The other sins of Senator Vicente Sotto III

Sylvia Estrada Claudio
Perhaps Senator Sotto should take a break from legislative work and try to learn basic lessons of scientific reasoning and civility in argumentation

Sylvia ClaudioYou have to have been living under a rock if you are not yet aware of the plagiarism perpetuated by Senator Sotto in his turno en contra speeches against the reproductive health bill. A colleague, Alfredo Melgar, was first to discover that in his first speech, Sotto had plagiarized a US blogger named Sarah Pope.

Shortly after, literary notable Miguel Syjuco revealed that 4 other bloggers had also been plagiarized in the second speech.

But the original “theft,” as Ms. Pope would later call it, was not the end of the perfidy. In the morning of August 16, Sotto denied the plagiarism on national TV. Before the day ended, Sotto’s chief of staff admitted the plagiarism.

The details of the missteps, however, show the whole sorry mess of Senator Sotto’s “style” in legislative work — including the kind of people he employs.

In denying his plagiarism, Senator Sotto puts forward the most outrageous ideas about proper attribution. He also ends up painting a whole class of people in a negative light. Sotto claims that he did not plagiarize anyone because he had made a blanket disclaimer that the ideas he presented were taken from other experts. He also said that blogs could not be plagiarized because they were not important as sources of data.

Given his extensive plagiarism of blogs, his statements were disingenuous at best. His idea that a blanket disclaimer was sufficient caused many of my colleagues in the academe to go into fits. Students who plagiarize from reputable scientific sources get failed in any self-respecting institution of higher learning. Students who misrepresent blogs as scientific research also get severe reprimands. I do not know what is to be done with someone who does both—plagiarize and misrepresent.

As the firestorm developed even further, Sotto stated that he could not be legally liable because of parliamentary immunity. Prior to his first speech, anticipating that what Sotto would say would be morally indefensible and possibly libelous, I had tweeted a challenge to him to strip himself of immunity and face the consequences. His retreat into the protection of immunity,  as another tweeter noted, does not make him less of a liar and a thief.

The way in which his plagiarism was finally admitted is a story in itself.
As I monitored the news over the controversy, someone sent me a link to the “apology” of Sotto’s COS, Mr. Villacorta, to Sarah Pope. The apology made me cringe. I can only describe it as one of the most arrogant non-apologies I have seen. It was also an attempt to take the blame for Sotto by saying it was his staff that lifted from her blog and not the senator himself. Villacorta then implied that Pope was unfair in putting the blame on Sotto for the mistakes made by his staff.

Speaking for the ‘unborn’

In so doing, Villacorta accused Pope of persecuting Sotto. As if this were not enough, he appealed to her to join them in their fight for the unborn, turning the apology both into an accusation and a political diatribe. Part of the bad taste of this was that Mr Villacorta implied that he and Sotto could speak for the unborn, “all the unborn wants very much the right to be born and they need everybody’s help.” That the apology was written in bad English did not help.  

Speaking of proper attribution and reputable claim-making, Mr Villacorta’s “apology” made me wonder who among the unborn they had actually interviewed so that he could conclude these things. After all, if they claim that life begins at fertilization, I doubt whether the zygote has any real thoughts on the matter of being born. I also cannot ascertain how fetuses are seeking everyone’s help. I also wonder whether, even if this were true, they would be authorizing Sotto to represent them.

What is amazing to me about the whole situation is that these “sins” which already seem numerous, are but a few of the errors he has committed in his speeches. I am driven to point out these other errors lest these become uncontested and therefore sanitized.

I feel it is my duty because I teach.

One of the keys to national progress is to increase our people’s scientific literacy. Apparently we have failed so badly that a senator and his staff do not know the difference between evidence-based scientific arguments and the chicanery they have managed to put together.

The scientific arguments regarding contraceptives, abortion, sexuality education, etc., have already been repeatedly discussed in the course of the debate on the RH bill. I have no intention of reiterating them because no amount of repetition seems to make a dent in the minds of people like Senator Sotto.

The real problem here is that they can’t discern what good science is and therefore tend to believe the gunk they come up with.

And how do I know this is gunk? Sit back, dear reader, and note the tell tale signs of folly:

1) Citing outdated studies a.k.a Rip Van Winkle Does Science

When Sotto does cite his sources instead of plagiarizing them, we note that they are at least 30 years old. In his first speech, which can be accessed at the Senate website, he mentions only 3 books, one dated 1975 and the two others, 1974. His second speech does not mention the dates of any of the sources he cites to bolster his case. Where dates are mentioned, it is of UN documents he wishes to criticize.

Why do we teachers insist that this is a sign of possible chicanery? Because scientific knowledge is continually evolving, renewed and revised. To claim that something believed more than 30 years ago would still be true now, must raise some red flags. While it is true that this may be possible, it is unlikely.

In fact the claim that Sotto makes, which he supports by these books from the 1970s, is that, “Individual human life begins at conception and is progressive, ongoing continuum until natural death. This is a fact so well established that no intellectually honest physician in full command of modern medical knowledge would dare to deny it.”

That claim is false.

Current medical text books do not support this view and neither do a majority of physicans. Indeed, even in the 1970s, it was by no means the dominant position. 

In 1976, Theodosius Dobzhansky, geneticist and evolutionary biologist, commenting on the question about when life begins observed, “The wish felt by many people to pinpoint such a stage probably stems from the belief that a soul, conceived as a preternatural entity, descends upon a formerly soulless living stuff, and suddenly transforms the latter into human estate. I hope that modern theologians  can accept the idea that the transformation is not sudden, but gradual.”

