Sunday, January 11, 2009

'Science' and teen sex

Thursday, I wrote about how liberals were spinning the latest teen pregnancy statistics as an argument against abstinence education. I had missed Bill McGurn's take on how research results have been misrepresented in the media:
A medical journal starts it off by announcing a study comparing teens who take a pledge of virginity until marriage with those who don't. Lo and behold, when they crunch the numbers, they find not much difference between pledgers and nonpledgers: most do not make it to the marriage bed as virgins.
Like a pack of randy 15-year-old boys, the press dives right in.
"Virginity Pledges Don't Stop Teen Sex," screams CBS News. "Virginity pledges don't mean much," adds CNN. "Study questions virginity pledges," says the Chicago Tribune. "Premarital Abstinence Pledges Ineffective, Study Finds," heralds the Washington Post. "Virginity Pledges Fail to Trump Teen Lust in Look at Older Data," reports Bloomberg. And on it goes.
In other words, teens will be teens, and moms or dads who believe that concepts such as restraint or morality have any application today are living in a dream world. Typical was the lead for the CBS News story: "Teenagers who take virginity pledges are no less sexually active than other teens, according to a new study."
Here's the rub: It just isn't true.
Liberal reporters, McGurn explains, don't look past the bullet-points on the press release to examine the underlying methodology of the study. The researchers pulled some hocus-pocus by comparing the pledge-taking teens not with the general population of teenagers, but rather with a "control" group who were matched demographically and socio-economically with the pledgers:
The first to notice something lost in the translation was Dr. Bernadine Healy, the former head of both the Red Cross and the National Institutes of Health. Today she serves as health editor for U.S. News & World Report. And in her dispatch on this study, Dr. Healy pointed out that "virginity pledging teens were considerably more conservative in their overall sexual behaviors than teens in general -- a fact that many media reports have missed cold."
In interviewing professionals in the science/medical/health fields, I've found they are almost unanimous in loathing the way the MSM report on research. Often, research that merely indicates a possible correlation between two facts -- say, between coffee drinking and cancer rates -- ends up with a headline implying that scientists have proved a cause-and-effect relationship: Coffee prevents cancer!

What is true in reporting on medical and scientific research is even more true in reporting on social science research. As one criminologist has remarked, social scientists can "prove" anything. Trying to isolate cause-and-effect in sociological research (which is what this abstinence-education study purports to do) is a damned difficult task. There is a disturbing tendency among liberal journalists to cherry-pick research -- hyping research that seems to confirm their own biases and downplaying contradictory results.

Given the high correlation between delaying sexual activity and positive socioeconomic outcomes (i.e., completing high school, obtaining full-time employment, avoiding drug abuse, etc.), there is clearly a social good to be obtained by discouraging teen sex. Much of the media, however, think of this as a "Republican" or "conservative" objective, and therefore bring to bear the usual liberal bias. Since when did it become "liberal" to be indifferent to kids messing up their lives?

UPDATE: Laura Gallier of Inspiring Abstinence e-mails:
I see a huge contradiction in the medias' response to the issue of teen sex, two primary contradictions to be exact. For one, the media cries out for answers when teen pregnancy rates are on the rise but then seems to go out of their way to undermine abstinence programs. Two, the same media that reports that we must find answers to the teen sex crises then turns around and includes sexually based images and comments in nearly everything they produce.
Indeed, one of the rich ironies is how TV producers, on the one hand, claim that their sex-saturated programming doesn't influence kids' behavior, but on the other hand, collect billions in advertising revenue by telling clients that a 30-second commercial can influence consumer behavior. Either TV influences behavior or it does not, so which is it?

BTW, Ms. Gallier is the author of a new book about abstinence called Choosing to Wait: A Guide to Inspiring Abstinence.

1 comment:

  1. My own feeling is that we need to instruct kids on *why* to have sex. Because otherwise they have the rule "Don't do this", kind of akin to "wait for the bell to go to recess."

    What they don't have is knowing why they *should*. Otherwise, how will anyone know that the time or place isn't right?

    My own personal belief is that having children is an act of patriotism, to family, to culture, to nation. Unless we bring the next generation in our own beliefs and culture and national feelings - we risk losing our family identity, our community identity, and our national security.

    Sex is intended to secure relationships and families. Not to sell cars, beer, and political agendas.

    As for the study on "virginity pledges" - this practice borders on a state religion - we cannot look at a pledge in isolation. We need to address pubescent rebellion (a normal growth stage), and economic and environmental stressors that leave young people feeling helpless and uncertain of a home.

    Instead of treating premarital sex as a willful disobedience, we need to consider it a primitive expression of forming a family. If we are going to insist that teens remain in their parent's family until they wed, then we have to assure that that family environment is safe and functional.

    You can get a stripper to pledge to live a clean life. Unless you also find her a new job, and a different set of life values, your success rate is going to be low. Getting teens to pledge abstinence is one thing; keeping them nurtured long enough to matter has been overlooked.