Politics: March 2009 Archives

I've several times seen people refer to studies showing that abstinence-only sex ed programs don't work. What they mean by that is that people who go through the abstinence-only programs aren't any more likely than those who go through comprehensive programs to have had unprotected sex. If the goal is to prevent sexually-transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies by encouraging people not ready for parenthood not to engage in sex at all, it seems not to work. I didn't look closely at any of these studies, just accepting that they were correct, because I've never favored only telling people to abstain. There's nothing wrong with providing information about condoms and hormonal methods of contraception. In fact, without providing the full information, some might never realize the failure rates of various methods of contraception and those that do choose to use them might not do so properly, thus trusting increasing the unreliability of something they rely on. So it's counterproductive for those who want to reduce sexual activity even apart from pregnancy and STDs to resist presenting comprehensive information.

Someone (I don't remember who) recently directed me to this study. I haven't checked any other studies as closel, but I checked Wikipedia for any further long-term studies on this, and I didn't find anything but this study and a study on a different topic about how some abstinence-only programs didn't do it right (i.e. they had some false information in their educational package). If this data is correct then those who have been posturing about abstinence-only programs not working have been spinning the science with as much ideologically-motivated one-sidedness as such people regularly accused the Bush Administration of doing, not exactly the best behavior among those accusing others of being anti-science for doing the same thing.

A lot of criticism of abstinence-only sex ed has been that it's lack of information about contraception leaves kids with the wrong information, thus making it more likely that they won't use proper precautions if they do have sex. This turns out to be disconfirmed. The kids who went through the abstinence-only programs were as well-informed on such matters as the kids in the control group, and they didn't have any higher rate of unprotected sex than anyone else. It may well be that comprehensive sex ed would have led to their being more informed than average, but it's not as if abstinence-only sex ed made them less-informed, as many opponents of abstinence-only have been claiming. Given this study, it seems that it's just as much anti-science to call abstinence-only education dangerous and even a cause of unwanted pregnancy and the spread of STDs as it is to promote abstinence-only education as the best method of preventing STDs and unwanted pregnancy. Such behavior is irresponsible and pretty obviously motivated by ideology while at odds with the facts, the very thing the Bush Administration has repeatedly been accused of doing on this issue.

When you look at the fine print, you can also see that this is looking at the long-term effects of early abstinence-only programs that aren't continued in high school,and according to this story they did find an initial effect of delaying the first sexual encounter that dropped off in later years, the same later years that these kids weren't continuing to receive abstinence-only sex ed. Isn't that a bit suspicious if the conclusion is supposed to be that abstinence-only sex ed doesn't work? It's not clear that this study really shows what it's been taken to show, which is that abstinence-only sex ed doesn't work.

Keep in mind also that there is a study that shows that a number of abstinence-only programs had curriicula that included falsehoods and questionable elements. So if you examine just the actual abstinence-only programs, it doesn't necessarily tell you what would happen if it were done with more care to present the correct information. Even if some of the false information might have led some to be more likely to be abstinent, it may have gone the other way with some, especially those who know the information being presented is false, which could incline some to reject everything that's being said as a result, including the abstinence message and the correct rates of failure of condoms or other contraceptive or STD-preventative measures. Remember that we're talking about teenagers here. Also, some of these programs were determined to be teaching religious doctrine. I have no idea what that means, and I'm certainly aware that some things claimed by some to be religious doctrine simply aren't, e.g, that life begins at conception, while others are, e.g. that it's morally wrong to engage in sex outside marriage (although I think a secular argument exists for such a view). But the point is that some might turn off to the whole enterprise if their view is that this is religious education.

So what they study does seem to show is that earlier abstinence-only sex ed, as it's actually been taught (as opposed to how it should be taught), doesn't seem to affect later sexual behavior if that kind of sex ed doesn't continue into high school, but it doesn't tell us anything about what happens if it does continue, and the fact that some of these programs were presenting false information might skew the results in either direction. It may well be that comprehensive sex ed would do better on the measure that we're discussing, but this study doesn't help us know that, and I know of none that do. I do see some that show increased effectiveness among those receiving comprehensive sex ed over control groups, but until we have a long-term study that actually looks at those who receive abstinence-only sex ed in high school, the facts simply aren't fully available on that question, and it would ideally help if someone could conduct a study on the best abstinence-only programs compared to abstinence-only programs as they actually occur, to see if there's any difference.

