Opinion Change – Judgement and Decision Making

Marketing the Placebo Effect: A Power Balance Example
November 7, 2010, 11:30 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

By Nicola J. Martin

Power Balance is an American company that has been highly successful in 2009/10 marketing a silicone wristband embedded with two holograms. The creators and distributors of Power Balance claim that by wearing the band, placing it within your “natural energy field”, the wearer would experience up to a 500% increase in strength, power and flexibility (Power Balance New Zealand, 2010). Averaging $60 cost for each band, at the end of September it was estimated that over 2.5 million bands had been sold worldwide (Dunning, 2010).

Rather than providing scientific data to convince consumers of the efficacy of their product, Power Balance relies on celebrity endorsements and anecdotal reports of the bands effects. Stakeholders in Power Balance have released no scientific evidence to support their claims nor to describe exactly how the band exerts a measurable effect. Further, they admit that to date there has been no peer-reviewed testing of Power Balance products (Lalor, 2010). Steve Hambleton from the Australian Medical Association has branded the company’s claims as “medically implausible” (Russell, 2010a) and a small double-blind study conducted by consumer watchdog CHOICE (2010) revealed the band to be an expensive placebo effect.

The placebo effect refers to an improvement in health or wellbeing based on an individual’s belief that the treatment given to them will be effective (Grivas, Down & Carter, 2004). Although scientists and sports psychologists suggest that Power Balance products provide no benefit above that of the placebo effect (Russel, 2010; Walshaw, 2010) it is not within the scope of the paper to rigorously test or explore the efficacy of these products. It is the purpose of this paper to discuss perhaps why people are so ready to believe a product which has no real evidential, scientific basis. It is too easy to say that people are gullible. A cold cognition approach, for which this paper will undertake, attempts to explain such instances in terms of the person’s cognitive heuristics and erroneous beliefs. It is these cognitive processes which we all utilise in order to make sense of a complex world, normal processes that when used indiscriminately lead us vulnerable to believing things that may be highly unlikely to be true or effective (Gilovich, 1991). This paper will first discuss what Power Balance claims to be, why it is believable and the evidence for why it shouldn’t be, what people really believe and finally why any of it matters anyway.

Perhaps the primary reason Power Balance has been so successful is that it sounds intuitively appealing and somewhat believable. This aura of plausibility is commonly utilised by alternative therapies as a way of convincing consumers of their benefit above more traditional therapies (Gilovich, 1991). This is combined in the Power Balance marketing material with a host of pseudoscientific claims aimed at convincing the consumer that their product has a scientific basis (Appendix A). Tom O’Dowd, owner of the Australian Power Balance brand, admits that he does not know of the science behind the product, that “There is no scientific proof at the moment that is 100% correct, but there is no scientific proof on a lot of things”. (Lalor, 2010). Dr Marc Cohen, a medical doctor and associate professor of complementary medicine at RMIT University, states “If you look into the science behind the band it is unstated, unclear and unpublished. I’m very dubious of anything that is based on anecdote and testimonials and absolutely no scientific evidence” (Phillips, 2010).

To compensate for this lack of scientific evidence, Power Balance heavily relies on celebrity endorsements to advertise their products (Figure 1). This use of high-profile figures strongly operates on the consumers’ use of the availability heuristic. The availability heuristic refers to the process by which we assess the frequency or probability of an event by the ease of which instances or occurrences can be brought to mind (Plous, 1993). By the use of vivid images and exceptional performances, consumers can easily bring to mind examples of the products’ purported success and thus may overestimate the chance of its effectiveness. This may explain why the anecdotal evidence for Power Balance is so powerful in the absence of scientific data.

Figure 1. Celebrity endorsement from Power Balance website (2010).

The best evidence Power Balance offers for their product, besides celebrity endorsements, are a series of balance and flexibility tests performed at demonstration stands and circulated online. For the most popular balance test a participant is asked to balance on one leg with arms outstretched while the demonstrator presses on one arm until the participant loses balance and steps down. The test is then repeated with the participant holding a Power Balance product (Figure 2). For the majority of participants, balance in the test is greatly improved when wearing the band. However, Richard Saunders from Australian Skeptics revealed that by the experimenter exerting pressure closer to the participants’ centre of gravity it gives the illusion of enhanced performance, when really it is little else but the experimenter’s own expectancy effect (Pangello, 2009). This manipulation is not necessarily a conscious process. When neither the experimenter nor the participant are aware of the band being present or absent, the effect disappears (Pangello).

Figure 2. Power Balance demonstration at Mind/Body/Spirit convention (Facebook Power Balance Group, 2010).

To assess the efficacy of claims made by the distributors of Power Balance, the researcher conducted a small study consisting of 36 double-blind trials. Participants were comprised of 12 athletes and coaches based at a metropolitan sports complex. A total of 8 males and 4 females participated in the study, with ages ranging from 18 to 43 years (M = 27.67, SD = 9.54). Each participant completed 3 trials of the Power Balance flexibility and balance tests (Power Balance Australia, 2010). During the trials an assistant placed either a Power Balance or “LiveStrong” band in the pocket of the participant while standing out of view of both the participant and experimenter. For the purposes of this study the LiveStrong band was the control condition, as it is a similar weight and shape to the Power Balance band however contains no hologram nor claims to be of any scientific benefit. For each trial the participant was asked to respond with whether they thought the Power Balance band was in their pocket while performing the balance and flexibility tests. The collated responses are presented below (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Contingency table of reported effect (yes/no) of band present.

Responses of the participants reveal that they were no more likely to correctly report the presence of the Power Balance band than what would be expected by chance. In fact, there were slightly more responses reporting an effect when the band was absent (false positive) then there were reports of an effect when the band was present (hit). Participants were further more likely to report no effect when the band was in fact present (miss) than in the control condition (correct rejection). By eyeballing the data in Figure 2 it is clear that over the 36 trials there was no effect greater than sheer guessing.

In a study with correct controls and presentation of data, it is easy to see the absence of any real effect of the Power Balance band. However, in reality people rarely consider all 4 cells of the contingency table. People have a tendency to focus on confirmatory evidence, or the ++ cell shown above. The cold cog explanation for this excessive reliance on confirmatory information is that instances which confirm our belief are easier to process cognitively. This is particularly relevant for asymmetric variables, where one level of the variable is simply the absence of the other (Gilovich, 1991). It is in this category where Power Balance may exert its influence. That is, a person may wear the Power Balance band during a good performance and attribute that extra bit of improvement to the presence of the band. They may fail to recognize that they have worn the band at training all week with no noticeable improvement in performance, nor think about previous improvements in performance in which they were not wearing the band.

The above mentioned reliance on the ++ cell is particularly important to understand when evaluating claims of a scientific nature. For example, in one online discussion a “researcher” reported testing Power Balance on over 100 athletes (Hall, 2010). Not surprisingly, they all reported an improvement in performance. Is this evidence of the products effectiveness? No. This study conveys no real information as no control groups were included in the design. If an experiment of the same scale was conducted with appropriate controls, what would the other 3 cells look like?

This focus on confirmatory evidence further contributes to a phenomena known as Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc, or “after it therefore because of it” (Gilovich, 1991, p. 128). Because a person may perform better whilst wearing the band, they attribute the increase in performance to the product. They may fail to recognize that this improvement may be better accounted for by a more typical event, such as a better quality of sleep or diet. We are all vulnerable to this cognitive error. For the purposes of this paper, the researcher wore a Power Balance band two weeks prior to commencing any research into the products. Even when educated about the placebo effect and confirmation biases, the researcher was convinced that she was sleeping and concentrating better while wearing the band. This belief was further strengthened after hearing other consumers report a similar effect. However, when closely evaluating the two weeks in which the product was worn it became apparent that the researcher was simply concentrating better because she was sleeping better and vice versa. Both continued after the researcher ceased to wear the band. Without being aware of these confirmation biases one may have continued to falsely believe in the product’s effectiveness.

So, what do people really believe about Power Balance? And why do they hold that belief? These questions were posed by the researcher to a large number of athletes, coaches and the general public over a period of two months. Those who believe in the products’ efficacy cite anecdotal evidence to support their belief. In contrast, those who are skeptical cite the complete lack of scientific evidence in addition to the implausible explanations the distributors offer. When asking these polarized groups whether the other perspective really contradicts their current belief, and what it would take to change it, the researcher received mixed responses. Those who already believe in the product can relate to the skepticism of the opponent perspective. They understand the absence of scientific evidence. However, they justify their current position with responses such as “hey, it works for me” and “they can’t all be faking”. Instances were provided of other phenomena for which science can’t account for and parallels were drawn between practices of eastern medicine such as acupuncture.

Skeptics report that the belief in Power Balance strongly contradict their current position and that the only data that would lead them to believe in the claims would be double-blind, peer reviewed studies that had been replicated by independent sources. The majority of those who believe in the product either questioned the point of scientific enquiry or state that even if the findings discover Power Balance to have no effect, personally they believe it works for them. A responder on one online forum asserts that “the placebo effect has been scientifically demonstrated. Saying PB is nothing else but a placebo does not mean it doesn’t work” (Fjeldstad, Walsh & Riccio, 2010). This passive but unconvinced response is echoed in the media statements from those within Australia’s sporting community. For example, SANAFL coach Scott Borlace states that “the bottom line is I’m not convinced. But even if it does give you an edge, even if it’s mental, I think it’s worth it” (Fjeldstad, Walsh & Ricco).

In a recent submission to the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) Dr Ken Harvey, a public health researcher at LaTrobe University, stated that Power Balance was breaking the Therapeutic Goods Act by making unsubstantiated claims of a medical nature (Phillips, 2010). If proven correct, this could be very costly to Power Balance stakeholders. In 2006 the American company that marketed Q-Ray Ionization Bracelets was ordered by the courts to refund consumers up to US$87 million in “ill-gotten gains” (Barrett, 2008). During the trial the distributor confessed that he could not describe the term “ionization” but picked it up because it was simple and easy to remember. The courts found that there was “…no testing or studies to support his theory” and that the terminology was created “with the intent to defraud consumers…by preying on their desire to find a simple solution” (Federal Trade Commission, 2008). In hindsight it is seemingly apparent that these products were flawed, however if it was clear from the beginning then the products would not have initially been so successful. With clinical trials due to commence in coming weeks (Lalor, 2010) it will be interesting to see what hindsight bias might effect our perception of the Power Balance phenomena. In a few months time, will the 2.5 million consumers of Power Balance testify that they knew all along it was only a placebo?

