Faith Vs. Science: Is The Devil In The Details? genre: Hip-Gnosis & Little Red Ribbon-Hood & Polispeak


Have you ever asked yourself what America and the world would look like if the abstinence-only advocating...intelligent design demanding...religious right had the power to enact the legislation they preferred? I don't know about you, but the thought of this group at the helm of humanity is not only frightening; it could well spell the initiation of a period of irrational repression not seen since the Dark Ages. Even worse, I'm not sure they would possess the restraint to resist the application of Biblically mandated punishments.

Two articles in today's news led me to ponder the possibilities. I think it's obvious that there is a boundless commitment on the part of the religious right to impose their beliefs on others. That persistence makes them a formidable foe and it requires the rest of us to be vigilant in refuting and rejecting the tortured arguments they construct. Even worse, each time one of their efforts are rebuffed, they immediately move to craft a more refined replacement.

Pardon the ugly analogy, but this steadfast assault has all the makings of an inexpugnable that requires timely treatment lest it render the unsuspecting host into a state of perpetual decline. As such, one can never assume that a period of remission will be sustained. Like it or not, these inviolable interlopers are constantly searching for a vulnerability that can be exploited.

This analogy provides a seamless segue into the first article. According to a report in The Washington Post, there is concern that the insistence on abstinence-only that frequently attempts to undermine the merits of pushing us towards an expansion of teen sex, STD transmissions, and teen pregnancies.

From The Washington Post:

The nation's campaign to get more teenagers to delay sex and use condoms is faltering, threatening to undermine the highly successful effort to reduce teen pregnancy and protect young people from sexually transmitted diseases, federal officials reported today.

New data from a large government survey shows that by every measure, the decade-long decline in sexual activity among high school students leveled off between 2001 and 2007 and the increase in condom use by teens flattened out in 2003.

Moreover, the survey found disturbing hints that teen sexual activity may actually have begun creeping up and that condom use among high school students might be edging downward, though those trend lines have not yet reached a point where statisticians can be sure, officials said.

"The bottom line is in all these areas we don't seem to be making the progress we were making before," said Howell Wechsler, director of the division of adolescent and school health at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, which conducts the survey. "It's very troubling."

"Since we've started pushing abstinence, we have seen no change in the numbers on sexual activity," said John Santelli, chairman of the Department of Population and Family Health at Columbia University. "The other piece of it is abstinence education spends a good amount of time bashing condoms. So it's not surprising, if that's the message young people are getting, that we're seeing condom use start to decrease."

"We may be witnessing the beginning of a trend where we're reaping the harvest of medically inaccurate and ineffective sex education, which is abstinence-until-marriage sex education," said Michael D. Resnick, who studies teen sexual behavior at the University of Minnesota. "With a growing proportion of young people exposed to those curricula, I think we can begin to understand why we're beginning to see a reversal of the positive trends that had been happening."

The new data comes from the 2007 survey, which involved 14,103 students in grades 9 through 12 at 157 high schools nationwide. The survey found that the proportion of those who reported they had ever had sex, had begun having sex before age 13, had engaged in sex within the last three months and had sex with at least four partners all increased slightly between 2005 and 2007.

None of the increases were sufficient to convince statisticians that there is a real upward trend. But when the agency analyzed the numbers for The Post, statisticians found that every measure of sexual activity passed the statistical test for having leveled off between 2001 and 2007 and the condom use numbers passed the test for leveling off beginning in 2003.

"The longer any trend exists, the more confident we can be in it," said Laura K. Kann, who heads the project at the CDC.

While the data indicates we're on the precipice of an alarming trend, it would be inappropriate to call it conclusive. Then again, that is the exact type of opening that abstinence-only proponents are seeking. Those opposed to comprehensive sex education and contraception remain rigidly attached to their religious ideology and every effort is made to interpret the data such that it supports their preferred methods of sex education.

In other words, all data is open to manipulation because they aren't working towards the verification or nullification of a reasoned hypothesis. On the contrary, they conclude that the science is simply a tool to be massaged so that it matches their unwavering moral imperative.

An example would be helpful. Not long ago, a similar report stated that one in four teenage girls had contracted a sexually transmitted disease. The alarming number garnered ample attention as both sides of the issue sought to draw conclusions. The following excerpts are from those who sought to downplay the data...those who didn't want the data to be a tool in discrediting abstinence-only education.