Interesting Ambiguity

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In the following interview excerpt (source) from a few months ago, then-President George W. Bush misunderstood Charles Gibson in a way that I've just realized has implications for a hotly-debated but obscure-for-the-ordinary-person philosophical debate:

GIBSON: You've always said there's no do-overs as President. If you had one?
BUSH: I don't know -- the biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq. A lot of people put their reputations on the line and said the weapons of mass destruction is a reason to remove Saddam Hussein. It wasn't just people in my administration; a lot of members in Congress, prior to my arrival in Washington D.C., during the debate on Iraq, a lot of leaders of nations around the world were all looking at the same intelligence. And, you know, that's not a do-over, but I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess.
GIBSON: If the intelligence had been right, would there have been an Iraq war?
BUSH: Yes, because Saddam Hussein was unwilling to let the inspectors go in to determine whether or not the U.N. resolutions were being upheld. In other words, if he had had weapons of mass destruction, would there have been a war? Absolutely.
GIBSON: No, if you had known he didn't.
BUSH: Oh, I see what you're saying. You know, that's an interesting question. That is a do-over that I can't do. It's hard for me to speculate.

Here are the two ways to read Gibson's question "If the intelligence had been right, would there have been an Iraq war?":

1. Holding the content of the intelligence the same as it is in the actual world, the rest of the world would have to have been different for the intelligence to have been right. If that situation were true, would the war have occurred? In other words, if what the intelligence reports actually said had turned out to be true, and Iraq's WMD programs were not just on hold because of sanctions, if there had been stockpiles of WMD in fact, would we have invaded Iraq?

2. Holding the rest of the world constant, for the intelligence reports to have been true, they would have had to say something different from what they actually said. If that situation were true, would the war have occurred? In other words, if the intelligence reports had said only that Saddam Hussein's WMD programs were not actively producing weapons but were merely on hold so that he could have such weapons within a year if the sanctions ended, would there have been a war?

It's hard to say which interpretation is more natural. I can see how Gibson's might be thought to be more natural, because there doesn't seem to be any reason to ask the question if he'd meant what Bush took it to mean. But for the hearer to come to that conclusion, it requires being aware of both interpretations and considering that the first wouldn't be worth asking in comparison with the second. Most hearers interpreting it in a way that seems most natural to them will probably hear it one way or the other, and thus (like President Bush) won't be going through that reasoning process to conclude that the second is the more likely intent.

On the other hand, I can see how someone might more naturally take it the way Bush did. I can think of a much clearer way to ask what Gibson wanted to know. He could have asked what would have happened if we'd had better intelligence or more accurate intelligence. By referring to it as "the intelligence", Bush took it to be referring to the actual intelligence. It's a lot harder to find an alternative way to say what Bush took it to mean. You'd need a much more roundabout expression like "if the information we based the war on from intelligence reports had turned out to be the accurate description of Saddam Hussein's WMD status".

I thought that was an interesting ambiguity, anyway.

[Sidebar to philosophers: At first I thought it had larger implications, because it seems very close to a debate in the semantics of counterfactual expressions. David Lewis takes counterfactual claims of the form "If A were true, then B" to mean that in the closest possible world (by which he means the possible world as much like ours in material composition) where A is true, B is also true. I've always found that view implausible, and I had at first thought this would be a good test case for people's intuitions on that matter. But then I realized that Lewis' theory is a theory for the truth conditions of counterfactual propositions. This is a case where it's ambiguous which proposition is even meant, not a case of how to evaluate whether a clear counterfactual proposition is true.]

President Obama announced today that he's lifting the ban on government funding for the destruction of living, complete human organisms in the embryonic stage. In his speech announcing this change, the President declared the choice between faith and science to be a false dichotomy, thus insinuating that the objections from the pro-life side (which are, in the popular mind, associated with faith rather than the philosophical backing that they tend to have among most pro-lifers) are anti-science. He speaks of pro-life objections as coming from thoughtful and decent people, which might suggest that he doesn't think such views are anti-intellectual, as many of my philosophical colleagues typically assume them to be. But in presenting his view as the middle road between the anti-science and pro-faith view on one side and the pro-science and anti-faith view on the other, it's hard to avoid the suggestion that pro-life objections are anti-science.

