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Bias, Ought-from-Is Utility and the Truth in Abstinence Education

3/31/2004 - 7:48 AM PST

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by J. Andrew Murray

In two recent releases on abstinence-only sex education, dated March 9 and 10, 2004, the Associated Press and Reuters wire services continue the trend of biased reporting moral issues. The articles summarize a study presented March 9th at the National STD Conference, which took place in Philadelphia.

An Unpublished Study

The study, authored by Columbia University’s Peter Bearman and Yale’s Hannah Bruckner, assesses the rates of sexually transmitted disease (STD) in teens taking one-time abstinence pledges versus teens who do not. This study was funded in part by the National Institutes of Health. In other words, American taxpayers funded it. While the study itself appears to contain important data and will likely be vetted through the peer-review process of scientific publication, the AP and Reuters reports draw conclusions that are not supported by the information provided.

Bearman and Bruckner’s study presented data gathered from a “nationally representative sample” of about 15,000 participants initially questioned at twelve to eighteen years of age, with follow-up data collected six years later from the same individuals. The statistic that apparently interested the researchers and media organizations most was that the difference in incidence of sexually transmitted disease among teens who took a one-time abstinence pledge and those who did not was not “statistically significant.”

The participants were categorized by race and ethnicity, with rates of infection among white, black and Hispanic non-pledgers reported at 3.5, 20.3 and 8.6 percent, respectively. The rates among abstinence pledgers of the same groups were 2.8, 18.1 and 6.7 percent. While the percentages are lower among those who took the abstinence pledge, the numbers are very close, which explains Professor Bearman’s comment regarding statistical significance.

The Media’s Take

The three major television networks, as well as Fox News and CNN, immediately and uncritically parroted the AP release, as well as the AP’s conclusions. The reporting employed the skilled phraseology and subtle techniques of bias to introduce the media’s anti-abstinence spin on this potentially valuable social science.

Reuter’s later release was important in that it provided quotes from Bearman omitted by the AP. The AP report focused on Professor Bearman’s remarks on the research, while the Reuters report includes comments that demonstrate Bearman’s clear, preexisting prejudice against not only abstinence-only sex education, but also those who support it.

The media reports also failed to mention that “statistical significance” does not necessarily mean that pledging abstinence and getting an STD are not related. It just means that the data do not support the conclusion that the slight reduction in STD among some teens was due to their abstinence pledge. It could also indicate weaknesses in the study’s methodology, statistical techniques, or participant sample. The likelihood of such weaknesses increases with the introduction of researcher bias.

Bearman’s comments to Reuters, including “Ideological programs designed to make serious interventions into public health programs tend not to work,” and his idea that advocates of abstinence-only education are “ignorant of social science research” and “defeat the purpose they set out to solve [sic],” betray biases that undermine otherwise important social science research on these topics. Because the study has not yet undergone the peer review process, it is impossible to comment on the validity of results. This impossibility apparently did not stop the media.

The AP quoted outside commentary from two others opposed to abstinence-only education. Remarking on the study, Dorothy Mann of the Family Planning Council claimed it is a “tragedy” to “withhold information from these kids about how not to get STDs or not get pregnant.” More ominous were the comments of Indiana University’s Donald Orr, who hoped the “study helps move sex education from a morality issue to a public health discussion.”

While the AP quoted only one proponent of abstinence-only sex education, Reuters ignored opposing voices completely. Pat Fagan, of the Heritage Foundation, rightly pointed out that one-time virginity pledges are different from abstinence education, which requires years of support and education. He also stressed that “Anyone connected to the abstinence movement would never say it’s enough” to take a one-time pledge.

Another Look at the Reports

Bearman, Mann, Orr, as well as the media elites who dominate this debate argue exclusively from social utility. They take an “ought-from-is” approach. In other words, because their data interpretation suggests that abstinence-only sex education is inferior to “values-neutral” sex education, ...

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