From The National Journal:

But how useful or valid is that one-in-four number? Are 25 percent of America's teenage girls really in imminent danger from HIV/AIDS, gonorrhea, and the human papilloma virus (HPV) that leads to cervical cancer?

A close examination of the CDC's star statistic reveals several serious shortcomings that undermine its validity, as well as its usefulness to parents, legislators, health officials, and advocacy groups on the left and the right.

[...] The CDC's study referred to "infections," but most biological infections never turn into diseases; the body suppresses them before symptoms appear. This conflation of disease and infection was commonplace, in part because the headline on the CDC press release said, "1 in 4 Teenage Girls Has a Sexually Transmitted Disease."

Other problems were numerous.

• The infections referred to in the study are not the ones that leap to people's minds when they worry about sexually transmitted diseases. The data excluded the two most-feared diseases, HIV/AIDS and syphilis. The most common infection was from HPV, which can have serious consequences but in the vast majority of cases disappears on its own.

• The focus on "teenagers" covers a broad age range, from those who are 14 (only 13 percent of whom have had sexual intercourse, according to other studies) to women of 18 and 19 (70 percent of whom have had sex before their 19th birthday). CDC officials declined to describe to National Journal the infection rates in each of the two-year age groupings, even though they have the data.

• The one-in-four number was culled from a complex database that included only several hundred women under age 20. The finding carries a large margin of error, and critics won't be able to review the study until it gets published in a peer-reviewed journal next year, at the earliest. CDC officials initially said that 838 girls and women participated in the survey. The data for the one-in-four number, however, came from a smaller core group of 615.

Perhaps most critical, the CDC's March 11 news conference, and the materials distributed there, failed to put the numbers into historical context. Other CDC research shows that infection rates for most serious sexual diseases, including syphilis, gonorrhea, and chancroid, are sharply below 1990 levels--syphilis reached a historic low in 2000. The CDC's tests showed that none of the 18- and 19-year-old women in the study were infected with HIV or syphilis, but officials did not mention this success in the press release. Teenagers' exposure to STDs has also dropped because their sexual activity declined from 1998 to 2002. The decline was 20 percent among girls, and 40 percent among boys, according to the CDC report, "Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Childbearing, 2002," last updated in March 2006.

Where to begin?! As I understand it, the difference between infection and disease isn't the colossal oversight cited above. Yes, the body frequently overcomes an active infection such that the symptoms abate...but with of the more concerning infections, the abatement of symptoms does not constitute the removal of the viral infection. In fact, a positive test for HPV exposure means that the individual (particularly women) will be vulnerable to cervical cancer at any point in the future. Think of it like a fever blister (cold sore). Once an individual has been exposed to the virus, it may remain dormant for extended periods of time but the exposure is still a threat to future health.

So here's the thing. Those seeking to undermine this data would have their followers believe that since HPV's symptoms (warts are typical) are often controlled without treatment, the infection doesn't rise to the level of concern reserved for other STD's that usually worsen in the absence of treatment (HIV, syphilis, and gonorrhea).

Their rationale may make sense to the average parent but it is devoid of a proper assessment of the long term implications of HPV. Yes, these other three STD's frequently require aggressive treatment, and left unattended can have dire and rapid consequences, but the fact that HPV doesn't function in the same manner isn't comparatively relevant. HPV may abate without treatment...but it may also kill at some point in the future. Hence the effort to distinguish between infection and disease is intellectually dishonest.

As if that weren't enough selective reasoning, these same apologists then pivot to suggest that a larger proportion of those infected were 18 and 19 year olds. That is an accurate observation but it is also an incomplete assessment. Logic tells us that the longer an individual is sexually active...and failing to practice safe sex methods...the more likely one is to eventually be infected. Therefore, extrapolating that the frequency of infection in younger girls is no reason for alarm ignores the fact that they are likely engaged in sexual practices that may eventually lead to infection.

To prove the argument they're making, one would have to assume that 18 and 19 year old girls suddenly abandon abstinence while also beginning to engage in unsafe sexual activity. The likelihood that both actions appear simultaneously and virtually spontaneously simply doesn't comport with human nature. In other words, making the the correlation of infection with a higher age the lynchpin of an argument that younger girls aren't at risk necessarily ignore the activities that are required to result in the frequency of eventual infections in older girls. The truth of the matter is that sex must be happening in younger girls and it is likely performed with an inconsistent use of appropriate protection.