This becomes clearer later in his speech. He sees this order as part of a larger move to restore the promotion of good science. He sees it as a recovery from Bush Administration resistance to good science. Aside from the fact that those who make such claims have a pretty distorted view of what the Bush Administration actually did and what policies it actually supported in general, the claim is particularly ludicrous in this case. The pro-life objection to destroying human embryos has nothing to do with science or anti-science. It's based on a philosophical conclusion, that human life at any stage has the moral status that human life at any other stage has. The most science can show is that what empirical features are true of human life at any stage, not what moral status something with certain empirical features must have. That's a philosophical question, not a scientific question, and it's one the current President claimed to be beyond his pay grade, so he can't consistently now claim that science does give the answer in as clear a way as this speech insists.

The argument for full moral status does not deny the empirically-observable facts about human development. Consciousness, complexity of thought, fully-formed organs, and other features sometimes thought to be necessary for full moral status are simply irrelevant, according to the standard pro-life picture, and nothing science observes will tell us otherwise. It takes a philosophical presupposition to resist that conclusion, a presupposition not shared by the pro-lifer. So labeling the pro-life view anti-science is grossly unfair and unbecoming for the President of the United States, particularly when he's just called such people thoughtful and decent. Ironically, Obama's own position is also based on an ideological assumption that there's nothing wrong with killing an embryonic human being, and yet he says in this speech that "scientific decisions" should be "based on facts, not ideology". I won't call this hypocrisy, since he may simply not know what he's doing, but his words and actions are certainly inconsistent.

There's a further insult to pro-lifers hidden in this speech. He says, "with proper guidelines and strict oversight, the perils can be avoided". What perils does he mean? It sounds as if he's saying that the ethical objections can be handled by applying proper guidelines and oversight, but it's hard to see how that would be unless the proper guidelines and oversight would prevent the killing of any embryos for the purpose of deriving stem cells, and that's exactly the policy he's trying to remove with this executive order. So it's as if he wants people to get the impression that proper oversight and guidelines will avoid all the objections being raised against this research, when in reality the only way to have guidelines and oversight of that nature would have been to retain the Bush policy, which was already the ingenious middle way between the two extremes, one that recognized the value of the research while not allowing further human organisms to be destroyed. Now President Obama wants to claim that spot by abandoning Bush's middle-ground view and going for the more extreme view that refuses to recognize any of the moral objections of a sizable minority of the American populace (something like 41% according to one poll).

The Obama Administration has signaled that it will rescind the Bush Administration's executive order providing for freedom-of-conscience protection for health care workers who seek to refrain from activity they consider immoral. The motivation for this, according to the article, is that existing laws already provide some of the intended protection, and what the newer executive order does add might be unwelcome. The only examples given of what's unwelcome is that it would allow health care workers from refusing to take part in certain activities that might prevent abortion, such as providing information about contraceptives.

The question seems to be whether it's worse to do (1) something that has a negative consequence in making it more difficult in certain circumstances to find health care workers who won't abstain or (2) requiring people to do something they consider immoral. This should be a no-brainer for anyone who isn't a consequentialist. It's much worse to allow the unwelcome consequence than to perpetuate immorality yourself, and it's pretty downright evil to force people to do something they consider evil just because you would prefer a certain result that they might also prefer.

So this explanation won't fly. I'm curious to hear if they have anything else to offer, since I know President Obama has a track record of offering a multitude of contradictory explanations of his controversial acts, so I know he's creative with this kind of thing, but I'm having trouble seeing a motivation for this that a reasonable person could actually have.

The following statement is both ambiguous and so obviously ambiguous that it should hardly bear mentioning:

I want President Obama's agenda to fail.

This could be used in several kinds of circumstances, including ones where I might say any of the following:

1. President Obama has a certain agenda whose goals I disagree with, and I don't want him to achieve the goals that I want to avoid.
2. President Obama has a certain agenda whose methods I disagree with, and I don't want him to use those methods to achieve the goals he and I both agree to be good, even if I would want those goals to be achieved.
3. I don't want President Obama to have goals that would achieve good.
4. I don't want President Obama's goals to be achieved, no matter what those goals turn out to be, even the good ones, merely because they happen to be his goals.

So RNC chair Michael Steele comes along and says something that denies 3 and 4, and when pressed on the details he endorses 1 and 2. Popular conservative entertainer talk show host Rush Limbaugh around the same time says 1 and 2, and when pressed for details he denies 3 and 4. Aside from a small disagreement about how to say things and what constitutes the kind of cordiality that it's best to have toward the President of the Unites States, there isn't any real substantive disagreement here, and neither person involved thinks there is. So why do I keep hearing about this? There really is nothing to see here.

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