Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Evidence-based Sex Education

Posted by Simon Halliday | Tuesday, July 28, 2009 | Category: | morning, I read George Monbiot's article in The Guardian about denialogues in sex education in the US. Monbiot discusses how Obama has proposed that kids in the United States be taught sex education by teachers using 'evidence-based' programmes in contrast to the predominantly 'abstinence-promoting' programmes of the Bush Administration.  I wanted to rejoice here at the notion of evidence-based teaching. 

However, it seems that America's conservatives aren't too happy with the idea.  Monbiot comments:
"The conservatives have gone ballistic: evidence is the enemy. They still insist that American children should be deprived of sex education, lied to about contraception and maintained in a state of medieval ignorance. If their own children end up with syphilis or unwanted babies, that, it seems, is a price they will pay for preserving their beliefs."
"Well this seems rather typical," I thought to myself.  So I got to wondering whether it was accurate and I began to search for discussions of the topic.  The first posts and articles I saw dealt with the fact that Obama eliminated funding for abstinence-only education.  Ok fine. Then someone else mentioned that Obama had allocated funding for programmes that show evidence of working, for which abstinence type programs could be used, but only if there is evidence that they work.  That is a great position - even though I am not big on the ideology of abstinence only I appreciate that if it is shown to work (preferably through a randomized and controlled trial), then I would be OK supporting (or at least not object to others supporting it) it in contexts where the evidence indicates it could work, while considering costs, benefits, and evidence for other policies.   I also found this report in the WSJ useful, highlighting the different programmes and some of the history. Many of the reports that I read seem to indicate that, indeed, the conservatives aren't too happy (but the progressives are over the moon). also appreciated the HuffPo article which, instead of the 'Just Say No' promoted by abstinence-only programmes, instead says 'Just Say Know'.  But, the article also exemplifies how we need to take a bi-partisan stance on the issues and to let the evidence speak. The HuffPo article comments, seemingly cynically and frustratedly, that those agencies who promoted abstinence-only are being allowed to apply for new funds.  Then it goes on to say that these institutions are trying to claim that they should get half the funds of a new and enlarged pot.  Two points are worth making here for evidence-based education.  First, these institutions should be allowed to apply for funds and draw up proposals to assess the (preferably randomized and controlled) implementation of abstinence-only, or now 'abstinence-centred' education because we need the evidence on whether it works or not (hence the proposals should also include funding for independent monitoring to check evidence).  Second, it's obviously silly for these institutions to claim that they should get half of the funds - they're entitled to apply, but not entitled to half of unpromised funds on the basis of ideology.  But this highlights how it is important to be bipartisan in these debates, to allow organizations to implement policies (even if you might disagree with their ideology) to gather the evidence for the policies and to make as objective a decision as possible. 

Anyway, independent of whether you ideologically prefer or don't prefer abstinence-based education I believe that the movement towards evidence-based policy is fantastic.  Not only will it increase awareness about evidence-based methods and the statistics required to be informed, but it will require students to be taught to think critically about the statistics so that they can make an informed decision for themselves.  Moreover, because critical thinking and the related understanding applies to many arenas implementing evidence-based approaches can only serve to empower the populace to make better decisions outside of the ambit of sex.  For this reason I strongly favour the implementation of this program in the US and I hope to see similar movements towards evidence-based programmes elsewhere.

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