If Power Balance is found to provide nothing above a placebo effect, does it matter? To address this question we must consider the payoffs. How much are we, as the consumer, willing to risk accepting that the Power Balance claims are a false alarm (saying there is an effect when there isn’t) in the chance that there really is a physiological effect of the band (hit)? One of the dangers of anything that claims to increase performance or treat medical conditions is that it may delay an appropriate diagnosis (Lalor, 2010) and commencement of appropriate treatment. With the Australian promoters of Power Balance claiming that wearing the band may lead to a reduction in pain and relief from neurological disorders (Ham, 2010), this delay may have severe implications indeed. A further complication of using the band for a placebo effect is that, what may happen when the athlete no longer wears the band? Should we expect a decline in confidence and thus performance? And although the $60 may not be a severe penalty for the individual consumer, when totaled over the millions sold worldwide it is certainly enough to warrant investigation into the product’s claims.


Barrett, S. (2008). Q-Ray bracelet marketed with preposterous claims. Retrieved September 28, 2010 from http://www.quackwatch.com/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/PhonyAds/qray.html.

Dunning, B. (2010). Power Balance: Magical energy bracelets, or nonsense? Retrieved September 24, 2010 from http://skepticblog.org/2010/09/23/power-balance-magical-energy-bracelets-or-nonsense.

Facebook Power Balance Group (2010). Retrieved October 1, 2010 from http://www.facebook.com/powerbalance?v=wall.

Federal Trade Commission (2008). Appeals court affirms ruling in FTC’s favor in Q-Ray bracelet case. Retrieved September 28, 2010 from http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2008/01/qray.shtm.

Fjeldstad, J., Walsh, S., & Riccio, D. (2010, April 04). Power of holograms or just a big scam? Adelaide Now, http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/sport/power-of-holograms-or-just-a-big-scam/story-e6frecj3-1225849554095.

Gilovich, T. (1991). How we know what isn’t so: The fallibility of human reasoning in everyday life. New York: The Free Press.

Grivas, J., Down, R., & Carter, L. (2004). Psychology: VCE Units 3&4. (3rd. ed.). Australia: Macmillan.

Hall, H. (2010). Power Balance products: A skeptical look. Retrieved September 26, 2010 from http://www.devicewatch.org/reports/power_balance.

Ham, L. (2010, September 8). A question of balance. The Age, Retrieved October 1, 2010 from http://www.theage.com.au/small-business/entrepreneur/a-question-of-balance-20100907-14ysj.html.

Lalor, P. (2010, September 18). Science takes up challenge of wrist band. The Australian, p. 1.

Pangello, F. (Reporter). (2009, December 22). Bracelet claims put to the test [Television broadcast]. Pyrmont, NSW: Today Tonight.

Phillips, N. (2010, June 24). The power of one – band claims to be tackled by health regulator. The Sydney Morning Herald, Retrieved September 26, 2010 from http://www.smh.com.au/national/the-power-of-one–band-claims-to-be-tackled-by-health-regulator-20100623-yz9c.html.

Plous, S. (1993). The psychology of judgment and decision making. United States of America: McGraw-Hill Inc.

Power Balance Australia (2010). Retrieved October 6, 2010 from http://www.powerbalance.com/australia/test-video

Power Balance New Zealand (2010). Retrieved September 30, 2010 from http://www.powerbalance.co.nz/technology.php

Power Balance quick review with Choice.com.au. Retrieved September 28, 2010 from http://www.choice.com.au/Reviews-and-Tests/Food-and-Health/Diet-and-exercise/Exercise-equipment/Power%20Balance%20quick%20review/page.aspx

Russell, M. (2010a, June 20). ‘Power’ wristbands might be the biggest scam. The Age, http://www.theage.com.au/sport/power-wristbands-might-be-the-biggest-scam-20100619-yo11.html.

Walshaw, N. (2010). Power Balance wristband and NSW blues. Retrieved September 26, 2010 from http://www.rlcm.isntweb.net/latest-news/6127-rugby-league.


Are Australian football players behaving badly really not being penalised?
November 2, 2010, 5:33 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

In recent years there has been much controversy surrounding bad behaviour of Australian football players from the NRL (National Rugby League) and AFL (Australian Football League).  Brawls, bashings, defecation, flashing, drugs, alcohol, you name it, there have been stories about it.  There is an overconfidence effect in the Australian populace (including myself) that the players are not paying for their indiscretions.  These widely held beliefs do not account for any other alternative explanations of the consequences faced by footballers.  But are they really treated differently to the general public?  Here I will examine how my beliefs were challenged in examining this issue, how they were changed, and the evidence that made me change them.  Firstly, let us go through the six leads of opinion change to illustrate what the currently held beliefs about the situation are according to the general populace (myself included).

1. What do you really believe anyway?

Reactions to a story run on Channel 10 show The 7pm Project called “It’s nearly game over” (Falkiner, 2010) conveyed that the general belief is, that football players are immature men who have never grown up with no respect for other people or the law.  One person posted on the 7pm Project Facebook page “Most of them have ZERO concept of reality, respect, decorum, responsibility, or ever doing a hard day’s work in their life.”  In reaction to a poll run by The 7pm Project called “Should celebrity criminals be treated differently from the rest of us?” the main consensus posted on Facebook was no, they should definitely NOT be treated differently (“No. If anything they should be punished more because they are in the spotlight and role models for kids. So they have to be better behaved.”)  Additionally these people all seemed to believe that the repercussions for celebrities were not as severe as would be handed down to normal people (for example: “Celebrities certainly get treated differently by the media in terms of their crimes and misdemeanours…should they be treated differently? Definitely not.”)  Before looking at the data closely, I held this belief.  I believed they were all guilty and that they got off far too easily for their indiscretions.  There is no justice in our legal system.

2. How well based is the opinion you already hold?

The basis of my (and a majority of Australian’s) opinion comes from tabloid media articles and television and print news sources.  Tabloid media reinforces the belief that football players are treated preferentially in the judicial system, reporting only the scandals and not the repercussions.  The frequency of the reports within the media of indiscretions committed by football players keeps them constantly in the spotlight fuelling the media fire when anything happens.  This is an example of the availability heuristic, in that the general public keep comparing the latest incident with other incidents they’ve hear of in the past.  The article mentioned above “It’s nearly game over” (Falkiner, 2010) is an example of this:

“…bad behaviour is not just limited to AFL players. Sydney roosters players…made headlines for misbehaviour in a hotel room, in that they allegedly defecated on the bathroom floor, on the hotel room’s tables…It rekindled memories of [a] teammates’ bizarre incident involving a “stomach bug”, in which he did a number two in a hotel corridor…An honest mistake right?” (Falkiner, 2010)

3. How good are the data?

The data are based on fact, but omit the repercussions of the players’ actions.  What is reported in these types of media is the event and not the aftermath. In the case of celebrities however, when the aftermath is reported on and the outcome not to the public’s liking then it is universally decided that celebrities are treated preferentially.  Football players in the same situations are lumped into the same high profile category.  The data seem to be there…but there is something missing.

4. Do the current data really contradict what you already believe?

If you look closely at reliable news sources, they are more likely to report the whole facts, including the repercussions of the players’ actions.  According to these sources, there were quite severe repercussions of the players’ indiscretions that made me question my beliefs.

5. If the current evidence is insufficient to make you change your mind, what would be sufficient?

In comparison to the tabloid media, news articles include more information and fact, there are no visible omissions from the stories, it seems they are just reporting things exactly as they are without sensationalising everything.  I had no looked closely enough into these proper news articles before and once I did, they were definitely enough to make me search more and change my opinion drastically.

6. Is it worth finding out about, or is it a case of “why not”?

This is not a case of “why not”.  This is an instance of being able to see clearly that there is justice, and the sporting codes are even harsher in their sentencing than the legal system.  It is worth finding out about so we’re not giving in to the media flood of sensationalism.  True, there are no costs associated with this issue personally.  The only costs associated with this issue is upon the tabloid media – their type of media sells purely from the sensationalising of stories by omission of fact and the need to tell a good story (people are ‘believing what they’re told’).  If they were to promote the entire story, there would not be as much to speculate about for the public and therefore would not sell magazines (or in the case of The 7pm Project, lose viewers).

When it comes to hearing about football players’ latest indiscretions, many people take the information they’re given at face value.  If you are not particularly interested in much about the sport (as I am not) and just hear information second hand from media sources, you don’t bother going to research the issue – you know that when footballers are involved there is going to be a scandal.  It becomes a case of Classical Conditioning.  You are presented with repeated exposure of a Conditioned Stimulus (footballers), and Unconditioned Stimulus (indiscretions).  When eventually footballers are presented to you without the indiscretions, the same response is evident as if the indiscretions were presented (this is the Conditioned Response).  Coupled with this is the ingrained opinion that celebrities are treated preferentially in the judicial system, you have selective processing (in that we can notice and recall all of the previous information we have on this topic and hardly any of it is positive).

Once I decided to pursue this issue and researched data sources, it became evident that this response to footballers was not founded on complete fact.  Brisbanetimes.com.au has a whole news section relating to footballers and it was here I found a goldmine of opinion changing evidence.  AFL player Brendan Fevola was fined $10,000 and stood down from his leadership position at Carlton football club after he urinated on the window of a nightclub in Melbourne.  After drunken antics at the Brownlow Medal last year, he Fevola was fined another $10,000 and stood down from the Grand Final parade in Melbourne.  More recently, he has been suspended from the Brisbane Lions indefinitely pending further investigation on an alleged incident where he supposedly exposed himself to a woman in a park (Lutton & Brodie, 2010; Brodie, 2010).

Fellow AFL player Ben Cousins ran from a booze bus in Perth in February 2006, was found by police and refused to answer questions, and subsequently was stood down from his captaincy position at the West Coast Eagles.  In October 2006 Cousins was fired from the West Coast Eagles due to an accumulation of drug and alcohol related incidents.  Additionally, he was suspended from the game for 12 months by the AFL commission, who charged him with bringing the game into disrepute (Lutton, 2010).  Yet another AFL player, Wayne Carey was arrested for assaulting his girlfriend and resisting police at his apartment.  He was convicted and fined $2,000, and had to make apologies to the police and the public for his indiscretion (Smith, 2009).

