Public reason

The New York Times' resident intellectual, Stanley Fish the question of "public reason" or "secular reason."  This is the classical liberal notion which underlies distinctions between church and state.  Whatever a public agent does, the distinction goes, it must be justified by secular–i.e., non-religious–reasons. 

As you might have guessed, Fish will have none of this.  His sole reason (at least his sole intelligible reason) is that the notion of "secular value" is some kind of contradiction.  All values are religious.  And since all morality (and hence all moral action) has to do with values, ergo ipso fatso.  He writes:

Nevertheless, Smith observes, the self-impoverished discourse of secular reason does in fact produce judgments, formulate and defend agendas, and speak in a normative vocabulary. How is this managed? By “smuggling,” Smith answers.

. . . the secular vocabulary within which public discourse is constrained today is insufficient to convey our full set of normative convictions and commitments. We manage to debate normative matters anyway — but only by smuggling in notions that are formally inadmissible, and hence that cannot be openly acknowledged or adverted to.

The notions we must smuggle in, according to Smith, include “notions about a purposive cosmos, or a teleological nature stocked with Aristotelian ‘final causes’ or a providential design,” all banished from secular discourse because they stipulate truth and value in advance rather than waiting for them to be revealed by the outcomes of rational calculation. But if secular discourse needs notions like these to have a direction — to even get started — “we have little choice except to smuggle [them] into the conversations — to introduce them incognito under some sort of secular disguise.”

And how do we do that? Well, one way is to invoke secular concepts like freedom and equality — concepts sufficiently general to escape the taint of partisan or religious affiliation — and claim that your argument follows from them. But, Smith points out (following Peter Westen and others), freedom and equality — and we might add justice, fairness and impartiality — are empty abstractions. Nothing follows from them until we have answered questions like “fairness in relation to what standard?” or “equality with respect to what measures?” — for only then will they have content enough to guide deliberation.

That content, however, will always come from the suspect realm of contested substantive values. Is fairness to be extended to everyone or only to those with certain credentials (of citizenship, education, longevity, etc.)? Is it equality of opportunity or equality of results (the distinction on which affirmative action debates turn)? Only when these matters have been settled can the abstractions do any work, and the abstractions, in and of themselves, cannot settle them. Indeed, concepts like fairness and equality are normatively useless, except as rhetorical ornaments, until they are filled in by some partisan or ideological or theological perspective, precisely the perspectives secular reason has forsworn. Therefore, Smith concludes, “conversations in the secular cage could not proceed very far without smuggling.”

The move there between the last two paragraphs is the suspect one.  Unless there is a definitional necessity to the "always" there, I think there there is ample evidence that it need not be the case.  Perhaps one might, to cite the obvious objection, claim that only an entirely abstract conception of justice can be the only satisfactory one–precisely because it is emptied of partisan perspective. 

Underlying this move is the notion that "normative" means "partisan, ideological, i.e., religious."  I think that's hardly the case.  Those things are instances of normativity, but they're not the only ones.

Blinded by expertise

I asked my house guest, a real philosopher and therefore likely some kind of liberal, which major or even minor scientific view, endorsed by a majority of competent scientists working in their specific field of expertise, he doubted.  He said that he couldn't think of one.  Nor really can I.  For in the first place, I don't think my judgement in those matters so acute that it outweigh the work of all of those people working independently across time and space.  Secondly, I wonder why I would be so acute as to notice the faults of one particular view, without at the same time suspecting the every similar scientific activity be subject to the same kinds of failures.  But that's just me, and perhaps my house guest.

Now comes George Will, noted global warming denier.  His scientific acumen is so sharp–on the subject of global warming–that the Post continually allows readers to consider his judgement to stand alone, often without fact checking and usually without rebuttal.  And who says arguments are dialogues.