The purpose of this example was to illustrate the willingness to adapt the data to fit the ideology. The resistance to abandoning the principle of abstinence is so strong that those in favor of it are willing to distort the interpretation of the data as well engage in sustained self-deceit. As such, the example supports my contention.

Returning to my initial musing, one begins to see the world as it would exist if the ideologues were handed the reigns. Unfortunately, I doubt the deception would stop regardless of the disastrous outcomes that could be expected or predicted if science was properly respected. Instead, in a typical display of religious righteousness, I would expect that disease and death would be met with moral judgments...leaving science to function in a role that is subservient to the pursuit of ideological purity.

That leads me to the second article on the ongoing battle to introduce intelligent design (creationism) into the science curriculum in our schools. Having failed to successfully repackage creationism as intelligent design, the anti-evolutionists have adopted a successor strategy with a newly launched linguistic sleight of hand.

From The New York Times:

Now a battle looms in Texas over science textbooks that teach evolution, and the wrestle for control seizes on three words. None of them are "creationism" or "intelligent design" or even "creator."

The words are "strengths and weaknesses."

Starting this summer, the state education board will determine the curriculum for the next decade and decide whether the "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution should be taught. The benign-sounding phrase, some argue, is a reasonable effort at balance. But critics say it is a new strategy taking shape across the nation to undermine the teaching of evolution, a way for students to hear religious objections under the heading of scientific discourse.

Already, legislators in a half-dozen states -- Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri and South Carolina -- have tried to require that classrooms be open to "views about the scientific strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian theory," according to a petition from the Discovery Institute, the Seattle-based strategic center of the intelligent design movement.

" 'Strengths and weaknesses' are regular words that have now been drafted into the rhetorical arsenal of creationists," said Kathy Miller, director of the Texas Freedom Network, a group that promotes religious freedom.

The chairman of the state education board, Dr. Don McLeroy, a dentist in Central Texas, denies that the phrase "is subterfuge for bringing in creationism."

"Why in the world would anybody not want to include weaknesses?" Dr. McLeroy said.

Evolution as a principle is not disputed in the scientific mainstream, where the term "theory" does not mean a hunch, but an explanation backed by abundant observation, and where gaps in knowledge are not seen as grounds for doubt but points for future understanding. Over time, research has strengthened the basic tenets of evolution, especially as advances in molecular genetics have allowed biologists to read the history recorded in the DNA of animals and plants.

Yet playing to the American sense of fairness, lawmakers across the country have tried to require that classrooms be open to all views. The Discovery Institute has provided a template for legislators to file "academic freedom" bills, and they have been popping up with increasing frequency in statehouses across the country.

Again, these efforts demonstrate the diligence that is displayed by those intent on adapting science to support religious speculations. Should these individuals ever achieve the political authority they seek, I not only fear they're willingness to adapt science; I wouldn't be surprised to see a concerted effort to ablate large swaths of it...regardless of the degree of substantiation it may hold.

In the end, I find it ironic that these purveyors of unpalatable ideology are as invasive as the infections they seek to ignore. At the same time, they embrace beliefs that emanate from the writings of men that pale in comparison to the scientists they seek to discredit. The mere existence of the Bible...absent a scintilla of the evidence that they insist be provided to support sufficient for them to engage in an unyielding effort to conform the enlightened present to the unproven past.

They demand that the fossil record contain every chronological component in order to acknowledge the validity of the theory of evolution while at the same time accepting on faith the existence of each and every character, concept, and construct contained in the Bible.

I rue the day that these bellicose bloviators ever achieve the authority they envision. While they may believe their actions are in keeping with the instructions of an all knowing creator, I think it only fair to demand they provide the same level of evidence they insist be supplied by science. After all, why should I embrace their holier than thou hypothesis on any lesser terms?


1 On May 21, 2011 at 4:53 AM, Ugly Animals wrote —

"Have you ever asked yourself what America and the world would look like if the abstinence-only advocating" That is a million dollar question! Great blog by the way. Bookmarked it.

Thought Theater at Blogged

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Religious believers do so as a matter of faith. At the same time, many of these same people expect science to provide evidence that far exceeds the standards upon which they accept the words found in the Bible. This contradiction is troubling and merit... [Read More]

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