Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Abstaining from Science

Here’s this week’s column on never letting the facts get in the way of ideology. The really scary thing is the Gallup Poll results on evolution cited below, where almost half of Americans believe that humans didn’t evolve, don’t share the vast majority of their genes with other primate species, and that humans and dinosaurs shared the earth. Hey--they saw it on The Flintstones, right?

The editor paired my piece with a column by a guy named Morton Throckmorton. I didn't know there were people in real life and not old movies actually named Throckmorton. Finally, in other news, I'm on the list as an international observer for the rerun of the runoff of the presidential election in Ukraine on Dec. 26. I promise to be careful; I won't order the poisoned soup and I'll think twice about the sushi, too.

The Abstinence Debate
Programs are based on junk science

East Valley Tribune, Dec. 13, 2004

Who could have known that when Republicans spend tax money on “abstinence-only” education, they really meant education that abstains only from knowledge of science?

Forget for the moment the continuing and disappointing studies of such programs. Both outside researchers and state agency sponsors simply haven’t found statistically-significant positive results. These programs do seem to increase students’ “favorable attitudes toward abstinence” but don’t seem to have any material positive long-term effects on behavior.

But actually working as promised is certainly no requirement for increased federal spending by the Bush administration and GOP Congress. Lacking solid evidence of these programs’ effectiveness hasn’t prevented Republicans from doubling funding over the past 5 years.

Of course, abstinence-only education is only a drop in the bucket compared to the really big GOP “faith-based” program, missile defense. We’re spending billions on unproved technology, which the administration refuses to test in advance, because why bother testing when you have faith? Either way, lots of money will go to favored defense contractors. Naturally, we’ve got billions to spend on the chimera of missile defense, but when it comes to giving U.S. troops the armored vehicles they need to protect themselves in Iraq, well, “you go to war with the Army you have.”

But enough about Star Wars; let’s talk about sex. A recent study for Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) discovered that the vast majority of federally-funded abstinence-only programs contain incredibly bad science. The programs present false or misleading information as scientific fact, including misrepresentations about contraceptives, abortion, and AIDS prevention.

The programs cite a discredited 1993 “meta-analysis” of condom effectiveness which claimed that condoms reduce HIV transmission by 69 percent, a conclusion which the Department of Health and Human Services, the Food and Drug Administration, and the Centers for Disease Control called “flawed” and based on “serious error.” (For those of you with really long memories, a similar meta-analysis -- a study based on combining results of prior studies of child sexual abuse -- was condemned by Congress in 1998. It doesn’t take a meta-analyst to figure out that to politicians, the value of a meta-analysis totally depends on whether it supports your ideology.)

These abstinence-only programs also cite 30-year-old studies on abortion risks, which reflect methods no longer widely used and do not accurately report today’s far lower statistics. The programs portray religious beliefs, like fundamental theological questions such as “when life begins,” as scientific facts. The programs also preach gender stereotypes as science, teaching that women need “financial support” while men need “admiration,” or telling girls that “occasional suggestions and assistance may be alright, but too much of it will lessen a man’s confidence or even turn him away from his princess.” Sheesh.

In short, it’s garbage science, but garbage science that’s politically useful to Republicans and which they continue to fund and refuse to correct. GOP Senate leader Bill Frist, himself a physician, was asked about one program that suggests that HIV can be spread through tears and sweat. Frist knows the science, but couldn’t bring himself to disagree, conceding only after being pressed that transmitting HIV through tears and sweat would be “very hard.”

But if Republicans, with one eye on the recent Gallop Poll that found only 35 percent of Americans believe evolution is well-supported by evidence, and 45 percent believe that human beings were divinely created “essentially as they are today (that is, without evolving) about 10,000 years ago,” don’t want to criticize the scientific ignorance of their political base, they shouldn’t be surprised when others find scientific ignorance useful as well.

If even a physician like Sen. Frist won’t admit the real risks of HIV transmission through tears and sweat, no Republican should complain if Nevadans view the risks of storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in similarly overblown terms. If the federal government funds such faulty science for ideological reasons, nobody should be surprised if lay people (and jurors) see big dollars in negligible threats from cell phones, vaccines, mold, or whatever.

Why do GOP politicians hate science? Because it’s not politically correct.

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