ABC.com.au reported NRL rookies Sam Brunton and Anthony Gelling were fired for disciplinary reasons, following an incident where they defecated on tables and on the floor in their hotel room in Townsville (“Roosters duo pay price”, 2010).  According to the Australian.com.au, their teammate Nate Myles was suspended from the game for 6 weeks and fined $50,000 for defecating in a hotel corridor and inappropriate conduct after being found naked in a hotel fire escape (“Nate Myles defecated in hotel”, 2009).  Finally, Matthew Johns, retired NRL player and former member of Channel 9’s The Footy Show, was stood down indefinitely by the network and from his vice coaching position at Melbourne Storm after a woman came forward naming him as a key member in a group sex scandal that occurred in 2002 (“Matthew johns stood down”, 2009).

Now the Matthew Johns case is different to all the others, in that what he did was not illegal at the time and seeing as the allegations came seven years late, and because of who he was, he still had a lot of support.  Despite being stood down from Channel 9, he now has his own television show on Channel 7 called the Matty Johns Show.  In this case, the only way Matthew Johns was punished for his indiscretion was that he lost a lot of female supporters, and angered and humiliated his wife.  In saying that, in the end, there was a pay-off for him – more publicity + more notoriety = television show for the media (in this case Channel 7) to benefit.

In researching for this piece, it was certainly a case of not ‘seeing what I wanted to see’.  My expectations of the issue were not confirmed and evidently, were changed.  The data I thought I knew gleaned from tabloid media was not sufficient in portraying the whole truth, and I found that data from news sources were more informative and were indeed instrumental in changing my opinion on the issue and overcoming the overconfidence effect and availability heuristic (i.e. not trusting only the sensationalism of stories surrounding footballers).  Going through the ‘6 leads’ of opinion change made me realise that what I previously believed was not wholly correct, and instead of showing disdain for footballers when they committed an indiscretion, I know that they are actually being punished, as they rightly should be.  Instead of believing what we’re told from the hyped tabloid ‘news’ stories, we need to delve deeper and assess the complete facts that footballers indeed are punished very harshly, if not harsher than the general population, when it comes to their high-profile indiscretions.

Reference List

(2009, May 13). Matthew Johns stood down by Channel Nine. [Web blog post].             Retrieved from http://www.3aw.com.au/blogs/3aw-generic-blog/matthew-            johns-stood-down-by-channel-nine/20090513-b33v.html

(2009, July 6). Sydney Roosters’ Nate Myles defecated in hotel corridor. The             Australian. Retrieved from http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/breaking-            news/sydney-roosters-nate-myles-defecated-in-hotel-corridor/story-fn3dxity-            1225746589239

(2010, September 10). Roosters duo pay price for feral acts. ABC News. Retrieved             from http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/afl/afl-news/wayne-carey-pleads-            guilty-to-assault-20091124-j6ps.html

Brodie, W. (2010, September 8). Strife and times of Brendan Fevola. The Brisbane             Times. Retrieved from http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/afl/afl-news/strife-            and-times-of-brendan-fevola-20100908-150wb.html

Faulkiner, C. (2010, September 13). It’s nearly game over. [Web blog post]. Retrieved             from http://7pmproject.com.au/3275.htm

Lutton, P. (2010, August 17). Life and times of Ben Cousins. The Brisbane Times.             Retrieved from http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/afl/afl-news/life-and-times-            of-ben-cousins-20100817-127qs.html

Lutton, P., & Brodie, W. (2010, September 8). Don’t judge me: Fev protests             innocence. The Brisbane Times. Retrieved from             http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/afl/afl-news/don’t-prejudge-me-fev-            protests-innocence-20100908-150pk.html

Smith, B. (2009, February 4). Wayne Carey pleads guilty to assault. The Brisbane             Times. Retrieved from http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/afl/afl-news/wayne-            carey-pleads-guilty-to-assault-20091124-j6ps.html

Facebook reactions to the news story “It’s nearly game over”. Retrieved from              http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/posted.php?id=107787018440&share _id=118182074903828&comments=1#s118182074903828

Facebook reactions to the news poll “Should celebrity criminals be treated like the             rest of us”. Retrieved from             http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/posted.php?id=107787018440&share _id=159206770763535&comments=1#s159206770763535

Why the abortion laws in Queensland remain
November 2, 2010, 5:30 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

One shiny day at university I received a flyer. A flyer fronting full legalisation of abortion and charges  dropped for procuring an assisting abortion against a young couple from Cairns.  Someone wanted to influence my opinion and I ended up digging deeper into the topic. I soon realised that this is a comprehensive issue with many opinions, ethical, moral and not at least judicial. I will concentrate on the pro abortion arguments represented as “pro choice”, contra arguments represented as “pro life”. I will also look at the government’s position regarding the abortion laws and the Cairns trial.

In Queensland an abortion is legal before 22 weeks, when the mother’s physical and or mental health is at risk. But many women in Queensland have abortions outside of those boundaries, so that makes the women and the doctors criminals. The data on abortion is unclear, but one databases states there are 14 000 abortions in Queensland ever year (Abortion in Queensland, 2008).

Available data on attitudes on abortion in Australia is not very strong, claims Professor Studdert in the Victoria law reform.  Despite limitations like poor response rates and problems in survey design Studdert concludes that there seems to be general support for women’s right to decide for an abortion (Victorian Law Reform Commission, 2008). I am thinking that this is a way of massaging the data to fit with a maybe false public consensus to be able to support to decision on law change.

The couple in Cairns is charged of illegal abortion after a police raid in their house on an “unrelated matter”, where police finds illegal medicine , mifolian, brought from Ukraine. The woman is charged for procuring her own miscarriage, according to section 225 of the criminal code which could lead to 7 years in prison. Her partner is charged under 226 for applying drugs to procuring a miscarriage and could get 3 years in prison.  This is the first time in 50 years that a woman has been charged for having an abortion in Queensland (Australian abortion law and practice, n.d.). The trial starts in oct 12, 2010.

Several Pro choice demonstrations have been held different places in Queensland, one is planned in Brisbane the 9th October 2010, promoting legalisation of abortion (Media release, n.d.). “Pro life” organisations on the other side fear full legalisation of abortion (Calligeros, 2009).

I sent an e mail to both organisations that included the following 4 questions; the first differed according to their stand on legalisation.
1) Could there be any downsides (pro choice)/ positive sides (pro life) of legalising abortion?
2) What do you think about the way the government is handling this issue, especially after the trial of the young couple in Cairns?
3) Why do you think the government is not willing to change the law on abortion?
4) Do you think most people share your opinion on abortion?

Theresa Martin, the President of Cherish Life Queensland, answered the questions(appendix 1). She says that there is nothing positive about legalising abortion, “how could killing an unborn baby be positive to anyone”. This made me think of number 5 in the 6 leads, when there’s no contradictory info that could lead to opinion change it’s time to be cautious. About the Cairns trial Teresa states that she cannot comment since the case is still going through the legal processes. She hopes the government are not changing the laws because “we know abortion harms women and kills babies”. This seems to me to be a false consensus effect which also seems to be the case in the last answers “yes, the majority of Australians wants no more abortions” (T. Martin, personal communication, September 23, 1010). I think there might be a hot and a cold cog explanation for her views. She is motivated and emotionally convinced involved in her view on abortion and therefore is both surrounded by people who shares her opinion, remembers information that supports it and forget what disputes it. She also sent me information in the mail; this information was largely biased, presenting largely their point of view which is a cold cog explanation for her belief.

Chloe Emerson answered the questions for Pro Choice Queensland (appendix 2). She states that downsides to legalising abortion would be that it could galvanise the pro life minority into demonstrate abortion’s supposedly immorality. I think she seems to be attacking pro choice in her arguments, rather that coming up with any real downsides. Concerning the government’s role she thinks they’re handling the situation dishonestly. She’s saying that MP Bligh is allegedly a pro choice and that it’s been Labor’s policy to decriminalise abortion for a long time and if Bligh supports the bill it could result in a law changed.  She thinks that the government is keeping the law because they want to keep the family institution since it has economical advantages. On the last question she says that most people probably haven’t given the issue as much thought as her, but mentioned an article saying that 80 % are pro choice (C. Emerson, personal communication, September, 29, 2010).  I think Emerson is more reflective on the last question than Martin seems to be, but Emerson also thinks that the majority of the population shares her opinion on this matter and obviously either Martin or Emerson must be wrong.

In association with a “pro choice” rally on the 21st September 2009 in support of the Cairns couple, Attorney General Cameron Dick states that “he has no intention of changing the abortion law”. Premier Anna Bligh states that it’s a case about illegal drugs and further claims that she doesn’t think there would be enough support within the parliament to change the abortion laws (Abortion in Queensland 2009-2010, n.d.). Claire Riethmuller, director of Queensland Law Reform Commission, replied to me in a mail that “they had not done any work on the law relating to abortion”(appendix, 3). In 1991 there was a law review in Queensland, changing laws inconsistent with temporary social conditions, but this review excluded the abortion laws: 224, 225 and 226 (Mc Cormack, 1991). A title from Brisbane Times goes like this: “The abortion laws don’t reflect public opinion and therefore an MP do not have to worry about losing votes if going pro- choice abortion” (De Crespigny, Douglas, Textor, & Savulescu, 2010). I guess this article picks up an important issue, how to keep and/ or gain more votes for a party govern much in politics. So is there a real contradiction in the public opinion and is there a real consensus in keeping the laws in today’s government, or is it simply an easy way for the MP to avoid the question?

Signal detection theory can be related to the law of abortion. In consideration of the payoffs there are two types of successful outcomes. The first would be would be when a woman who has physical or mental problems gets an abortion and when there’s an correct rejection of women who’s physical or mentally health isn’t in danger. One error the government tries to avoid, but at the same time doesn’t, is that women whose life isn’t in danger have abortions, like the couple in Cairns. The second type of error is when women who are physically and mentally ill due to pregnancy don’t get to have an abortion. “Pro life” has an even more conservative criterion, while the “pro choice” has a much more liberal view on the criterion and therefore views the payoffs in different ways.

The government’s opinion and the 6 leads

What do the government really believe in anyways?

They want to keep the abortion laws as they are because this is the best for the unborn and the mother or it might also be to avoid a law change, because they don’t know the consequences of it in terms of votes. Someone I talked to meant that the political instability at the moment is the reason for keeping the laws as they are, as was supposedly also the case in 1991 during the law review. Is that really why the laws aren’t changing or could he be seeing a relationship when it’s only a chance event?

How well based is the opinion they hold?

Who do they consult with, do they listen to the public?, do they base the opinion upon research or is it a well grounded belief in their party or only to avoid losing voters? I don’t know but I think the decision upon law change should be from what research say about abortion and also what the majority of the people think.