Today's global-warming-advocates-are-eating-crow provides yet another example of our newly discovered fallacy, argumentum ad imperfectionem–the argument from imperfection.  For more on that, see here.  Briefly again, the argument from imperfection, operates in the following way.  A person finds completely normal relatively minor errors (or inconsistencies, etc.) in a particular view, such as climate change, and alleges that those errors (consistencies, etc.) justify a kind of disproportionate skepticism.  So, for instance, the disagreement among scientists (which is what they do!) on the contours of this or that matter do not open the door to global skepticism. 

First here's Will in the only section of his op-ed that makes reference to evidence:

Global warming skeptics, too, have erred. They have said there has been no statistically significant warming for 10 years. Phil Jones, former director of Britain's Climatic Research Unit, source of the leaked documents, admits it has been 15 years. Small wonder that support for radical remedial action, sacrificing wealth and freedom to combat warming, is melting faster than the Himalayan glaciers that an IPCC report asserted, without serious scientific support, could disappear by 2035.

Jones also says that if during what is called the Medieval Warm Period (circa 800-1300) global temperatures may have been warmer than today's, that would change the debate. Indeed it would. It would complicate the task of indicting contemporary civilization for today's supposedly unprecedented temperatures.

Last week, Todd Stern, America's special envoy for climate change — yes, there is one; and people wonder where to begin cutting government — warned that those interested in "undermining action on climate change" will seize on "whatever tidbit they can find." Tidbits like specious science, and the absence of warming?

If you follow the links, you'll learn that Phil Jones has been grossly misrepresented (that reference to 2035 was a typo, by the way, and not integral to the case for anthropogenic climate change).  Here is Jones (read the entire thing):

G – There is a debate over whether the Medieval Warm Period (MWP) was global or not. If it were to be conclusively shown that it was a global phenomenon, would you accept that this would undermine the premise that mean surface atmospheric temperatures during the latter part of the 20th Century were unprecedented?

There is much debate over whether the Medieval Warm Period was global in extent or not. The MWP is most clearly expressed in parts of North America, the North Atlantic and Europe and parts of Asia. For it to be global in extent the MWP would need to be seen clearly in more records from the tropical regions and the Southern Hemisphere. There are very few palaeoclimatic records for these latter two regions.

Of course, if the MWP was shown to be global in extent and as warm or warmer than today (based on an equivalent coverage over the NH and SH) then obviously the late-20th century warmth would not be unprecedented. On the other hand, if the MWP was global, but was less warm that today, then current warmth would be unprecedented.

We know from the instrumental temperature record that the two hemispheres do not always follow one another. We cannot, therefore, make the assumption that temperatures in the global average will be similar to those in the northern hemisphere.

H – If you agree that there were similar periods of warming since 1850 to the current period, and that the MWP is under debate, what factors convince you that recent warming has been largely man-made?

The fact that we can't explain the warming from the 1950s by solar and volcanic forcing – see my answer to your question D.

I – Would it be reasonable looking at the same scientific evidence to take the view that recent warming is not predominantly manmade?

No – see again my answer to D

Now of course if you read only those portions of the discussion that confirm your pseudo-skepticism, you might take Jones to be dismantling his entire case.  But it ought to be obvious that the disagreements about the data, to Jones and the rest of actual scientists, are well known and do not constitute grounds for doubting the entire thesis, as non-expert skeptics such as WIll maintain.  Perhaps, however, Jones is blinded by his own expertise. 

But of course Jones is fully aware of the disagreements around the edges of the science.  That's what science is for those who don't know.


I think I might refine the definition of the argumentum ad imperfectionem somewhat today.  As I alleged the other day, ad imperfectionem fallacy occurs when one asserts that the minor errors in someone's argument may be justifiably exaggerated by opponents of that argument.  So, for instance, minor errors in a legal filing undermine one's entire case, not just those particular claims relevant to those errors.  For, after all, if there are a couple of typos, who knows what other kinds of serious errors there could be.  This, of course, is the response of a crazy person.  But not all crazy is the same, so it's worth it to take a closer look at the crazy.   

