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When sceince is wrong: Abstinence Education

September 3, 2008

Statistical methodology is an interesting animal. Ideally one wants to follow the most scientific approach possible to an experiment in order to ensure that one gets the best results. Double blind treatment groups, randomly assigned from similar samples and all that Jazz.

Unfortunately, methodology and heuristics sometimes cause us to set aside our critical thinking caps and wander through the land of “this is how things are done.”

Today I was pointed to a study about the affects of Abstinence Only Education. (I think as an offshoot of the whole Palin debate, witchhunt, revetting, what the hell? thing (whatever you want to call it) that is going on right now.)

Anyway, the study claimed:

The study found that youth in the four evaluated programs were no more likely than youth not in the programs to have abstained from sex in the four to six years after they began participating in the study. Youth in both groups who reported having had sex also had similar numbers of sexual partners and had initiated sex at the same average age.

Contrary to concerns raised by some critics of federal funding for abstinence education, however, youth in the abstinence education programs were no more likely to have engaged in unprotected sex than youth who did not participate in the programs.

Touted as the “gold standard” this study (though it had a small sample and looked at only 4 of 900 exsisting programs) meticulously followed procedures that on the surface look like great experimental methods. In fact, they are ready to tell us all about how rigorous their methods were:

The study used the most rigorous, scientifically based approach to measure the impacts of the programs. Much like a clinical trial in medicine, this approach compares outcomes for two statistically equivalent groups—a program group and a control group—created by random assignment (similar to a lottery). Youth in the program group were eligible to receive the abstinence education program services, while those in the control group were not, and received only the usual health, family life, and sex education services available in their schools and communities. When coupled with sufficiently large sample sizes, longitudinal surveys conducted by independent data collectors, and appropriate statistical methods, this design is able to produce highly credible estimates of the impacts of the programs being studied.

The emphasis here is mine. You see, statistically equivalent brought out some big alarm bells for me. Typically it is difficult to get true equivalencies when you are looking at different geographical areas, even within the same city. At best you might be able to use comparable groups. Reading on, one discovers the following

Youth were enrolled in the study sample over three consecutive school years, from fall 1999 through fall 2001, and randomly assigned within schools to either the program or the control group.

The creators of this study apparently assumed that kids would not swap information about something as mundane as sex education. They in fact neglected to consider that a student could have a potential sex partner in the OTHER GROUP!

By providing comprehensive sex education to HALF a class, you are in effect providing it to all of them.

They contaminated their own freaking study because they followed the methodology, instead of USING THEIR BRAINS. Further criticism here. So yeah, watch out for anyone hoisting this study as “evidence” that abstinence only education is just the same as comprehensive sex ed. It is only the same if comprehensive sex ed is taught in the exact school.

(Ideal solution to parents who want their kids to have abstienence education? Teach both types of classes and allow the parents to chose which they are enrolled in. That way the information is still available within the school community but parents who want their kids brainwashed to protect their virginity can have them brainwashed. )


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  1. Godless Heathen permalink

    Teach both types of classes and allow the parents to chose which they are enrolled in.

    Actually, a lot of abstinence education is taught from texts that have a particular religious agenda, so I don’t think it should be taught in schools. Comprehensive sex education has always, and will always, stress abstinence first while providing information on safe sex practices, sexual health, and reproduction. Abstinence education is a patchwork of social and moral teachings that does not consistently give scientifically and medically sound information. Teaching both of these approaches side by side elevates the moral and social teachings to the same legitimacy as the medically and scientifically sound information in comprehensive sex ed.

    I think if parents want their children to learn these programs, then they should be provided by church and community groups that aren’t funded by taxpayer money. I know every parent has the right to opt their child out of the sex ed class*. Those parents who have an objection, be it religious or moral, to teaching their children about safe sex have always had all the tools they need to protect their kid from learning it from a teacher. There are plenty of faith-based abstinence programs right now in the US, they should be trying to reach kids through the churches and not through the classroom.

    Failing that, I shouldn’t have to pay any taxes for such transparently religious agendas in the schools.

    *Caveat: I went to about a dozen different schools growing up, in four states and two countries, all except for two were public schools. Every single one of them had a permission slip I had to take home to get my parent’s permission to learn comprehensive sex ed. I don’t think school policy has changed so drastically in the past twenty odd years, not on this particular subject anyway.

    If this is a duplicate post, I apologize, my net farted.

  2. Ally permalink

    The biggest problem I have with abstinence “education” is that it can be an excuse for nothing at all to be taught. The school I went to has had the second highest teen pregnancy rate in NY State for 20 years (and it’s not anywhere near NYC), but only “taught” abstinence. I think it would be much more statistically relevant to look at schools that have traditionally gone the abstinence route vs the comprehensive sex ed route, and compare the pregnancy rates.

    Abstinence is not an excuse for ignorance!

  3. I know next to nothing about statistics, so I can’t say much on the article except the points you make seem smart and educated to me. I wish I knew more about statistical analysis since it seems like people toss stats around a lot to prove points. I usually just let them blow over my head.

    As far as sex ed in schools go, it was always wildly uncomfortable and embarassing and I don’t know if it actually encouraged me either to practice safe sex or abstain from sex all together. I really learned more about sex from the Internet, lol. I really think it’s parents who need to get over their squeamishness and just present facts the way they are to kids. Use a condom, use birth control, neither of those are full proof, here’s a tampon, make sure your partner doesn’t have cooties, blah blah blah… 🙂

  4. Always remember 73% of statistics are made up on the spot.

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