I like Todd Akin. He’s been my Congressman for many years, and while, like most Republicans, he loves defense spending too much to be a genuine “small-government conservative,” he also hasn’t been afraid to buck his party on expansionary projects like No Child Left Behind. But I sure didn’t expect him to turn his Senate race into national news.
Akin jumped into boiling water Sunday when he defended his absolute position against abortion by adding that “from what I understand from doctors,” pregnancy from “legitimate rape” is “really rare.” It seems that claims that raped women are less likely to get pregnant have been floating around the edges of the pro-life world for decades, but it also seems that such claims are most likely false, and even though there has been research “which showed a lower rate of pregnancy among rape victims,” that’s still a far cry from “really rare” – and the unavoidable implication that most pregnant rape victims weren’t really raped.
But Akin thought he was just passing along a little-known fact that helped support his position. It’s the kind of dubious little-known “fact” that gets thrown around so often on controversial positions that I like to call them “performance-enhancing facts.” When you hold a controversial opinion, and others don’t agree with the position on its own merits, it’s tempting to enhance the position with facts about how the position really makes things better or isn’t as bad as other people think. You can make reasonable arguments for being 100% pro-life, but a lot of people are uneasy about no-abortion-for-rapes, and if you have a “fact” that those hardly ever happen anyway, well, you’ve just lowered the impact of that argument without having to respond to it.
Activists of all political stripes do this all the time. Just ask a liberal who gets his facts about hydraulic fracking from Gasland or health care from Sicko. You may support single-payer healthcare because you think it leads to better outcomes, but you don’t have to hype it with distorted facts about Cuba’s infant-mortality rate. On the other side, there’s plenty of strong evidence that the right to bear arms makes citizens safer; you don’t have to enhance that position by claiming Hitler’s gun control laws caused the Holocaust.
Truth is hard. From one-sided documentaries that present conclusions devoid of context to contradictory studies that can support almost anything to complicated historical events that can be explained by several different convenient narratives, it can be really hard to tell fact from fiction. It’s easy to see how activists – who by their very nature are already convinced about something that most of the public is not – can accidentally or deliberately stretch the truth, misinterpret studies, or simply be misled, until these performance-enhancing facts get thrown around and suddenly we have unstoppable legends that 99% of CEOs pay 0% taxes while fetuses have the brain development to do calculus by the third week!
Performance-enhancing facts can backfire, especially when you utter one on a local TV interview that happens to be so suspect that it launches a national firestorm and causes many of your political colleagues and pundits to ask you to abandon your race (though I think it’s funny that the DC echo chamber is surprised when early new polling shows no change in Akin’s lead). But what’s really bad about performance-enhancing facts is that they give your opponents room to unfairly denounce your position. All over the Internet yesterday progressives were mocking the no-exceptions-for-abortion position, claiming (for instance) that Republicans like Paul Ryan have the same abhorrent views as Todd Akin because they all co-sponsored a bill to remove federal funding for abortion for certain kinds of rape.
But that’s a ridiculous jump in logic. Just because Akin opposes abortions for rape because of this statistic doesn’t mean all other Republicans believe it (though plenty of liberals are assuming that to be a fact despite complete lack of evidence). You can disregard the bad fact about rape pregnancy proportions and still reasonably oppose all abortions and work to limit them in whatever way you can; if a fetus is a human being, murder is still murder and two wrongs don’t make a right. I suspect that’s the real reason Akin opposes abortions for rape, anyway; he only walked into controversy when he declined to answer the objection and opted for an attempt to dismantle it.
It’s hard to separate performance-enhancing facts from real truths. But I’ve started to become skeptical of secondary statistics that hype a position or downplay objections to it instead of developing the better argument. It’s an attempt to persuade people to accept your position without getting them to agree with your position, but sometimes people will just disagree with you, and sometimes that’s OK.
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