2) Citing extremists, outliers and unproven claims a.k.a. Crackpot Alert!

Why do I claim that the mainstream of medical opinion does not support this view? Simple. I listen to reputable scientific organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO). I invite anyone out there who still believes in the disinformation against the RH bill, to visit the WHO website.

Why should I believe the WHO? Well, it has not been perfect. No human institution is. But its opinions are based on the exhaustive reviews by panels of experts of the research available. In any area of science, there will always be contradictory studies (like those of Dr Natasha Campbell McBride which Sotto cites).

The role of reputable scientists is to see the whole of the data and disregard those that are contradictory to the majority because the claims are not backed by reputable research (this is the case in Dr McBride’s theories) or are just contradicted by more researches. Usually, well-run studies that contradict the majority are pointed out in the reputable literature.

To take the outlier study or the crackpot’s views and to claim that this is scientific proof is, in my mind, even more egregious than an outright lie.

3) Misrepresentation a.k.a. LIAR, LIAR!

Sotto misrepresents studies or quotes them out of context. I get the impression that he and his staff really don’t read what they quote or they are deliberately distorting the findings. Again I will give just one example.

In his speech he says this, “The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the World Health Organization (WHO) announced on July 29, 2005 that after a thorough review of the published scientific literature, it has concluded that combined estrogen-progestogen oral contraceptives (and combined estrogen-progestogen menopausal therapy) are carcinogenic to humans (Group 1 category. This category is used when there is sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in humans.).”

First, the date of the study is wrong. The study was conducted in 1999 and can be accessed in full here.

Secondly, he misrepresents what the study is saying. Here is the full statement of the study seen in page 294 of the monograph: “Combined oral contraceptives are carcinogenic to humans (Group 1). There is also conclusive evidence that these agents have a protective effect against cancers of the ovary and the endometrium.”

On page 293 the monograph notes that the basis for saying combined oral contraceptives cause cancer is that there is sufficient evidence that high dose preparations cause hepatocellular cancer. I have italicized the term high dose because the currently available preparations are not high dose preparations.

4) Inacuracies a.k.a. LIAR, LIAR, LIAR

Sotto has too many inaccuracies. I shall add only one more example here having noted his inaccuracies over the IARC monograph.

The pill Diane, which he claims his wife was taking when she got pregnant in 1975, was only available in 1978, as shown in the website entry of Bayer here.

5) Ignorance of statistical reasoning a.k.a. Really? You Studied in Harvard?
In his second speech he says this: “Kung tutuusin sa pinagawa ko sa mga staff ko, hindi pa nga umabot man lang sa kalahati ng 11 maternal deaths ang nakalap nila sa mga hospitals sa Pilipinas nung 2011 eh. For example, sa Nueva Viscaya Provincial Hospital, ang maternal deaths na naitala nila ay 2 lamang sa 2011. Let me emphasize, this is for the entire year of 2011, hindi po ito kada-araw. Sa Pangasinan Provincial Hospital, 4 lamang ang naitalang namatay sa panganganak sa nakaraang taon. Sa Batangas Regional Hospital, 7 out of 2584 deliveries ang naitala .27%. Hindi pa nga umabot sa 1%. Sa Cavite Naval Hospital, wala silang naitala na namatay sa panganganak sa taong 2011. Kaya ang hirap paniwalaan ang kanilang figure na 11 mothers die every day.”

Extrapolating Sotto’s numbers to a nationwide count would show that 18 mothers die a day.  According to Likhaan, one of the NGOs he maligned, “Sotto failed to grasp that a small number – such as the 0.27% he calculated for Batangas and belittled – becomes large when multiplied by a huge number like the millions of births per year. If we assume that the Batangas data can be applied to all births in the country in 2011, the national figure becomes 2,385,000 births × 0.27% = 6,461 maternal deaths per year, or nearly 18 per day.” (See the computation here.)

6. Mistaking temporal contiguity for correlation and correlation as causation a.k.a. Conspiracy Theories and Witch Hunting Are So Dark Ages!

The biggest one is that because certain UN agencies and international NGOs that support reproductive health are concerned with abortion services in OTHER countries, therefore they are using the RH bill as a means to legalize abortion in the Philippines.

In his speech where he accuses my NGO, Likhaan, as pushing abortion, he flashes a few pages of our translation of the book, “Where Women Have No Doctor” from the world renowned publisher the Hesperian Foundation. Of the several hundred pages of that book, he chooses to show those where the book discusses how abortions are done.

Hesperian works with NGOs for translations of its many wonderful books and indeed, we were its partners for the Filipino translation. The translated version is faithful to the English original, because unlike Sotto, we don’t censor or mistranslate other people’s material. Also, last I heard, it is not a crime to discuss abortion in the Philippines.

Conspiracy theorists and witch hunters work through innuendos and insinuations. It is very difficult to protect oneself from these accusations because they essentially ask that people think the darkest and worst thoughts of other people.

Sotto is guilty indeed of failures in proper attribution, misrepresentation, logical fallacies and inaccuracies. But these things are the fruit of the lack of discipline in tracking down the real evidence; conceit in refusing to listen to the experts; narrow-mindedness in refusing to accept evidence that is contrary to his beliefs; and the low-mindedness of one who can deal in insinuation and innuendo.

Perhaps Sotto should take a break from legislative work and try to learn basic lessons of scientific reasoning and civility in argumentation. If he does, he is less likely to cause the kind of morbid fascination that we give to train wrecks, when he makes his speeches. –



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