On this description, the imperfectionem is a variation of the ignoratio elenchi (IE).  The ignoratio elenchi, sometimes called "missing the point" or–get this–"non sequitur", is a kind of a catch-all category of fallacy: any other basic failure of informal entailment gets thrown in here.  Here, for instance, is the way Patrick Hurley puts it in A Concise Introduction to Logic:

Missing the point illustrates a special form of irrelevance.  This fallacy occurs when the premises of an argument support one particular conclusion, but then a different conclusion, often vaguely related to the correct conclusion, is drawn.


but in some ways it serves as a catchall for arguments that are not clear instances of one or more of the other fallacies.

Textbooks will often use examples of IEs with outrageous conclusions where more moderate ones are available.  So, for instance, given the inevitable shortcomings in weather forecasts, one ought not to listen to them at all.  That's dumb, as weather forecasts are predictions, and predictions can be wrong.  Again, the conclusion of a crazy person.  This conclusion, in that particular example, is driven by the idea that any imperfection, however minor, in the assertions of one party are sufficient to create doubt about that party's entire case. 

I think the argumentum ad imperfectionem is focused on the inference from the relatively minor shortcomings of one side to either (a) the truth of the opposite side (in which case it looks like a false dichotomy) or (b) to the conclusion that no one can really claim to know one's conclusion is true (in which case it looks like an appeal to ignorance) or finally (c) to the conclusion that the opposite side is relatively more justified. 

I can think of examples of all three of these.  But for today, here's an example of (a):

(a) in the minds of many, the various quibbles and revisions involved in the science of global warming justify skepticism of the entire thesis.  Here's an example of that from the Washington Post:

"What's happened here is that there's an industry of climate-change denialists who are trying to make it seem as though you can't trust anything that is between the covers" of the panel's report, said Jeffrey Kargel, a professor at the University of Arizona who studies glaciers. "It's really heartbreaking to see this happen, and to see that the IPCC left themselves open" to being attacked.

That's not an example of an actual argument, as it is a report of someone else's argument.  But people really do make that allegation, unfortunately.

Maybe if I'm motivated I'll find examples of the others later.

Argumentum ad imperfectionem

The argumentum ad imperfectionem is a kind of fallacious argument advanced by lazy meta commentators.  It consists in alleging that the imperfections in the arguments of certain peripheral exponents of a particular view justify the weak-manning of the opponents of those views.   

So for instance, some less than responsible or scientifically accurate characterizations of the family of views known as climate change justify the wildly erroneous allegations of global warming deniers.  Here's an example from the Washington Post's Dana Milbank:

As a scientific proposition, claiming that heavy snow in the mid-Atlantic debunks global warming theory is about as valid as claiming that the existence of John Edwards debunks the theory of evolution. In fact, warming theory suggests that you'd see trends toward heavier snows, because warmer air carries more moisture. This latest snowfall, though, is more likely the result of a strong El Niño cycle that has parked the jet stream right over the mid-Atlantic states.

Still, there's some rough justice in the conservatives' cheap shots. In Washington's blizzards, the greens were hoist by their own petard.

For years, climate-change activists have argued by anecdote to make their case. Gore, in his famous slide shows, ties human-caused global warming to increasing hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, drought and the spread of mosquitoes, pine beetles and disease. It's not that Gore is wrong about these things. The problem is that his storm stories have conditioned people to expect an endless worldwide heat wave, when in fact the changes so far are subtle. 

Other environmentalists have undermined the cause with claims bordering on the outlandish; they've blamed global warming for shrinking sheep in Scotland, more shark and cougar attacks, genetic changes in squirrels, an increase in kidney stones and even the crash of Air France Flight 447. When climate activists make the dubious claim, as a Canadian environmental group did, that global warming is to blame for the lack of snow at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, then they invite similarly specious conclusions about Washington's snow — such as the Virginia GOP ad urging people to call two Democratic congressmen "and tell them how much global warming you get this weekend."

