn’t changed

Here’s the point. While Boer repeatedly opines that things changed radically in the Netherlands around 2007, the country’s euthanasia Act hasn’t changed since it was passed in 2001 (and came into effect in 2002). Not. One. Word.

In addition, the Dutch Supreme Court determined in 1994 that individuals with mental (in the absence of concomitant physical) illness could qualify under the then regulatory euthanasia framework, and it was found that cases occurred every year.

And the 2001 Act formalised in statute the regulatory framework that had existed since at least 1984, when the Dutch medical association first published guidelines for euthanasia.

Thus, the Act reflects very long-standing practice, and it hasn’t changed since it was enacted, in contrast to Boer’s claim that things have radically changed.

Flimsy and incoherent ‘ethics’ part 1

This brings us to the first fatal incoherence of Boer’s “ethics”: that he now opposes the law because people with psychiatric illness and other conditions are, in slightly increasing numbers, availing themselves of the euthanasia law. It is these cases against which Boer rails, despite having previously said the Dutch model is a good example for the world, and having actively participated in the system.

Boer’s flip flop is to argue that a law that permits assisted dying under a range of medical conditions (and has done so for decades) is a good law, provided some of those who might qualify (like psychiatric cases) never use it.

Try and explain the ethics behind that position.

Flimsy and incoherent ‘ethics’ part 2

The second fatal incoherence of Boer’s ‘ethics’ is his repeated complaint that until around 2007, the numbers of euthanasia cases was “somewhat steady”, but increased after that. Never mind that the majority of the increase was still in relation to terminal cancer: Boer simply railed at the increased numbers as a major problem.

But, try and explain using ethical principles, why it is appropriate for 2,000 people a year to avail themselves of the euthanasia law, but inappropriate for 4,000 (who all qualify)?

Indeed, the Dutch euthanasia Act makes no mention of numbers: there is no legislated limit on the count of people who might choose to use the law. Rather, it is based on due care criteria, outlining the circumstances of who may qualify, and the process by which they may.

The legislature’s intent remains unchanged and is still being adhered to, though more people, the majority of whom have terminal cancer, are using the law.

It’s astonishing that a Professor of Ethics fails to reflect on the fatal incoherence of his own ‘ethical’ arguments.

What happened?

Boer, who had supported and promoted the Dutch euthanasia model suddenly and incoherently changed his position to vocally opposed in 2014. What happened?

One factor might shed some light. In 2014, Boer was appointed to the endowed professorship of Lindeboom Chair in Ethics in Healthcare at Kampen Theological University.

While Kampen Theological University is a Dutch Reformist Protestant institution and therefore may support assisted dying in “emergency” cases, the Lindeboom Institute, which endows Boer’s eponymous professorship, is less understanding.

The Lindeboom Institute was co-founded by several orthodox Christian institutions and cooperates with the Netherlands Evangelical University which studies science from an creationist Biblical perspective.

The Institute demands “biblically sound medical ethics” along with “Christian norms and values”. You’d be left wondering what that actually means, until you find on its website that the Board’s role is “the protection of people at all stages of life”.

In addition, participating organisations that fund the Lindeboom endowment, like the Dutch Patients Association, Pro Life Health Insurance and the Foundation for Christian Philosophy, are strongly opposed to assisted dying in any form.

It turns out that the authors of that other ‘analysis’ that commits numerous similar scientific offences which generate smoke and mirrors, Jones and Paton, are devout conservative Catholics.

Gosh. What a coincidence.


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