Earlier this week Congressman Todd Akin stated that a woman's body has ways of preventing impregnation following a "legitimate rape."
Last year about this time, Rep. Michele Bachmann, while on the campaign trail, claimed that the HPV vaccine caused mental retardation, telling Fox News that a woman approached her who said that "her daughter suffered mental retardation as a result of that vaccine," and that "there are very dangerous consequences" to the vaccine.
In both cases reputable medical authorities have unanimously stated that these statements were completely false and without merit.
As Marianne English of Discovery News noted, "Contrary to Bachmann's remarks, there is no scientific evidence linking the vaccine — or any other vaccine, for that matter — to mental retardation."
Politifact also examined the evidence of Bachmann's claims, rendering her conclusions false based on studies, reports and expert testimony confirming the two HPV vaccines' safety. In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement to address the false claims.
As for Akin's theory about impregnation following rape, according to the New York Times, "Leading experts on reproductive health, however, dismissed (Akin's) logic. 'There are no words for this — it is just nuts,' said Dr. Michael Greene, a professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. David Grimes, a clinical professor in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of North Carolina, said, that 'to suggest that there's some biological reason why women couldn’t get pregnant during a rape is absurd.'"
So these politicians said something that wasn't true; big deal, right?
But the larger question remains: Where are these politicians getting their profoundly flawed medical information? In both of these cases, the politicians based their comments on something that had been told by presumably credible sources (if they didn't think the information was credible, presumably they would not repeat it).
Akin prefaced his comments with, "from what I understand from doctors." Who are these medical doctors that Akin is referring to? It's not clear, though a spokesman for a conservative Christian group called American Family Association offered in support of Akin's claim a 1999 article titled "Rape Pregnancies Are Rare" by Dr. John C. Willke. Willke's opinion piece was not a study, and was not published in any peer-reviewed medical journal but instead on a web site called Christian Life Resources.
In Bachmann's case she apparently took one random stranger's anecdote as medical fact. But Bachmann's misinformation wasn't just randomly selected; she remembered that anecdote (and used it) because it supported her personal beliefs and political agenda. She used that story as a hook to criticize her Republican competitor Rick Perry for accepting campaign funds from a HPV manufacturer.
It didn't really matter if the story she was told was true or not — if it could be used to score political points. One person's story — no matter how heartfelt or compelling — is not evidence of anything. It's merely an anecdote, a personal story, which may or may not be true.
Of course politicians from all parties bend the truth and cherry pick evidence that best supports their claims while ignoring or downplaying information that discredits their positions.
For example in May when the Obama administration claimed that the rate of "federal spending increase is lower under President Obama than all of his predecessors since Dwight Eisenhower," that triggered an independent analysis by the Washington Post which found that the claim was based on a MarketWatch column in which the author had inappropriately included money spend in the Wall Street bailout in its calculations.
The Post concluded that "The White House might have a case that some of the rhetoric concerning Obama's spending patterns has been overblown, but the spokesman should do a better job of checking his facts… the picture is not as rosy as he portrayed it when accurate numbers, taken in context, are used."
This behavior is not, of course, confined to politicians. In fact we all do it — every single one of us — and we do it constantly and unconsciously. We all seek out information that confirms and supports our biases, and tend to ignore or dismiss information that doesn't support what we believe or want to hear. Psychologists call this tendency "confirmation bias," and it's a well-established pitfall of critical thinking.
Nearly any topic will have some experts who will cherry-pick the legitimate medical literature or offer an opinion to support some agenda. The problem is when proposed laws and regulations are based on medical misinformation.
When it comes to medical advice, leave it to medical professionals and take politician claims with a grain of salt. After all, if you wouldn't ask your member of Congress to diagnose your heart condition or treat your asthma why would you listen to their opinions about vaccines and pregnancy?