That's just nuts.  Gore and the climate change activists are correct (Milbank doesn't doubt that), but examples used in their arguments may give lazy or just plain dishonest people the wrong idea.  It's their fault, in other words, that they have used anecdotes to illustrate claims about the consequences of a warming atmosphere.  Giving examples, anecdotes in other words, is one way a view can be communicated.  These anecdotes, by the way, are not perfect.  They are not perfect especially in the hands of people with no particular scientific training or real grip of the view they hold.  A view, in this circumstance, which turns out to have a sound justification. 

Misrepresenting the scale or significance of the imperfect anecdote in order to undermine the view is what we call "weak manning," that is, distorting a view by selection of its weakest justifications.  There likely are lots of these.  But this does not justify the dishonesty of people who know of better arguments.  And the existence of weak exponents of a particular view does not entail that the view itself is weakened.

Some say

Now that a Democrat is President, some Republicans and other conservatives have rediscovered the fine art of logical analysis.  I think that is something we ought to applaud.  But their memories are short and their skills are rusty.  Take for example the following pot-and-kettle peice from a former speechwriter to George W. Bush, Noam Neusner.  He writes:

Some people get quoted in presidential speeches by writing heartfelt letters to the president about personal loss, or by doing something heroic, like landing a plane in the icy Hudson River.

I just sit in the Oval Office, and mouth off to President Barack Obama, one inanity after the next. And sure enough, my words—word for word, mind you!—show up in his biggest speeches.

Who am I? Sotus—Straw man of the United States. I'm Mr. Obama's most trusted rhetorical friend.

In his speeches, Mr. Obama says there are "those" who suggest we "can meet our enormous tests with half-steps and piecemeal measures." He suggests there are "some" who are content to let America's economy become, at best, "number two." He says that on health care, "some people" think we should do nothing.

Listen, there is no "some people." He's just quoting me, Sotus.

Like William Safire before him, Mr.Neusner confuses not naming your opponent specifically with the straw man (well, actually the hollow man).  They're different.  See, Presidents don't typically name their opponents in arguments.  George W.Bush, the man for whom the author of this clueless piece wrote words, did it all of the time–in speeches.  Sometimes, of course, and Mr.Neusner is right about this, the "some" is more fantastical than others.  Sometimes, however, the "some" is almost exactly the platform of the opposition.  Skipping a few paragraphs (as always folks, I expect you read the entire piece I discuss!):

And then there was the nice talk we had right before that historic January afternoon, when he was sworn in. I turned to him and said: "Mr. President-elect, our system of government can really only tolerate small plans, and limited ambitions." Think how good it felt to hear my own words echoing across the Mall: "There are some who question the scale of our ambitions, who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short, for they have forgotten what this country has already done." Good one, Mr. President!   

As an assignment for the folks at home, try to identify whose views is accurately characterized by that bolded part.  For that matter, do that with the rest of this piece.  Just for fun.  And just to close out with a little bit of absolutely justifiable tu quoque:

Some seem to believe we should negotiate with terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: "Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided." We have an obligation to call this what it is – the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.

Guess who said that?  More here.

I admire those who are wrong

The other day the Washington Post published a piece by a professor of politics at the University of Virginia (Gerard Alexander) called "Why are liberals so condescending?" (we discussed it here).  It remains today a few days later one of the most emailed articles on the Post's website, so it's worth looking at it in more detail.  To be fair to this juvenile piece, however, would be a labor of many days, so I'd just like to point out a few quick items. 

First off, the title has the ring of a complex question: that is two questions, one unfairly assumed to get to the other.  What the author ought to establish is whether liberals are more condescending than conservatives (in similar circumstances), or whether liberals are particularly condescending.  Once he established this, then he can ask the follow up question: why are they this way to such a degree (as we have established)?  His failure to understand this elementary logical notion makes me look down on him.

Second, the author is silly.  Not to be an even-hander here, but I think liberals are no less "condescending" than conservatives.  I'd suggest, in fact, that such labels and broad generalizations are really meaningless.  Turns out, in fact, that such equivocal terms were used to great effect by this author.  You see, liberals are one solid group, each one guilty of the sins of the other, while conservatives were always able to avoid group guilt.  Here's an example:

This liberal vision emphasizes the dissemination of ideologically driven views from sympathetic media such as the Fox News Channel. For example, Chris Mooney's book "The Republican War on Science" argues that policy debates in the scientific arena are distorted by conservatives who disregard evidence and reflect the biases of industry-backed Republican politicians or of evangelicals aimlessly shielding the world from modernity. In this interpretation, conservative arguments are invariably false and deployed only cynically. Evidence of the costs of cap-and-trade carbon rationing is waved away as corporate propaganda; arguments against health-care reform are written off as hype orchestrated by insurance companies.

Before I comment on what I wanted to comment on, here and throughout the piece the author doesn't bother to counter the claims against "conservatives."  Perhaps he takes it as self-evident that what Mooney said (in his well-documented–I didn't say "true"–book) is false.  I can think of a couple of Republicans, for instance, whose ignorance of science is concerning.  Here's Republican Senator Jim DeMint on the snowstorm this past week in Washington:

It's going to keep snowing in DC until Al Gore cries "uncle"

I find myself looking down on Jim DeMint, an extremely wealthy, powerful, and capable man for the idiotic thing he said.  It's obvious that he doesn't know jack about the science behind global warming.  This same claim of many other prominent "conservative" and "Republican" leaders and intellectuals. 

Back to what I think I was going to comment on (it's now several hours from when I wrote that line above, so I don't really remember what I was going to say)–Alexander's characterization of Mooney's book disregards its content in order to criticize its form.  This, I think, is a hopelessly dumb and unproductive way of interacting with people with whom you disagree.  Not only does Mooney have an argument, but, judging by the numbskull policies of the last eight years, he might even have a good one.  But you can't really tell that, of course, until you actually look at the argument.  Alexander maintains, of course, that you don't need to look at the argument, because he knows what it says.  That, I think, is just what Mooney was complaining about.

No doubt, as I've said many times before, many liberals condescend to conservatives.  Many conservatives condescend to liberals.  The narrative, however, is that liberals are intellectual snobs, when conservatives are not.  I think that's hardly the case as a matter of fact.  It's also almost a matter of logic (I said "almost") that when you say someone's view is wrong, you're bound to appear snobby to them.  Especially when that person, such as is the case with Alexander here, doesn't seem to know what makes a view right or what makes it wrong.

Dialogue more valuable than ever

Here's another article about how liberals condescend to conservatives.  It begins:

It's an odd time for liberals to feel smug. But even with Democratic fortunes on the wane, leading liberals insist that they have almost nothing to learn from conservatives. Many Democrats describe their troubles simply as a PR challenge, a combination of conservative misinformation — as when Obama charges that critics of health-care reform are peddling fake fears of a "Bolshevik plot" — and the country's failure to grasp great liberal accomplishments. "We were so busy just getting stuff done . . . that I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are," the president told ABC's George Stephanopoulos in a recent interview. The benighted public is either uncomprehending or deliberately misinformed (by conservatives).

This condescension is part of a liberal tradition that for generations has impoverished American debates over the economy, society and the functions of government — and threatens to do so again today, when dialogue would be more valuable than ever.

Perhaps this guy is joking.  Or he is just very seriously misinformed, because it has been a mainstay of conservative opposition to any Obama initiative to call it "socialist" or worse (Liberal fascism anyone).  I'm not going to bother linking to anything because just googling the combination of "Obama" and "Socialist" nearly crashed the Google server. 

It's not, in other words, condescension.  It is a plain and to my mind surprisingly charitable interpretation of an opposition many of whose key members and leaders have excluded themselves from minimally reasonable discussion.  That's just true, whether or not many liberals are condescending a–wholes. 

As he wraps up this factless and meme-driven piece, the author goes for a little balance:

Of course, plenty of conservatives are hardly above feeling superior. But the closest they come to portraying liberals as systematically mistaken in their worldview is when they try to identify ideological dogmatism in a narrow slice of the left (say, among Ivy League faculty members), in a particular moment (during the health-care debate, for instance) or in specific individuals (such as Obama or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whom some conservatives accuse of being stealth ideologues). A few conservative voices may say that all liberals are always wrong, but these tend to be relatively marginal figures or media gadflies such as Glenn Beck.

Really.  Again, I'd say this is plainly false.  No bother.  This guy doesn't even try to produce evidence (here's an assignment, google "liberals" and see what comes up–it's entertaining.  Then google "liberals" and the name of any leading conservative, you won't find George Will making fine-grained distinctions).  Perhaps, however, as a conservative, he doesn't know that claims about reality stand or fall on the basis of the evidence offered.  "Just trust me phrases" in an advocacy piece don't count.

Too dumb to thrive

Charles Krauthammer complains that liberals think people are stupid and treat voters with disdain.  This is no doubt true of many of them.  Just as it true, on the other hand, of many conservatives, such as Krauthammer.  That liberals, and people in general, are stupid seems to be implicit in his opening howler:

"Iam not an ideologue," protested President Obama at a gathering with Republican House members last week. Perhaps, but he does have a tenacious commitment to a set of political convictions.

Compare his 2010 State of the Union to his first address to Congress a year earlier. The consistency is remarkable. In 2009, after passing a $787 billion (now $862 billion) stimulus package, the largest spending bill in galactic history, he unveiled a manifesto for fundamentally restructuring the commanding heights of American society — health care, education and energy.  

Because only an idiot would not see that Krauthammer has provided no context for understanding this outrageous claim.  You see, dumbass, it isn't the largest spending bill–at least if you measure by percentage of GDP:

The Obama stimulus package compares in size as a percentage of GDP to the First New Deal of President Franklin Roosevelt but is significantly smaller as a reflection of the government budget at the time.

Roosevelt's First New Deal in 1933 created the Public Works Administration, at a cost of $3.3 billion. Jason Scott Smith, a professor of history at the University of New Mexico, estimates this was equivalent to 5.9 percent of U.S. GDP at the time.

But compared to the size of the federal budget in that year, it was 1.65 times the amount of federal revenues. That ratio is more than five times greater than the same measure for Obama's plan.

Roosevelt followed up with a Second New Deal in 1935 based on the Works Progress Administration, which built airports, bridges and public buildings across the nation. Smith said the initial $4.88 billion appropriation for this program equaled about 6.7 percent of GDP at the time.

The funny thing about this dismal piece, however, is not its dishonesty (that's not surprising for Krauthammer), it's its complete lack of self-awareness.  Krauthammer gripes about the unfair characterization of conservatives by liberals by doing the same (to liberals).  It's a kind of op-eddy "I-know-what-you-are. . ." 

A year later, after stunning Democratic setbacks in Virginia, New Jersey and Massachusetts, Obama gave a stay-the-course State of the Union address (a) pledging not to walk away from health-care reform, (b) seeking to turn college education increasingly into a federal entitlement, and (c) asking again for cap-and-trade energy legislation. Plus, of course, another stimulus package, this time renamed a "jobs bill."

This being a democracy, don't the Democrats see that clinging to this agenda will march them over a cliff? Don't they understand Massachusetts?

Well, they understand it through a prism of two cherished axioms: (1) The people are stupid and (2) Republicans are bad. Result? The dim, led by the malicious, vote incorrectly.

Liberal expressions of disdain for the intelligence and emotional maturity of the electorate have been, post-Massachusetts, remarkably unguarded. New York Times columnist Charles Blow chided Obama for not understanding the necessity of speaking "in the plain words of plain folks," because the people are "suspicious of complexity." Counseled Blow: "The next time he gives a speech, someone should tap him on the ankle and say, 'Mr. President, we're down here.' "

A Time magazine blogger was even more blunt about the ankle-dwelling mob, explaining that we are "a nation of dodos" that is "too dumb to thrive."