How good are the data?

Some type of data is the public attitudes on abortion, but they are not very good (Victorian Law Reform Commission, 2008). Maybe the government don’t really care about how good the data are, because even when the law change in Victoria was conducted without thorough investigation of the public attitudes on abortion, why would it be of interest in Queensland?

Do the current data really contradict what they believe?

The data from the Victorian law reform states as mentioned earlier that the majority in Australia is pro choice, so this is contradictory information for keeping the laws. But at the same time Coles, Makino, Stanwood and Dozier (2010) found that limiting access to abortion through restrictive legislation decrease abortion. I’ve heard that many believe the abortion rates are high because of lack of education concerning contraceptives. But Brown and Guthrie (2010) found in a qualitative study from England that teenagers know about the importance of using contraceptives and where to get it, but don’t think about using it because of alcohol or “being in the moment”.   But then again maybe they are overconfident in their actual knowledge, like Crosby and Yarber ( 2001)  found that there were a low correlation in  adolescent boys’ confidence in their knowledge about how to use condoms and their actual knowledge. So the government has to deal with both contradictory and supportive information and base the decision upon that.

If the current data is insufficient to make them change their minds, what data would be sufficient?

Maybe the outcome of the trial in Cairns will have an impact, I believe that if the couple is convicted pro choice will put more pressure on the government since people are going to fear being charged. But at the same time someone told me that Pro life side seem to have growing support due to an increasing rate of conservative Evangelical Christians in Queensland.

Is it worth finding out about or is it just a case of why not?

The government are not necessarily passive about the issue but seems to be passive about taking action because what would be the results of that, especially in a political unstable time like this.

I’m guessing that most people use the in the middle heuristic, being fair to both sides when it comes to the issue on abortion. Like the Victorian law reform stated, most people are pro choice, but with limitations.  After receiving the flyer and mostly coming across news articles on law change I believe I used the availability heuristic, thinking that most people are pro choice.  But after being in contact with pro life organisation I saw a switch in the availability heuristic, ending up believing that there are strong opinions in both directions on this issue and probably many ending up passive but unconvinced. So when it comes to the Cairns trial, why are they suddenly being convicted? First of all there seem to be more to this case than meets the eye, it’s also a case about illegal drugs and also the police went through their house on an “ unrelated matter”, but they were after all charged on the law of abortion. I talked to one who studies law who actually had the opinion of the couple being convicted because lawyers want a law change. Who really knows, the trial in Cairns is to be continued and so is the discussion on abortion.


Abortion in Australia. (nd). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abortion in_Australia

Abortion in Queensland. ( 2008, oct 17) In University of Queensland School of Medicine.

Retrieved from http://www.fpq.com.au/pdf/AbortionConfRec.pdf

Abortion in Queensland 2009-2010: A Timeline. (nd). In Pro Choice QLD. Retrieved from


Australian abortion law and practice. (n.d.) In Children by choice : association incorporated.

Retrieved from  http://www.childrenbychoice.org.au/nwww/auslawprac.htm

Brown, S., & Guthrie, K. (2010). Why don’t teenagers use contraception? A qualitative interview study: The european journal of contraception and reproductive health care, 15, 197-204.

Calligeros, M. (2009, February 8). Anti-abortion groups fear law change. In Brisbane Times. Retrieved from http://www.brisbanetimes.com.au/news/queensland/antiabortion-groups-fear-law-change/2009/02/08/1234027818125.html

Coles, M. S., Makino, K. K., Stanwood, N. L., & Dozier, A. (2010)  How are restrictive abortion statuses associated with unintended teen birth? Journal of Adolescent Health: 47, 160- 167.

Crosby, R. A. & Yarber, W. L. (2001). Perceived versus actual knowledge about correct condom use among U.S. adolescents: results from a national study. Journal of  Adolescent Health, 28, 415–420.

De Crespigny, L., Douglas, T., Textor, M., & Savulescu, J.( 2010, July 5). Abortion laws don’t reflect public opinion. In Brisbane Times.

Retrieved from


Hears, J. (2007, August 23). Parliament decides the abortion debate. In The Australian; The heart of the nation. Retrieved from

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/opinion/parliament- decides-the-abortion-debate/story-e6frg6zo-1111114244749

Mc Cormack, A. (1991, October 30) Queensland law review excludes abortion. In Green Left. Retrieved from http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/362

Media release: Organisers expect strong support for abortion rights rally (n.d.) In Pro choice action collective.  Retrieved from http://www.prochoiceactionqld.org

Victorian Law Reform Comisson. (2008). Law of Abortion: Final Report.  Retrieved from http://www.lawreform.vic.gov.au/wps/wcm/connect/b279a800404a0cb19720fff5f2791d4a/VLRC_Abortion_Chapter3.pdf?MOD=AJPERES


Appendix, 1: Theresa Martin.

1)    What are the negative sides of legalising abortion in Queensland?

Where do I begin?  Firstly, the law stands as an educative as well as protective role in society.  By the mere fact that the law states it is wrong to kill a baby in the womb, it is making a strong positive statement about the value of the unborn – you or I a few months before we were born.

It protects women as a last (thin) veneer against the pressure they come under by husbands, boyfriends and parents, by giving them the ability to say “abortion is illegal”.
2) Could there be any positive sides by legalising abortion in Queensland?

No.  How can making it allowable to kill an unborn baby be a positive thing for anyone?  It certainly isn’t for the baby.  Once we allow the killing of the unborn, through the natural progression of those pushing for this law, soon it would become an effort to remove from the planet those babies already born who perhaps aren’t perfect in the eyes of the world.  We have already seen a push from the other end of the scale with the push for euthanasia ie killing off the oldies often unvoluntary that is already happening in other countries.
3) What do you think about the way the government is handeling this issue, also related to the trial of the young couple in Cairns?

As the case is currently going through the legal process, we are unable to comment upon that aspect of it.  We can however make the observation that whilst we send 20 year olds off to fight in the war and put them in charge as manager of MacDonald’s stores, this particular lady at 21 felt so unsupported and ill-equipped to care for a baby that there was a resort to drugs that are illegal in Australia.  The whole case is a little ‘on the nose’ as a simple google search would have shown her that da Costa, an ob/gyn, does abortions using similar drugs in the very town that she, the woman, lived in.

Further, irrespective of what the drug was to be used for, we cannot condone the illegal importation of restricted medications.
4) Why do you think the government is not willing to change the law on abortion?
I would hope that it is because we know abortion harms women and kills babies.  Many women suffer a lot with post-abortion trauma, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.  Fergusson in NZ did a study that showed consistently that women who had abortions suffer depression on a deeper level for longer periods than women who have had a baby under difficult circumstances, even those who suffered depression before they had the baby.  And this is just one symptom.  Others can be future miscarriages due to damage to the cervix or scarring of the uterine wall, rupture of the uterine wall, sexual dysfunction, increased drug or alcohol use, self-harming, eating disorders and the list just goes on and on.  Two good books to read about these issues are Giving Sorrow Words by Melinda Tankard Reist or Forbidden Grief by Theresa Burke.  There are many more including ones on the harm done to men by abortion.



Most abortions are done in private hospitals, which affects women of low income and those living in rural areas.

Appendix 2: Chloe Emerson

1) Downsides to legalising abortion: it might galvanise the anti-choice minority. If they can’t win on legal grounds they might ramp up the campaign to restrict abortion access through promoting the idea that it is immoral. However, they are working pretty hard already on a number of fronts, and they are in the minority (80% of QLDers believe that abortion should be legal), so I think overall it would be a positive if abortion were decriminalised.

Some people have spoken to me about situations in which they were forced to have an abortion and use this as an argument for restricting access. Obviously I don’t support this, and I think this practice would continue whether abortion were legal or not.

Some people say that decriminalising abortion would lead to a spate of dodgy doctors setting up shop, but I’m pretty sure that unregistered medical practice is illegal, and in fact would be more likely in the case of restricted access.

2) I think the government is handling the issue dishonestly. Anna Bligh is, allegedly, pro-choice. It has been QLD Labor policy for decades to decriminalise abortion. 80% of QLDers think it should be legal. Internal Labor party polling has shown that if Bligh supported the bill it would get the number of votes needed. There is absolutely no good reason in terms of parliamentary democracy that the Labor party has not already taken this action.

The action that they have taken is to lie about the charges and say that they’re related to drugs, to fiddle with the laws to maintain the status quo, and let this poor couple in Cairns face criminal charges under a law that shouldn’t exist.

3) I think that the government not changing the law on abortion is part of a larger agenda to maintain the institution of the family. It seems to be an ongoing policy of economic rationalists to move responsibility for welfare from society as a whole towards individuals and families. So while in the smaller picture decriminalising abortion might make sense for capitalism (perhaps by enabling women to get a better education, for example) in the bigger picture it makes more sense to maintain the institution of the family for the free child-rearing, looking after the sick, paying for the education of individuals, etc. that it provides.

4) I think most people haven’t given it as much thought as I have, not having been involved in the campaign. However, I will send you a recent document about QLDers opinions on abortions for your reference if you give me your email address. The quick summary is that most people are pro-choice.

Standing on stalls I find that a lot of people from every walk of life are very supportive of our cause, but I do think there’s a worrying trend of young men being anti-choice.


Appendix 3:


Dear Anne

The Queensland Law Reform Commission has not done any work on the law relating to abortion.


Claire Riethmuller
Queensland Law Reform Commission



An Examination of The Psychological Mechanisms Behind Why Parents Blame Vaccines For The Ill-Health of Their Children
November 2, 2010, 5:27 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Immunization saves approximately 3 million lives each year (Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing, 2008). Despite this amazing achievement of science, there are many people who are against vaccination. However these anti-vaccination beliefs are not supported by scientific research. Why then, does vaccination get incorrectly blamed for health issues? This paper will give a brief overview of the common myths put forward by anti-vaccination lobbyists, and the scientific research that debunks them. However the focus of this paper will be on the psychological mechanisms behind the faulty beliefs that people hold that link vaccination with health issues.

There are many unsubstantiated claims put forward against vaccination, the following are but a few of the more common ones. One of the most popular anti-vaccination myths is that the Measles Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine causes inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and autism. However a review by the World Health Organization and also a separate review by the Institute of Medicine both concluded that current scientific data do not show any causal link between the MMR vaccine and autism or IBD. Another common myth is that the flu vaccine causes the flu. However this is impossible. None of the influenza vaccines used in Australia contain live viruses (Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing, 2008).

