Abstinence-only only abstains from working

Two parents are suing a school district in California over its abstinence-only-based sex-ed curriculum. Good for them–I hope their lawsuit succeeds.

Most of us would like our children to make smart decisions about sex. Children–teenagers in particular–do dumb things all the time, and the consequences of sex without forethought can be life-altering, or life-ending. Since there is no form of artificial contraception that is 100 percent effective in preventing pregnancies, or in preventing STIs, I think everyone can agree that abstinence is the preferred theoretical solution to the problems of teen pregnancy and STIs.

The problem is, abstinence-only education does not work! (an abstract is linked, though the article is behind a paywall; that’s a topic for another day…) It does not lower the rate of teen pregnancies. It does not lower the rate of STIs. It does not change the rate of risky sexual behaviors among teens. Not only is it useless, it might very well be worse than useless, since teens who do not get the reinforcing messages of a comprehensive sex education curriculum are, I would imagine, less likely to use protection. In contrast, comprehensive sex education does work (e.g., the same review linked above).

This kind of thinking is a prime example of how dysfunctional government is when it is managed by a group of people incapable of thinking critically, and who are instead tied to ideology (and this defect is not limited to the right wing, although it does seem far more pervasive there now). The thinking goes “I am so tied to my preconceived notions about what is right and wrong, that I am willing to either (a) remain willfully ignorant that my chosen approach does not work or (b) carry on in spite of knowing full well that my chosen approach does not work.”

This way of thinking is antithetical to the scientific mindset. If an experiment contradicts my hypothesis, I discard it. Or as Richard Feynman famously said, “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.” That so many politicians, and the public to whom they pander, are incapable of thinking this way testifies to the abysmal state of scientific literacy in the U.S.


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