Really?  Again, no doubt many liberals think this is true (many conservatives think liberals have a mental disorder, or are stupid, or have funny ethnic properties, or lack manly attributes, or disregard moral virtues, or they have guilt complexes), but Krauthammer is engaging in the same kind of activity–only worse, because he (1) childishly rips quotes out of context, (2) he picks people who don't really represent "liberalism" (Joe Klein?) and (3) he ought to know better.  He ought to know better because, for instance, too much of the opposition to health reform ("death panels", "2,000 plus pages!", "socialism!", "government take over") of leading conservative figures  was premised on the gullibility of a significant part of the electorate.  In certain quarters, such claims get a lot of traction. 

What explains, one might wonder, some people's belief in evident falsities such as these?  Well, one might say they're dumb (some are extremely dumb).  One also might say they've been lied to systematically by people such as Krauthammer.  One might say, as some have, that there has been a failure to get the message to them.  That's what Obama did.  Following directly, here's Krauthammer on that notion:

Obama joined the parade in the State of the Union address when, with supercilious modesty, he chided himself "for not explaining it [health care] more clearly to the American people." The subject, he noted, was "complex." The subject, it might also be noted, was one to which the master of complexity had devoted 29 speeches. Perhaps he did not speak slowly enough.

This objection is a variation of the argumentum ad paginarum numerum (argument against the sheer number of pages).  But anyway, Obama's point is not that he didn't talk enough about it, it's that he didn't speak clearly enough.  Those are different.   Even Krauthammer should be able to get that. 

Every little dollar is sacred

Ross Douthat, noted abstainer, argues in yesterday's New York Times that despite evidence that abstinence only education is as effective one of its alternatives (comprehensive sex education), which is to say, not effective, the federal government should continue to fund it anyway, because it might be effective.  Besides, people in Alabama don't want to hear about condoms, and people in Berkeley don't want to hear about abstinence.  You see, it's all relative.  No really:

Predictably, the rare initiatives that show impressive results tend to be defined more by their emphasis on building social capital than by their insistence on either chastity or contraception. A 2001 survey published by the Alan Guttmacher Institute, for instance, found that “most studies of school-based and school-linked health centers revealed no effect on student sexual behavior or contraceptive use.” The exceptions included an abstinence-oriented program with a strong community-service requirement, and a comprehensive program that essentially provided life coaching as well as sex ed: participants were offered “academic support (e.g., tutoring); employment; self-expression through the arts; sports; and health care.”

None of this renders the abstinence-versus-contraception debate pointless. But we should understand it more as a battle over community values than as an argument about public policy. Luker describes it, aptly, as a conflict between the “naturalist” and “sacralist” approaches to sex — between parents in Berkeley, say, who don’t want their kids being taught that premarital intercourse is something to feel ashamed about and parents in Alabama who don’t want their kids being lectured about the health benefits of masturbation.

As someone who thinks government money ought to be spent wisely, I find this puzzling.  Douthat argues that while neither approach works unequivocally well at its intended goal, a third one has been shown to be effective (I don't know, by the way, whether any of this is true, my sense is that it isn't, but that's not my point).  Given the option between the three things–two ineffective, one effective, Douthat argues that it doesn't matter, because it's all a matter of community values:

The debate might be less rancorous if the naturalists and sacralists didn’t have to fight it out in Washington. This is the real problem with federal financing for abstinence-based education: It drags the national government into a debate that should remain intensely local.

We federalize the culture wars all the time, of course — from Roe v. Wade to the Defense of Marriage Act. But it’s a polarizing habit, and well worth kicking.

If the federal government wants to invest in the fight against teenage pregnancy, the funds should be available to states and localities without any ideological strings attached. (And yes, this goes for the dollars that currently flow to Planned Parenthood as well as the money that supports abstinence programs.) Don’t try to encourage Berkeley values in Alabama, or vice versa.

America’s competing visions of sexuality — permissive and traditional, naturalist and sacralist — have been in conflict since the 1960s. They’ll probably be in conflict for generations yet to come.

But as long as they are, it shouldn’t be Washington’s job to choose between them.

How about another school of thought on sexuality: the empiricist.