Yet another myth is that vaccines cause or spread the diseases they are supposed to prevent. However the majority of vaccines are inactivated or only partially prepared from the organism. Therefore the organism is not alive and it is impossible for it to cause disease. Exceptions are very rare. For example the risk of the first dose of the oral polio vaccine causing disease is one per 750,000. However even this rare occurrence is no longer an issue in Australia as it has been replaced by the inactivated polio vaccine (Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing, 2008).

With the vast majority of scientific data going against the arguments put forward by anti-vaccination lobbyists, why is it then that so many people still believe the myths? One of the major psychological mechanisms behind these faulty beliefs involves seeing patterns where there are none. Take for example this heart wrenching piece of anti-vaccination propaganda put forward by a member of the Think Twice anti-vaccination website:

“Harley had the sniffles and Ashlee had a cold, otherwise both were in perfect health. Harley was given his first DPT, polio, and Hib shots. Ashlee received her first Hib and MMR shots, as well as her third DPT and fourth polio shots…

For ten days Harley’s behavior changed. He barely slept, hardly ate, and seemed to be getting worse. On May 17 at 9:00 a.m., my husband got up, checked on Harley, and yelled out, ‘Bonnie, get up, call the ambulance. Harley is dead!’

The state police and county coroner arrived with the ambulance. The coroner peered into the ambulance, never examined Harley, and stated, ‘SIDS.’ Harley was then rushed away. My husband and I didn’t get to see him again for more than three days, until 1:00 p.m. on May 20 — in his coffin!”

It’s a sad and truly horrible story; the pain that the family experienced was tremendous. But is it right to conclude that it was the vaccines that caused this death? If you look at the situation with the emotional content removed, you see three things: (1) the child was already sick with the ‘sniffles’, (2) the child was given vaccines, (3) the child died 10 days later. From this information alone, we can either conclude that: (1) the ‘sniffles’ was something more sinister and caused the death, (2) the vaccines somehow caused the death, or (3) the child simply died from SIDS. The first conclusion was not even mentioned by the grieving parent, most likely due to the common nature of the sniffles amongst children. The second conclusion, that the vaccines were at fault, goes against the scientific data. In fact the most likely cause of the child’s death was SIDS.

As it turns out, if you take into consideration the vast number of cases of SIDS, by chance alone 2 children should die each year within 24 hours of receiving a vaccination (Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing, 2008). The above example involved a child dying not within 24 hours of receiving a vaccination, but within 240 hours of receiving a vaccination. Therefore the chances of their child simply dying from SIDS was even more likely. However these chance occurrences are not taken into consideration by the parents of a child who has died post-vaccination. Instead they see a pattern where the scientific data suggests that there isn’t one.

Another psychological reason, behind why parents blame vaccines for the ill-health of their children, is the errors associated with multiple endpoints. An endpoint is a possible outcome for a prediction. Specific predictions with only one possible outcome are much more impressive than a general prediction with a thousand possible outcomes (Gilovich, 1993). The likelihood of a child being vaccinated and within 24 hours dying due to SIDS is very low. However parents who blame vaccines for the ill-health of their children have many possible illnesses to attribute to the vaccines. There is no specific prediction amongst anti-vaccination lobbyists that vaccination will result in SIDS. In fact they predict that vaccination can result in anything from allergic reactions to autism. The World Health Organization (2010) has classified 12 420 diseases, many of which could coincidentally occur at the same time as a vaccination. The anti-vaccination lobbyists have such an incredibly general prediction of ill-health due to vaccination, that there is literally thousands and thousands of possible endpoints. Therefore it is highly likely that a child will fall ill, to any one of the thousands of possible illness in the world, at the same time as their vaccination and for the parent to wrongly conclude “aha! I knew it; I knew vaccinations would make my child sick!”

This coincidental occurrence of vaccination and illness is made even more likely when considering the fact that a child receiving all of the vaccinations recommended for them, will have received 16 vaccinations by the age of 2 (Illinois Department of Public Health, n.d). Sixteen times the chance is given for one of 12,420 illnesses to occur at the same time as a vaccination. Anti-vaccination lobbyists do not predict that the illness will occur on the first vaccination, or the second, or the third, they simply predict that an illness will occur at the same time as a vaccination. Therefore if any illness can occur at any vaccination, there are 198,720 possible end points in the prediction that vaccination will result in illness. There are approximately 500,000 children under the age of 2 in Australia and the prediction that vaccines make children sick, only needs one instance of illness amongst all those children to be paired with a vaccination (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2007). That means that if all those children get their recommended vaccinations, there are 500,000 children multiplied by 16 vaccinations, multiplied by 12,420 possible illnesses, resulting in 99,360,000,000 possible end points for the prediction that vaccines will make children ill.

Seemingly-fulfilled prophecies also explain why some parents may blame vaccines for the ill-health of their children (Gilovich, 1993). Take for example the case mentioned previously, a mother got her children vaccinated and then subsequently the child died. With the mother blaming the vaccines for the death of her child, there is no way she will ever let any of her other children ever get vaccinated again. This means that her personal prophecy, that vaccines will make her children ill, stops her from ever giving vaccines another chance to prove her prophecy wrong.

The availability heuristic further explains why parents blame vaccines for the ill-health of their children. The availability heuristic refers to a cognitive bias where people report the frequency of an event based on how easily an example can be brought to mind. The same error that Lichtenstein, et al (1978) discovered, when people judged that it was more likely for them to die from the rare occurrence of homicide as opposed to the common occurrence of stomach cancer, is present with parents judging the likelihood of their child falling ill due to vaccination. It is incredibly rare that a child will have an adverse reaction to a vaccination, but those rare cases are widely reported by the media, much like homicide. However the extremely common cases of children being vaccinated and being perfectly fine, are not widely reported in the media, much like stomach cancer. Due to this availability in the media, parents can more readily recall instances of illness as a result of vaccines. This results in a cognitive bias where parents believe that illness as a result of vaccines is much more common than it actually is.

The false consensus effect may be yet another psychological mechanism at play when parents blame vaccines for the ill-health of their children. The false consensus effect refers to when people overestimate how much their own beliefs, values, and habits are shared by others (Gilovich, 1993). This effect comes about because we are selectively exposed to certain information in our social life.  A cause of this, which relates directly with beliefs about vaccinations, is inadequate feedback from others. Inadequate feedback arises from the social propensity of people to be polite and nice. For example if a mother introduces you to their child and the child has a ridiculous name, you are very unlikely to let the mother know your opinion. Even if the mother asked you what you thought of their child’s name, it is very unlikely that you will tell her just how ridiculous it is. The mother is therefore likely to believe in a false consensus regarding how good their child’s name is. This same effect may be occurring with parents who blame vaccines for the ill-health of their children. If a parent has a sick child in hospital and believes that vaccines were the cause of this illness, it is very unlikely for a friend to denounce the distraught parent’s views even if that friend believes the parent’s views are totally wrong. This parent will therefore develop a false consensus regarding the role of vaccines in their child’s illness. Furthermore parents, who blame vaccines for the ill-health of their children, are most likely not going to be corrected by the people they tell. For example, if a mother is holding their child on the bus, and says to the person next to them ‘we don’t vaccinate our child because vaccines can cause autism’, it is unlikely that the person on the bus hearing this has any knowledge of the scientific data or lack thereof, behind this claim. Therefore it is unlikely for the person on the bus to correct the mother, and the mother’s false consensus regarding the role of vaccines in childhood illness will be reaffirmed.

So what impact are these beliefs having on children’s health? If you use the MMR vaccine as an example In England and Wales, the faulty beliefs surrounding this vaccine has resulted in only 75% of the population being vaccinated (Spooner, 2002). This has in turn resulted in a sharp spike in confirmed cases of measles, up to 1144 cases of measles in 2009 (Health Protection Agency, 2010). Now compare England and Wales’ 75% vaccination rate and 1144 cases of measles, with Canada’s 95% vaccination rate and 12 cases of measles (Spooner, 2002). It is abundantly clear that the detrimental effect of the faulty beliefs surrounding vaccines is resulting in lower vaccination rates and higher levels of disease.

We are now faced with the final problem; that information, about faulty cognitive processes regarding vaccines causing ill-health in children, will most likely be dismissed by those parents who hold such views. When faced with information, such as that presented in this report, parents can ask themselves one of two questions: “can I believe this” or “must I believe this”. The level of evidence required for affirmative answers to these questions is extremely different. Parents who are anti-vaccination have a bias that leads them to approach evidence opposing their views with the question “must I believe this?” However parents without this bias will most likely ask the question “can I believe this?” This therefore leads us to conclude that while anti-vaccination biases exist in the minds of parents, it is unlikely that any scientific evidence to the contrary, will be viewed as adequately convincing.

Reference List

Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. (2008). Responding to arguments against immunization: A guide for providers. Australian Government.

Australian Social Trends. (2007). Retrieved October 7, 2010, from Australian Bureau of Statistics web site: http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/0/04FEBEF9C 81FE6BACA2573 2C002077A2?opendocument

FAQ on ICD. (2010). Retrieved October 5, 2010, from World Health Organization web site: http://www.who.int/classifications/help/icdfaq/en/index.html

Gilovich, T. (1993). How we know what isn’t so: the fallibility of human reason in everyday life. New York: The Free Press.

Lichtenstein, S., Slovic, P., Fischhoff, B., Layman, M. and Combs, B. (1978). Judged frequency of lethal events. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Learning and Memory, 4, 551-578.

Parents Guide to Childhood Immunizations. (n.d). Retrieved October 7, 2010, from Illinois Immunization Program web site: http://www.idph.state.il.us/a bout/pgci.htm

Personal stories of vaccine damage and death. (n.d). Retrieved October 7, 2010, from Think Twice Global Vaccine Institute web site: http://www.thinktwice.com/stories.htm

Spooner, H. M. (2002). Measles outbreaks in UK linked to fears about MMR vaccine. Canadian Medical Association, 8, 166.

Down with My School
November 2, 2010, 5:25 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Every year across the country, children in grades 3, 5, 7 and 9 are tested on their reading, writing, grammar and numeracy abilities in the National Assessment Program – Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) tests. Problems have plagued the NAPLAN tests since they started in 2008. Every year cheating allegations are made (Chilcott & Schultz, 2010), states and territories fret over where they place overall in the nation, and this year teachers went on strike and threatened to do so again on the days of testing (Qld behind in literacy, 2010).

