Monday, February 20, 2012

WaPo Fact Checker calls BS on "98 percent" meme

On Saturday, Feb. 11, I wrote "Lies, damned lies and the Guttmacher 98%", which was in essence a repeat of Lydia McGrew's post on What's Wrong with the World, "How to lie with statistics".  (I had mentioned in a post on The Other Blog that there was a discrepancy between the "98%" figure and another figure — "nearly 70 percent" — in the Reuters report of the Guttmacher Institute study.)

Well, Mollie at GetReligion.org, in a post with a title that shows we're all pretty unimaginative in our literary references, also called "bulls***" on the  number, citing Lydia's excellent takedown.  I just want to make her (and my) debt to Lydia clear, because Mollie in turn has been cited by none other than the unimpeachable Fact Checker of WaPo, Glenn Kessler:

But while the study says that 98 percent of “sexually experienced Catholic women” have “ever used a contraceptive method other than natural planning,” the data shown in the report does not actually back up that claim.  In fact, a supplementary table in the report, on page 8, even appears to undermine that statistic, since it shows that 11 percent of Catholic women currently using no method at all.  That has led to criticism of the statistic [link leads to Mollie].
The Guttmacher Institute, citing “confusion” over the statistic, on Wednesday posted the actual data behind it [which should tell you how badly the MSM got it wrong if even Guttmacher wanted to set the record straight].  It turns out it was based on a question that asked self-identified Catholic women who have had sex if they have ever used one of 12 methods of birth control.  [Rachel K.] Jones [co-author of the study], in an interview, said the women were asked to answer “yes” or “no” whether they had used each of the different forms; only two percent had said they had used only natural family planning.
In other words, a woman may have sex only once, or she may have had a partner who only used a condom once, and then she would be placed in the 98 percent category.  Jones said the correct way to describe the results of the research is this:
 “Data shows that 98 percent of sexually experienced women of child-bearing age and who identify themselves as Catholic have used a method of contraception other than natural family planning at some point in their lives.”


But even this phrasing is misleading, because it includes self-identified Catholic women who no longer use birth control and hold it to be wrong.  A recent CNN/ORC poll show 22% of Catholics agree with the statement, "Using artificial means of birth control is wrong;" but while it gives the total number of women agreeing as 13%, that number isn't broken down by religion.  It's fair to guess, though, that more Catholic women than non-Catholic women agree with the statement.

Kessler's conclusion is a little unsatisfying:

The NSFG data on women of child-bearing age certainly may still be relevant to the debate over contraception, because these are the women who today might have a need for access to free birth control [no one needs access to birth control, let alone "free" birth contol (which won't really be "free" if it's through mandatory insurance)].  The data also shows that there are few differences between women of different religions in terms of contraceptive use; there was not much difference back in 1973 but the gaps have narrowed even further today.  But that still does not excuse the media’s sloppy shorthand for this statistic.
For "significant omissions and/or exaggerations", Kessler gives the media the following rating:

But let's not forget all the pro-abortion, pro-contraception writers and bloggers who mindlessly repeated this meme ....
H/T to Michelle Bauman at EWTN News for this story!