Posted tagged ‘Scientific reasoning’

Sarah Palin Substance, Take Two

September 3, 2008

Most of the press and blog coverage today has focused on (a) the water torture nature of the story of what happens when you don’t vet the first significant “Presidential” appointment  you make — thus aiming the coverage appropriately at the real culprit in Palin story:  John McCain. If this election is in fact a “judgment” vs. “experience” choice, then for now, judgment is winning, as indeed it should.

At the same some folks are pointing out that the kinds of trouble Palin herself is in — and hence the sort of problem she is becoming for John McCain — may be the kind of briar patch in which the GOP ticket is perfectly happy to find themselves, the argument being that in a change year, a gut-level populist appeal may be just enough to turn the key states their way.

So, against that possibility, I want to take another whack at what a Vice President — or a President — Palin looks like from a point of view embedded in science.  As before, my argument is in essence that what Palin thinks about a specific issue for which there is a clear body of research — using scientific methods, producing reproducibly results — tells us not only about the rationality of her position on that particular issue, but also about the quality of her mind, her judgment, her ability to make decisions of the sort a President faces.

The obvious place to start here is, I’m afraid, with sex — in particular, with Palin’s judgment about the most effective way to education adolescents about sex.  As we now know, both through the usual political research process and because of news about her family I will not discuss, Sarah Palin believes that the correct way to instruct children about sex is to avoid what she calls “explicit sex education” and teach only that abstinence is the appropriate behavior before marriage.

OK — that’s a view a fair number of people hold.  But Palin, of course, is not just anybody — she’s been mayor and she is governor, and you would think that she has some responsibility to back ideas not only because they are comfortable, but because they are valid.

Not so here.  There is ample evidence that abstinence education does not work. See here for one recent take on this, and see this for my earlier whack at Mike Huckabee on this same issue.  Cruise the blogosphere to find as much more as you would like.  Bottom line:  abstinence education shows no improvement in the key parameters of sexual behavior or outcomes over control groups in repeated studies, one of the best of which can be found in summary here.

But  you knew that already, didn’t you?

Now it is something of a dog bites man story to suggest that an evangelical Christian would favor abstinence teaching for her own family, or even her own community; but the point here isn’t about personal choice or belief, it’s about the ability to perform evidence-based reasoning.

Put this another way:  there is a street definition of neurosis as repeatedly doing the same thing expecting a different outcome.  A scientifically informed policy would look at the grim statistics:  the US is the world leader among developed countries in teen pregnancies (h/t Dem from CT over at Daily Kos).  The good news had been that despite that dismal result, teen birth rates had been falling since the peak rate of 61.8 birth rates per thousand in 1991. That is to say, the decline began at exactly the time a Democratic adminstration took office — one whose record on evidence based policy is, by and large, exemplary.

So what happened over the last seven years, during which an administration whose full throated support of world wide abstinence education has had its chance to work its wonders on American women and girls?  What’d you’d naively expect:  the latest report from the Centers For Disease Control, analyzing the data from 2006, shows the US teen birth rate after a fourteen year decline, started to climb again in 2005, a rise that continued in 2006.  From 40.5 births per thousand, the 2006 data show an increase to 41.9.

So it goes, as the late KV would have said.  Idiocy, a lesser evil than the deaths to which Vonnegut referred, is also always with us.

But to the deeper argument:  we know some things.  We know that abstinence education does not work, that funding it is a kind of welfare scam to benefit the religious right, that the real world consequences of the totality of US policy in this area has produced a dismal record of preventing teen pregnancy (80 percent of them unwanted, according to CDC figures, btw).  We know that teen pregnancies have all kinds of deleterious social effects, as the CDC noted in this passage in one of their reports:

“The National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy recently estimated that $9.1bn in public funding was expended on teenage childbearing in 2004. These costs include public assistance, healthcare, child welfare and other expenses.”

And let me repeat — we know that abstinence education does not work.

So what would a rational leader do here, one who understood the processes of scientific investigation and could interpret its results?

Try something else perhaps?

Or not.  Both Sarah Palin and John McCain have voiced their continued support for abstinence education as we know.  There are only two explanations that adequately account for such a choice.  One is that they know better — they know that this policy does not help and correlates with a development in the wrong direction, but they feel that they need to take this position to satisfy their base.  Or they simply do not allow facts to penetrate ideology.  (If anyone has any other possible explanations, I’d love to hear them.)

The first option suggests that McCain and or Palin are cynical and so hungry for power that the unwanted pregnancies of deliberately poorly informed teenagers are an acceptable price to pay for success in November.  The second suggests that either or both lack the capacity for judgment, the ability to analyze data, assimilate and interpret information, and come to conclusions for the greater good of the people they seek to represent.

That is — when you choose to reject the bits of science you dislike, you lose the abiltiy to distinguish between scientifically defensible conclusions and stuff you just would rather believe.  While such an approach to the world is comfortable — inconvenient facts cannot overturn settled assumptions, the real world has a way of biting such poor judgment in tender places.

I honestly don’t have a clue whether in either case cynicism or willed ignorance is the explanation for the two GOP candidates on the national ticket deciding to go all in for abstinence.  On their history — McCain has much less of a public commitment to the culture wars side of his party, so maybe pure hunger for power has an edge there.  Palin’s commitment to extreme religious views is also well documented, so perhaps hers is a sincerely chosen blindness.

But I will say that in either case, taken as a case study of a larger test of the way our candidates think and would govern, either explanation leads to the conclusion that this ticket does not think about the world in the ways Presidents need to do.

As for the question of simple humanity, it is worth noting that Governor Palin used her line item veto this spring to cut funding from the Alaska state budget that reduced support for Passage House, a transitional home for teenage mothers.  I have some direct knowledge of institutions in other states that perform a similar service, and let me tell you, the damage a loss of this kind of support can do to both young mothers and their children is immense.  While I fully agree that families are off limits, it does seem to me to be within bounds to say that it seems to me both socially sound policy and a moral good to extend as much of the support a loving family can give to an unplanned pregancy to all those who need it.

Image:  Ary Scheffer, “Greek Women Imploring the Virgin of Assistance,” 1826. National Museum of  Western Art, Tokyo.  Source: Wikimedia Commons.