Issues with NAPLAN testing have only increased since the introduction of the My School website in January this year. The My School website, created by the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), displays the NAPLAN test results from all schools across Australia, and associates each school with up to sixty statistically similar schools to compare academic performance (ACARA, 2010). The Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage (ICSEA), a measure specifically created for this purpose, is employed on the My School website to compare statistically similar schools. A number of variables were considered when creating the website, including a school’s indigenous population, school’s location, and the Socio-Economic status of the school’s location (ACARA, 2010). However, these statistically similar schools can vary quite significantly in regards to student population. Not only do these schools vary on significant traits not included in the statistical analyses to determine similarity between schools, but an election promise made by the Labor party in the lead up to the 2010 election (Set a National standard, 2010) could see a performance-based pay scheme being introduced for teachers. This could lead to a number of problems, none of which should be occurring.

Therefore, this essay will propose that the My School website be taken offline permanently. Several problems in regards to the My School website will be discussed, and a number of judgement and decision making processes will be applied to these situations to illustrate the benefits of NAPLAN test results’ anonymity.

Judgement and decision making processes such as naïve empiricism, predicting from imperfect predictors, selective processing, the hindsight bias and more will be applied to issues regarding the criteria used to compare schools, the impact of cheating on the NAPLAN test results published on the My School website, and the election promise for the introduction of performance-based pay for teachers.

Naïve empiricism is the belief that interpretations can be applied to data once it has been viewed neutrally. Naïve empiricism also requires the use of safeguards to view the data neutrally and to apply interpretations, however this has not been done by the developers of the My School website. Firstly, the data has not been viewed neutrally, because it has not been viewed as a means of testing an individual’s performance across his or her schooling career (Educational groups slam, 2010). Therefore, even before interpretations have been applied, the neutrality of the data has been violated. This can affect the results seen on My School because whilst some individual’s are exempt from participating in the NAPLAN test (e.g., children in Special Education Units), the My School website publishes data for these students regardless, allocating them scores of zero (Experienced Senior Teacher, personal communication, 14 September, 2010). These outlier zero scores are then included with the rest of the grade’s data, reducing the average. As the NAPLAN test results published on the My School website are becoming a main indicator of a school’s success (Government accused, 2010), schools with poor performance could be impacted by a decrease in student enrolments (Hudson & McMahon, 2010).

This is also an example of the representativeness heuristic, the process of comparing and judging situations to establish whether they are typical of known occurrences. This is because the My School website does not make it known that the results of children in SEUs are exempt but their null results are included, yet a number of schools in Australia who have a SEU attached to the school would be affected by this, thus making it a typical occurrence.

Problems applying interpretations to the NAPLAN data for the My School website also exist because the variables used in the statistical analyses used to determine similar schools do not include all possible indicators. Whilst variables do include such things as student indigenous population and the Socio-Economic Status of the students, other relevant information such as the percentage of student population attached to a SEU and the percentage of students who’s first language was not English was not included. Also, the data used in to create the ICSEA was not taken from the student population data, but from the 2006 Australian Bureau of Statistics Census data for the school’s area (McAlpine, 2010). Whilst these issues are being investigated for proposed changes to the My School website (Changes proposed, 2010), this is currently an example of predicting from imperfect predictors. A submission to the Senate by the Independent Schools Queensland group agrees (Independent Schools Queensland, 2010), pointing out a number of examples where schools are not similar but deemed so statistically, and stating that the ICSEA does not include a number of complicated variables important in predicting performance.

Interpreting the data from the My School website poses problems as well, due to a lack of information. Wu (2010) discussed the numerous flaws in using NAPLAN test results, including the error variance associated with a test of only forty questions and a lack of causality in the data. Wu illustrated through statistical analyses that a child’s results on the NAPLAN tests could fluctuate approximately twelve percent above or below their average score, and that growth measured within-participants over time (one of a number of proposed changes to be published on the My School website) could fall within the error margin of the previous test. For a more accurate result, the child should be tested several times over the year and an average should be taken, therefore regressing to the mean.

Cheating allegations during the NAPLAN tests include low-achieving students being asked not to attend school on the days of testing (Experienced Senior Teacher, personal communication, 14 September, 2010), students given more time to complete tests and teachers giving students the answers to questions (Owens & Lim, 2010).

The Fundamental Cognitive Error (FCE), a person’s underestimation of how their thoughts and beliefs affect their ability to observe and judge fairly, naïve realism, which occurs when people avoid the truth by deceiving themselves, and selective processing, which includes dismissing evidence inconsistent with one’s belief, are all judgement and decision making processes that apply to the 51 reports of cheating associated with the NAPLAN tests (Owens & Lim, 2010). The principal at Coorparoo State School was stood down one week ago after it was revealed he gave 27 students extra time to complete the NAPLAN tests in May. The Queensland Education Department believes the test results from these children will not affect the data and will be published as per normal on the My School website (Chilcott, 2010). This is an example of the FCE, naïve realism and selective processing because the Education Department is not being fair in uploading these inaccurate results, they are deceiving themselves in thinking these results won’t affect the averages at the school and they are dismissing evidence that suggests these results scored by cheating will affect the grade’s average.

If cheating is already occurring without incentives, the incidence rate will increase significantly if Labor’s election proposal of performance-based pay for teachers is introduced. In their book, Levitt and Dubner (2005) investigated allegations of cheating before and after the introduction of high-stakes standardised tests as part of the ‘No Child Left Behind’ (NCLB) policy in the United States of America was introduced in 2001. They found that approximately five percent of teachers cheated somehow in high-stakes tests, and that a massive increase in cheating occurred when a financial incentive was introduced. Interestingly, Levitt and Dubner (2005) also revealed that younger teachers were more likely to be cheating teachers, which could become an issue in Australia as the mean age of teachers is decreasing rapidly.

The hindsight bias occurs when an individual attempts to ignore the outcome of an event, even when the already know what is going to happen based on previous experiences. The Australian Government would be ignoring the most likely outcome of performance-based pay for teachers if this scheme is introduced. The incentives to cheat would be greatly increased, with more funding going to schools with an increased student attendance and better NAPLAN test performance (Set a National standard, 2010), and teachers receiving bonuses when their class performs well on the NAPLAN tests. The Liberals agree with this thought, stating that nothing useful is measured on NAPLAN tests and that a performance-based pay for teachers will encourage cheating (King, 2010).

Another negative implication for performance-based pay is the funding for poorer schools. It is typically poorer schools who performance worse on the NAPLAN tests, so it would be these disadvantaged schools becoming more so due to insufficient funding.

This essay has discussed a number of points as to why the My School website should be taken offline permanently. Inaccurate interpretations being applied to data both before and after publication on the My School website are examples of naïve empiricism, the representativeness heuristic and predicting from imperfect predictors because these problems have occurred by ignoring the original intentions of the test then applying statistics not entirely relevant to the data to make comparisons between different schools. The publication of cheating students’ data on the My School website illustrates the Fundamental Cognitive Error, naïve realism and selective processing because the Education Department wrongly believes these data won’t affect grade averages. Finally, the hindsight bias was applied to the possibility of the introduction of performance-based pay for teachers and the negative consequences of such actions. These points have all illustrated why the My School website is inaccurate and ineffective when it comes to rating and comparing a school’s performance.



Australian Curriculum, Assessment, and Reporting Authority (ACARA). (2010). My School: About ICSEA [Fact Sheet]. Retrieved from http://www.myschool.edu.au/Resources/pdf/My%20School%20FACT%20SHEET%20ABOUT%20ICSEA%2020100120.pdf

Changes proposed for My School website [Online exclusive]. (2010, June 22). Covenant Christian School. Retrieved from http://www.covenant.nsw.edu.au/

Chilcott, T. (2010, October 2). Results at Coorparoo State School will stand in spite of cheating. The Courier Mail. Retrieved from http://www.couriermail.com.au/

Chilcott, T., & Schultz, A. (2010, October 1). Cheating claims against Coorparoo State School principal Greg Kretschmann confirmed. The Courier Mail. Retrieved from http://www.couriermail.com.au/

Educational groups slam My School website [Online exclusive]. (2010, January 29). The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from http://www.smh.com.au/

Government accused over My School website [Online exclusive]. (2010, January 27). Cath News. Retrieved from http://www.cathnews.com/

Hudson, P., & McMahon, S. (2010, January 29). Knowledge is power for all parents as My School website launches. The Herald Sun. Retrieved from http://www.heraldsun.com.au/

Independent Schools Queensland. (2010). Submission to the Senate education, employment and workplace relations committee: Inquiry into the administration and reporting of NAPLAN testing. Retrieved from http://www.aisq.qld.edu.au/files/files/whatsnew/ISQ-SubmissionNAPLANSenateInquiry(June2010).pdf

King, M. (2010, October 5). Teachers, tests and cheating: Where do we draw the line? ABC News. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/

Levitt, S. D., & Dubner, S. J. (2005). Freakonomics: A rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything. United States of America: William Morrow Ltd.

Owens, J., & Lim, N. (2010, October 2). Principal stood down over NAPLAN tests. The Australian. Retrieved from http://www.theaustralian.com.au/

McAlpine, J. (2010). Shortcuts on My School website worry principals [White paper]. Retrieved from New South Wales Secondary Principals’ Council http://www.nswspc.org.au/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=35:shortcuts-on-my-school-website&catid=2:news&Itemid=21

Qld behind in literacy, new figures show [Online exclusive]. (2010, September 10). The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from http://news.smh.com.au/

Set a national standard, but it must pass the test [Online exclusive]. (2010, September 5). The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from http://www.smh.com.au/

Wu, M. (2010). Interpreting NAPLAN results for the layperson. Retrieved from http://www.appa.asn.au/images/news/naplanforlayperson20091022.pdf

Arranged Marriages: who are they really for?
November 2, 2010, 5:22 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Arranged Marriages have been around since the 1400s and beyond (Undiscovered Scotland, 2010). The practice of finding a suitable marriage partner for one’s child has been greatly discussed in all forms of literature and media and hearsay. As a second generation, Australian-born female, the idea of having my marriage arranged has always seemed like the most awful form of torture my parents could ever inflict upon me. I would rather scrub the entire house clean with a toothbrush than be subjected to, what I believe to be, a cruel life and love-less marriage. Although my parents have never once proposed this arrangement, it always seemed to me, that the mere idea of doing so was the equivalent of not trusting your children to make the right choice. It seemed that trust and over-protectiveness were the main issues at hand.

