Friday, September 28, 2007

Doug Giles on Sex Ed: Lying with Statistics

Nothing brings out the stupid and scare tactics from the conservasphere like gay marriage and sex education. Today’s entry on the latter comes from that bastion of pompous piety, Doug Giles. It is a textbook base of the manipulation of statistics for the purpose of fearmongering. The nonsense begins right out of the gate:

”Chances are historically high, young person, that if you screw around sexually nowadays well…you could very well be…screwed. As in, for life, with the ‘gift’ that keeps on giving—namely, a Sexually Transmitted Disease. “

This is almost as ignorant as someone who talks about “drugs”, as if caffeine, marijuana, cocaine, and heroine are interchangeable and basically the same. Contracting a yeast infection sexually is an STD, but is as different from AIDS as a mouse is from an elephant. And what is meant by “young”? A 19 year old and a 15 year old are worlds apart. Giles isn’t interested in such distinctions of course, because his agenda is to instill fear, rather than to educate. After going through a bunch of scary sounding descriptions of the worst case scenarios (akin to warning a child about to swim in the ocean that he might have his arm torn off by a shark), he gets into the statistical data mauling that conservatives are so famous for:

”The truth of the matter is that STDs are cranking in our culture like never before, and they are an equal opportunity infector. An estimated 19 million new cases occur each year with our teenage kids getting hammered with the lion’s share of this slop (teens now make up 25% of the 19 million new “victims” annually). “

Can this be surprising? Young people tend to be less cautious than older people, so why wouldn’t we expect them to make more mistakes sexually? And since people like Giles scoff at the notion of safe sex with condoms, he can hardly rightly squawk now that without the best method of prevention available, bad things happen. If you tell people not to wear crash helmets, and to just refrain from riding motorcycles, what do you think is going to happen to the death rates of those who ride anyway?

This is the part of the equation people like Giles want to pretend doesn’t exist: people are going to have sex whether you tell them its ok or not, whether they say they will abstain or not. The genie is out of the social bottle, and it is never going back. The challenge for us as a society is to determine how to lessen the social cost of this behavior, not to scream “just say no!” and bury our heads in the sand.

A few of Giles statistical citations deserve mention as evidence that his agenda is to frighten, rather than to educate:

”• This year, 8 to 10 million teens will contract an STD. “

OK. What ages are these teens? Are they using condoms or not? How many of these kids have that same STD a year later? If we are concerned about children, why isn’t the statistic restricted to 17 year olds and younger? Because it wouldn’t have given Giles a scary enough number.

”• Nearly one out of four sexually active teens is living with a sexually transmitted disease at this moment. “

Always, always, always be suspicious of any statistic that talks about a moment or small stretch in time, especially when it uses weasel words like “living with”. They are always designed to deceive. Why didn’t he just say that they “have” an STD? Does this phrasing allow them to answer “yes” if their sibling has an STD? Why is the sample restricted to “sexally active” teens? The answer to all of these questions is the same: to produce a larger figure of course.

”• Nearly 50% of African-American teenagers have genital herpes. “

Why would the figure for blacks be different than other groups? Has this figure accounted for differences in education or economic status? Any bets as to why Giles used the figure on blacks instead of the entire population? Because it is higher of course.

”• Although teenagers make up just 10% of the population, they acquire 25% of all STDs. “

Notice how this stat isn’t restricted to the sexually active group in the population, as was done earlier. Why? Well, because for this piece of propaganda, Giles needed the proportion of teens in the population considered to be small, and what better way to do that than to include seniors, who are more numerous than teens and, for obvious reasons, far less likely to contract an STD. As it is the stat is easy to explain: teens have more sex per capita than the population, and are more reckless than the population, so of course they acquire more STDs.

”• Herpes (specifically, herpes simplex virus type 2) has skyrocketed 500% in the past 20 years among white teenagers. “

Another way people are dishonest with statistics is by talking about growth rates. Any time you see a percentage growth figure, you are essentially being lied to. The reason is that growth rates can be enormous for low frequency events, even if the absolute number is insignificant, and as such can be very misleading. For example, if there was one Komodo dragon in the United States in 2007, and then 5 in 2008, we could say what Giles said about Herpes 2: The Komodo dragon population in the United States has skyrocketed 500%! So?

Also, notice again how Giles manipulates the statistics, talking only about the growth of Herpes 2 among Whites, and only in the last 20 years. Why not the entire population, or another time frame? Again, because it wouldn’t have given him such a “skyrocketed” number.

Giles approach is also horribly outdated on the issue of herpes. When he and I were teenagers, herpes was the Darth Vader of STDs, even more so than AIDS. But a lot has changed in the last 20 years, and current herpes medications reduce the problem to the point where people with it can go years without a single outbreak. Sure, wed still like to reduce the cases of it as much as possible, but it is no longer the major threat to health and well-being it used to be.

”• STDs accounted for 87% of all cases reported of the top ten most frequently reported diseases in the United States in 1995. “

So? What is Giles’ point here? Would he be happier if STDs only accounted for 15% of such cases? Bring back smallpox! Seriously, having STDs as the biggest disease threat we face should be cause for celebration, not alarm. After all, whether or not one contracts an STD remains very much under one’s control, tied as it is to or personal decisions.

”• This new epidemic is not just cursing those ‘poor inner city kids.’ No, the viruses have solidly taken up residence in the suburbs. “

Ah, right Doug, that must be why you went out of your way earlier to give us the herpes proportion of the black population. Also, notice how he slipped the term “virus” in there, despite the fact that many STDs are not viruses. Why would he do that? Again, it is a scare tactic. When we hear “virus” in a discussion of STDs, the first thing our minds relate to is AIDS. But wait, there's more:

"Yep, the reality is that every twenty-four hours 21,000 teens are slapped, saddled, infused and infected with some creepy, nasty and potentially deadly bug brought about by following the advice of our crass culture."

Actually it's brought about by listening to advice from people like Giles who say "just say no", and from ignoring all advice. Research suggests teens do not much follow advice at all. Also note Giles' use of the dishonest tactic of reducing the statistic to "every 24 hours" to inflate the scare factor, and the insinuation that most STDs are life threatening, when the vast majority of them are not.

The rest is just more of the same. Honest data be damned, the abstinence crowd is just another crop of Liars for Jesus, right down the hall from the intelligent design crew.

No comments: