Friday, April 25, 2008

Abstaining From Evidence

Rationality and reason were under attack again this week on many fronts.

In Phoenix on Monday night, thousands of people reported seeing some eerie red lights floating in the sky, and many assumed it must be some sort of alien spacecraft. By Wednesday, a man came forward and admitted that it was all a hoax he'd perpetrated. He had used fishing line to attach road flares to helium-filled balloons, then lit the flares and launched them a minute apart from his backyard.

Although witnesses have confirmed his story, including one who saw him launch the balloon-flares, lots of Arizonans don't believe him. For them, it's easier to buy that some life form from distant space traveled all the way to Earth to hover over Phoenix, than it is to accept that a human being was responsible. Occam's Anti-Razor: maybe the aliens came to watch the Diamondbacks beat the Giants that night.

Meanwhile, in Washington, health groups testified to Congress -- again -- that abstinence-only sex education in schools continues to be ineffective. Dr. Margaret Blythe of the American Academy of Pediatrics told the House committee, "There is evidence to suggest that some of these programs are even harmful and have negative consequences by not providing adequate information for those teens who do become sexually active." Other experts from the American Public Health Association and U.S. Institute of Medicine testified that scientific studies have found that abstinence-only teaching does not work, that it does not reduce pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, or the age when sexual activity begins.

But facts don't matter to some members of Congress, like Tennessee Republican John Duncan, who wants to continue funding this failed program: "it seems rather elitist that people with academic degrees in health think they know better than parents what type of sex education is appropriate."

The elitism defense: those pesky people who bothered to get an education and spend time studying what works and doesn't work, what do they know? Evidence doesn't matter, only opinions do, and nothing's gonna change mine! Why should I listen to experts? To paraphrase Randy Newman, smart people got no reason to live.

Of course Duncan is in favor of a program that denies vital biological information to America's students -- because having information is "elitist," and we can't have that. If you keep'em stupid, they'll never know how stupid you are.

Congressman, if you truly believe in abstinence, you can do your country a great service whenever issues like this come up -- by abstaining.

Finally, there's this, from the website of the GOP presidential candidate, who wants to institute a Summer Gas Tax Holiday: "Hard-working American families are suffering from higher gasoline prices. John McCain calls on Congress to suspend the 18.4 cent federal gas tax and 24.4 cent diesel tax from Memorial Day to Labor Day."

You can always get Americans to love you by reminding them how hard-working they are. Otherwise they forget. But let's look at this on a personal level.

Say you fill up your 20-gallon gas tank once a week. At 18.4 cents a gallon, you're saving $3.68/week. Over the fourteen weeks of summer between the two major holidays, your total savings will be $51.52. Sure, it would be nice to keep those bucks in your pocket, but for that relatively small amount, should we buy this cheap political pandering ploy?

The downside is that, when you tell Americans that gas will be cheaper because the federal tax will be suspended, you take away the incentive to conserve (that's conserve, as in "conservative"). In doing so, you increase demand, which the speculators see as a positive for the oil market, which results in high prices for a barrel of oil, which in turn means prices at the pump go up. Then, instead of the money being collected as a tax -- about $10 billion, which is used to rebuild our highways and other infrastructure -- the increased expenditure ends up in the coffers of ExxonMobil And Friends.

Would you rather have that $51.52 go to their shareholders, or towards fixing that bridge on your commute that's in desperate need of repair?

There I go, being elitist again by using information to gain perspective. As we've seen time and time again, it doesn't matter what's right and what's wrong -- it only matters whether you can sell the story. If enough people want to believe aliens have visited us, you give them that. If people want to believe that simply telling teens to keep their legs crossed will keep them from having sex, you give them that. If people want to believe that the government can solve the gas price problem with a tax holiday, you give them that.

While we're at it, maybe we should ask those aliens how they got so many light years per gallon with their space fuel, and how they kept their youngsters from reproducing on the trip.