To understand this thought-process, the judgemental heuristic must be accounted for. Throughout my friendship with a girl we will call ‘A’, the only information I received with regards to arranged marriage, specifically regarding parents, trust and over-protectiveness, was skewed in a negative fashion. An example of this is when I was told that her grandmother was coming to stay for six months with her and her family. In my family, having another family member, especially my grandparents coming to stay, is always an exciting event, since we rarely visit them. Yet, my friend sounded less than pleased and it was only later that I found out why. It turned out that her grandmother’s extended visit was to aid my friend’s mother in searching for an appropriate husband. ‘A’ at the time, had a boyfriend that her mother did not know about, and if she were to find out, it would cause much chaos. This was the first time I had heard about her prospect of an arranged marriage and I was deeply shocked. ‘A’ and I had been at school together, and we had been friends for 7 years. It was the first I had ever heard about anyone I knew of having an arranged marriage. Nonetheless, because of the Fundamental Cognitive Error, I was completely unaware that I had made an interpretation, let alone a negative one. Thus, when preparing for this assignment, I used the availability heuristic to include information, which I had previously interpreted in a negative way, about arranged marriages, based on the life of my friend.

As I had, formerly questioned ‘A’ in relation to the process of arranged marriages, I am ashamed to say that I didn’t hide my disgust and pure fascination for the topic, and in ‘A’s’ attempt to change my opinion; however, I took the “passive, but unconvinced” route and pretended she was right. By taking this route I was, in my mind, acting in the best way to maintain our friendship and avoid a quarrel on a topic, which was evidently esteemed, or at the very least, respected by the other party.

Realising that I am not a parent, and have never had to contemplate a decision to arrange marriages for my children, and considering I have only experienced two decades of life (the first three-quarters of which I have always put my needs first), I recognised, with much hindsight, that perhaps I wasn’t the best judge of the situation. Hence, the idea of challenging my extremely negative beliefs arose. Furthermore, I have had none of my own experiences with the topic at hand. All the information I had interpreted came secondhand, from my friend ‘A’. When I posed myself the question “What do I really believe anyway?” I realised that all my values were all based in supremely hot cognitions. That is to say, all my feelings towards this topic were based on my emotions, and negative ones at that.

What I truly believed was that an arranged marriage was the ultimate form of suppression any parent could place upon their child. My judgemental heuristics informed me that not only were women bound in a modern-day form of slavery, but additionally that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/) had been violated. Where was the sense of freedom? To me, there was no freedom in this arrangement. To fully understand my beliefs on this topic, I will present an extract of my notes from when I first began this assignment. I laughed at my emotive language, not because it sounded silly, but more so because I was so enraged. For example, I said “It is wrong, immoral and unjust and just medieval that these girls have not a chance at finding love, but instead are forced into a marriage where perhaps eventually, they will come to be fond of, or have respect for the man they are married to. It is also an equal possibility that they are ill-treated to lengths that I care not to think about. They could be raped, kept in dungeons, mutilated. The girls are no longer people (well, they barely were to being with) and now they are another man’s possession. These women have no lives, they are there purely for the men, and the thought enrages me. We should disallow this practice in Australia, it is foul, unjust and un- Australian”. Not once, in that entire tirade did I consider the potential benefits of an arranged marriage.

Therefore, in order to consider the possible advantages, I outlined what I believed to be the Pros and Cons of Arranged Marriages. To my surprise and with explicit use of cold cognitions, I was able to intellectually see that there were indeed benefits to having an arranged marriage. Astonishingly, I was able to generate four rational reasons as to why arranged marriages should be allowed. My reasons, granted, were not of the highest intellectual value, I was pleased to note that I could at the very least produce reasons for something I was vehemently opposed to. My reasons were; all the hours that would be wasted searching, dating prospective others are returned to you, so you can focus on the rest of your life, such as your career, and so on. Furthermore, parents generally know your taste fairly well, so choosing a partner in marriage, although not quite as returnable as material objects, is nonetheless an achievable goal. Additionally, you will always have some form of support system, be it financial, or hopefully even in terms of friendship. Finally, and to be honest, it would save me a lot of heartache, and maybe even lead to procreating in a better gene pool than it would be if I chose my own partner.

Was my opinion swayed however? Not in the slightest. I had acknowledged that there were benefits; sadly, none of these profits seemed to outweigh the disadvantages. I was even, in my own mind, using inverted commas when referring to ‘profits’, as though they weren’t really profits at all. Feeling stumped and with no foreseeable way to challenge my own opinion, I set out to research the topic and either bring back evidence to support or contradict my opinion.

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon an online article from the Brisbane Times (2010) entitled Fleeing Arranged Marriage which at the time, given the use of the term “fleeing” was an apt description of how I felt regarding arranged marriages. The article outlined the case of a 14 year old Melbourne [school] girl who was legally prohibited to leave the country by a [federal] judge. It was found that the girl (a mere teenager) was to marry a boy (of only 17 years) whom she didn’t know, had never met, but to whom her parents had arranged a marriage to.

Immediately after reading this article, a sense of social righteousness overcame me. Although I wouldn’t call myself a human activist of any sort, nor have I a huge interest in the area, this article was enough to move me to a state of hot cognition whereby my emotions tumbled forth and led me into a frenzy of “but of course the judge is right to act in this way”. Although there was no report which contradicted my thoughts, I began to suspect that perhaps I wasn’t the judge best of arranged marriages. My close friend in high school was, unbeknownst to my schoolgirl naivety, more likely than not, going to have her marriage arranged. Yet, I had failed to notice anything unusual- some friend I was.

What I didn’t realise, however, was that the phenomenon of Arranged Marriages was far more complex than what I could ever have realised. Taking into account the fact that I had little contact with those who would be involved in arranged marriages, I still believed it to be an easy moral decision. For me, arranging the marriage of your child is completely cutting off their sense of independence. Being the autonomous person that I am, I was repulsed by the idea of being forced (although in theory no arranged marriage is ever forced) to marry someone I don’t know, based on traits that, research has shown will not actually make me happy (i.e. the weak correlation between income and expected happiness; Kahneman, Kruegar, Schkade, Schwarz and Stone, 2006) was an awful idea. The parents might be well-meaning, but for me, it resembled a life of enslavement and even the possibility of physical abuse.

These feelings came from my availability and judgemental heuristics, which had taken the small amount of information I had on arranged marriages and skewed and extrapolated to huge measures.

Once I started my research, however, I observed that not only were there many research articles on the topic, but also that the idea has been around for longer than I cared to imagine. Once I began reading, I realised that the practice was not limited to Indian cultures, instead, there have been several Western cultures that have brought the practice into norm. The most startling revelation was to realise that in one of my favourite novels, Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, the practice of arranging the marriages for all five of the Bennett daughters was considered the norm for the time period. Moreover, it would have been considered social suicide were it not utilised to benefit the family and the family name. Although there is never any explicit talk regarding after the marriage, the state of the surrounding society indicates that there were few problems that arose with arranged marriages. The stories (within the story) which did emerge were seen as the exception, rather than the rule.

Granted, this evidence is based purely on a novel. However, further investigation revealed several findings. First, that arranged marriages occurred in a number of different countries, in both Western and Eastern societies (Merali, 2009 and Rockman, 1994). Second, perceptions of arranged marriages, from first to second generation women, living in a Western society differed (Zaidi & Shuraydi, 2002 and Talbani & Hasanali, 2000). Third, and to my dismay, the main research done on abuse and domestic violence towards women in arranged marriages, were qualitative studies (Zaidi & Shuraydi, 2002; Talbani & Hasanali, 2000 and Abraham, 2002). Though the information they yielded implied that non-English speaking “mail-ordered” brides were more likely to be obstructed by their lack of language and thus be the victims of neglect and abuse (Merali, 2009).

Yet another surprise arose from my research; professional match-makers were the new (and somehow, improved) arranged marriage consultants. Retrospectively, and using the Hindsight Bias, I don’t see how I couldn’t have realised this. My judgemental heuristic was so deeply entrenched that I did not even realise that professional match-makers were taking the exact same course of action as parents who are concerned with the well-being of their children. The New York Times presented a 12-page article on the phenomenon of the New Arranged Marriage (Thernstrom, 2005). The article outlined how Professional Match-makers, were selecting men and women, from very high socio-economic ranks and paring them up. It is a costly procedure, whereby expenses for makeovers, dinners, drinks, planes, cars, and so forth, are all paid for by the male client. In this article, the matchmakers (who were women), never took on females as clients, but kept them in their “pool of women” to select from. Interestingly enough, this article, although it evoked fairly negative emotions within me (What do you mean men were expected to pay for everything? Has my education lead me to nothing?) I was nonetheless a little perturbed to realise that I had been swayed. My half-hearted attempt to feel enraged barely worked- I was fascinated by the whole process. It might have something to do with the innate glamour of New Yorkers, or the mere idea of being wined and dined by a man whose prerequisites (determined by the matchmaker) are a “wealthy, successful and handsome” bachelor (Thernstrom, 2005). Really, is that so hard much to ask for?

Once again, it is evident that my judgemental and availability heuristics have joined forces to convince me that perhaps having my marriage arranged wouldn’t be such a bad idea. My judgemental heuristic has induced me to focus on the traits which best represent an ‘ideal’ husband. Additionally, my availability heuristic informs me that, despite what proverbs tell us (there are plenty of fish in the sea and so on), my own experience has indicated that such men are often unavailable or previously engaged. Thus, if I was ten years older, and still single, the idea of having my marriage arranged for me might actually be a plausible consideration.

Thus, what can be concluded from the above information is that first and foremost, opinion change is not an easy process. My own change of belief required extensive research and expanded knowledge into the topic area. It is plausible to expand from this and also conclude that changing another person’s opinion would prove much more time consuming, given the lack of insight into the other person’s life.



Abraham, S. K. (2002). Attitudes of second-generation Asian-Indians toward dating and arranged marriage: An exploratory study. Dissertation Abstracts International: Section B: The Sciences and Engineering 63, pp. 2997

Austen, J. (1993). Pride and Prejudice. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Limited

Das, S. (2010, September 16). Fleeing Arranged Marriage. Brisbane Times. Retrieved from


Kahneman, D., Kruegar, A. B., Schkade, D., Schwarz, N., & Stone, A. A., (2006). Would you be happier if you were richer? A focusing illusion. Science 312, 1-14

Merali, N. (2009). Experiences of South Asian brides entering Canada after recent changes to family sponsorship policies. Violence Against Women. 15, 321-339

Rockman, H. (1994). Matchmaker, matchmaker make me a match: The art and conventions of Jewish arranged marriages. Sexual & Marital Therapy, 9, 277-284

Talbani, A., & Hasanali, P. (2000). Adolescent females between tradition and modernity: Gender role socialization in south Asian immigrant culture. Journal of Adolescence, 23, 615-627

Thernstrom, M. (2005, February 13). The New Arranged Marriage. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/13/magazine/13MATCHMAKING.html

Undiscovered Scotland. (2010). Retrieved October 10, 2010, from http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usfeatures/timeline/to1500.html

Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (2010). Retrieved September 10, 2010, from http://un.org/en/documents/udhr/

Zaidi, A.U. & Shuraydi, M. (2002). Perceptions of arranged marriages by young Pakistani Muslim women living in a Western society. Journal of Comparative Family Studies, 33, 495-514

Anthropogenic Global Warming: How Deniers Have Successfully Manufactured Doubt and Disbelief about Global Warming
November 2, 2010, 5:20 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Within any judgment and decision-making environment, there are inherent difficulties and complexities that make it impossible to make fully informed and deliberate decisions. Central to the political decision-making process, anthropogenic global warming has become a hotly contested topic of discussion that faces a great deal of uncertainty regarding the science and the choices to be made as a response. The global warming regime is comprised of a complex and interconnected network of different constituencies and stakeholders with highly diverse interests and end goals. Focusing predominantly on the Global Warming Deniers, this particular group has one interest in common: to manufacture a belief system of doubt in the public eye and delay any action as a result. In this paper, I will discuss the methods employed by global warming deniers and how they have managed to convince large segments of the population that science has yet to prove the earth is warming due to human activity. Where data is incomplete and uncertain and the causal chain is very complex, individuals will be more vulnerable to the manipulation of those who advertise their point of view.

History tends to repeat itself. Although this old proverb is itself subject to judgment by representativeness, it is significant in recognizing how certain outcomes do in fact share a resemblance. There is strong evidence linking the similarities in the strategies employed by the personnel involved in the tobacco industry, acid rain, ozone regime, and finally global warming (Markowitz, & Rosner, 2002). These historical events have one predominant similarity: the goal of the industry personnel to manufacture doubt in public’s eye and create uncertainty about the science involved so as to prevent any regulatory action that would call for a discontinuation of these industry’s products and practices (Markowitz, & Rosner, 2002).

The decision criterion to the climate change problem has two options: to act or not to act (Froyn, 2005). This decision imposes heavy costs on present generations, while the potential benefits would be enjoyed by future generations. The costs include large economic losses to nations and private companies by turning to more sustainable and efficient forms of energy, while the benefits would be the prevention of devastating climatic impacts to future human and ecological environments (Froyn, 2005).

The decision regarding greenhouse gas abatement is generally confounded with the perplexity of the situation and the uncertainty of scientific information. Climate change is long-term and climate trends can require decades to reveal themselves (Morrison, 2010). Thus, there is scientific uncertainty in predicating the timing and magnitude of future climate effects caused by anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions (Froyn, 2005). There are also uncertainties related to identifying the ecological, economic, social, and political impacts of greenhouse gas abatement along with the effectiveness and costs of such policy options (Froyn, 2005).

A ‘Global Warming Denier’ can be defined as an individual or organization that denies and dismisses the science and urgency of global warming research as provided for by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (Bray, 2010). By forming a kind of network of organizations consisting of corporate lobbyists, front groups and free market anti-government organizations, these individuals appear to be comprised of a large and unrelated constituency, when in reality they sit in on each other’s boards, publish the same writings, and hire the same scientists (Wagner, 2004).

The motivational pressures and self-interest of corporate representatives leads to the systematic distortion of information in the messages they convey (Gilovich, 1991).  It is in the rational self-interest of coal and oil companies to save profits by preventing any regulatory action against their services and practices. Consequently, these industrial polluters hire corporate representatives to manipulate, hide, and at times invent new data to support their claims and to create doubts about apparent “truths” (Sahlins, 2003).

A belief is not merely based on plain data, but is dependent on a good story to compliment the data (Gilovich, 1991). The motivational need and desire to tell a good story can distort the truth and accuracy of secondhand information (Gilovich, 1991).  Since majority of the population bases their opinion on global warming not from studying the science behind the theory but from what they read and hear in the media, there is an inescapable biasing effect of secondhand information.  The media is a powerful tool that is often abused as a means to impose certain beliefs on those who less educated on the matter. Assuming a significant portion of the population is not capable of evaluating the true risks of global warming science, deniers have promoted and exaggerate their counter-arguments in favour of major corporations. Many red-flag arguments are circulating the Internet and media reports, most of which are based on disinformation and false statements.

The motivational influences of deniers to confuse the public are made easier by cognitive problems experienced by the commons. When faced with complex theories and ambiguous data, people will use shortcuts and make inferences on the basis of simplified models and heuristics (GIiovich, 1991). These shortcuts will lead to systematic biases in judgment as a result. Some individuals may fall subject to the availability heuristic when their belief system is influenced by the frequency of an event occurring (Plous, 1993).  Deniers will cherry pick a single study or event and promote it worldwide so as to cast doubt on the entirety of the issue (Markowitz, & Rosner, 2002).  For instance, small inconsistencies in the data will be overemphasized and over-publicized throughout blogs and the Internet, so as to make it appear that there is a general inconsistency in the whole theory itself. Furthermore, as the accounts provided by global warming deniers are frequently retold, the further the argument is deviated from the original source and the more likely individuals will start believing it to be true (Gilovich, 1991).

Global warming deniers like Julian Simon and Bjorn Lomborg have been very successful in manufacturing doubt about global warming. However, it is important to understand that most of these claims are not published in peer-reviewed academic journals. Initially deniers have claimed that global warming was a myth perpetuated by environmentalists (Ayres, 2004). Later, as scientific evidence became stronger and more solid, deniers argued that if the earth is warming it is due to natural causes and not to human interference (Ayres, 2004).  As science further improved showing the connection between human activity and an increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases, these individuals suggested that although man is the cause of the earth temperature increasing, it would still be economically unfeasible to do anything about it. (Ayres, 2004)

The opinions of others, especially those of experts, are an important source of information to judgment and decision-making. Climate change is a very complex issue and involves expert opinion that is widely dispersed (Bray, 2010). While most global warming deniers have no established position in climate science, their arguments appear to have validity when backed up important figures of the scientific community. The case of ExxonMobil provides an excellent example of how a multibillion dollar energy corporation can leak into  ‘think-tanks’ such as the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and the International Policy Network, funding them to provide seminars dismissing climate science world-wide (Owen, & Bignell, 2010).

A manufactured controversy about scientific findings gives the impression that there is no consensus within the scientific community when there is one. The global warming theory, as concluded by the IPCC with 90 percent certainty, is that emissions of greenhouse gases from human activity have contributed to the increase in global mean temperature and will continue to do so should we run business-as-usual scenarios (Bray, 2010). Why, then, is there still doubt about whether scientists agree or not on the topic of human responsibility for the increase in global mean temperature?

The impression that there is a lack of consensus can be explained by the “attribution theory”. The theory suggests that people make casual attributions based largely on three sources of information: consensus information, distinctiveness information, and consistency information (Plous, 1993). The impression that there is a lack of consensus is essentially a case of neglecting base rate information when making casual attributions (Plous, 1993). Consensus information is not as influential of causal information as that of distinctiveness information (distinct stimuli or entities) and consistency information (same stimuli that arise when same situation occurs) because it is generally comprised of abstract, pallid, and the remote quality of base rate information (Plous, 1993). Therefore, as base-rate information regarding the consensus of scientists about human responsibility for increase in mean temperature is overlooked, there is the impression that there is no consensus on the topic. Attention is drawn to sources of information that are more vivid and salient, such some of the claims made by global warming deniers.  The effects of ignoring base-rate information is evident in the United States, where about half the population believes there to be substantial disagreement among scientists on the topic when in reality there has been a general consensus on the correlation between human emitted greenhouse gases and global warming for about a decade now (Morrison, 2010).

To base an opinion on incomplete and unrepresentative information, one is subject to what is called an “illusion of validity” (Gilovich, 1991).  The problem of hidden and absent data is evident in the industrial polluter’s rational and vigorous resistance of documenting information about the damages they are causing to the commons through their practices and activities (Wagner, 2004). The ability for actors to limit access to information about their products and activities can increase the costs for third parties to research and understand the externalities of such products and activities (Markowitz, & Rosner, 2002).

This capacity to hinder third parties from attaining valuable information on the negative externalities of these companies is further exacerbated should the actors decide to actively discredit and obscure third-party research.  In many situations, global warming deniers actively work to discredit third-party research that could result in substantial damage to corporate profits. To attack the credibility of their opponent’s research, some corporate representatives will finance counter-research to produce different result from their opponents or to show that the results of the previous research cannot be reproduced (Wagner, 2004). They will also engage in personal attacks and harassments on individual researchers so as to discourage any further research that would conflict with the interest of these corporate representatives. Therefore, there is insufficient information provided on the effects caused by industries on environmental quality, waste streams, and safety of products (Wagner, 2004). By publicizing only the positive information about a product or activity—keeping the negative externalities a private matter—allows for a misleading and biased account of positive externalities.

In certain situations, individuals may remain “passive but unconvinced” about contradictory data about the global warming controversy. The claimed uncertainty to the data has kept many political figures stuck in this state of mind as indicated by their failure to take the necessary action needed to combat the devastating effects of global warming. By remaining “passive but unconvinced” these political figures are imposing the same effect as that of rejecting the data provided by scientists since the necessary action to combat the effects of global warming has yet to be undertaken (Gilovich, 1991).

Overall, the inherent complexities of the global warming decision-making environment can impose significant difficulties in making fully informed and deliberate decisions. This can be further exacerbated where actors are actively engaged in distorting information so as to promote their own self-interests and those of corporate representatives. In an effort to cast doubt on the entire global warming theory, corporate representatives of industrial polluters seek to stop any regulatory action from disallowing these industries to continue their practices. Global warming deniers employ strategic methods and use systematic measures to discredit the science and to reveal a lack of consensus within the scientific community when in reality there has been one for decades now.  Global warming is faced with incomplete data and uncertainty about the causal chain linking human responsibility to the increase in global mean temperature. The general public must therefore learn to become intuitive statisticians so as to prevent being persuaded by the manipulations of global warming deniers promoting false statements that are based on incomplete, unrepresentative, and misused information.

Works Cited

Ayres, Ed. (2004) Global Warming Deniers Lose a Pet Argument. World Watch, (17)5, 8. doi: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3290480

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