Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Thinking Backwards

An essential element of critical thinking is understanding the appropriate roles of facts vs. values in argumentation. For example, it is not evidence for a fact that its truth would be desirable. A second key is tracing the implications of value statements, especially when, as happens ubiquitously, rules or principles collide. And, while there is little or no direct recourse when disputants assert opposing values as fundamental, it often helps to clarify matters when people are willing to think about where their value statements come from and why or how they adopted particular statements as their own.

These good habits are in short supply in much of our contemporary political discourse, perhaps most obviously when it comes to the so-called "moral values" issues (and why they get that label when other issues which clearly are all about moral values do not is one of the keys to our problem), but in most other areas as well.

My recent post about abstinence-only sex education is a case in point. Proponents assert that it is better for teens to abstain from sex, largely as an a priori principle, although they may add arguments about consequences such as emotional vulnerability and exploitation, or leaky condoms. (They may go further and say that people of any age should engage in sex only in marriage, but that's largely beside the point.) They say that most parents agree. Ergo, sex education should instruct young people to be abstinent and not send any "mixed messages" by telling them about contraception and prophylaxis.

But of course the conclusion does not follow. Only if abstinence-only sex education did, in fact, result in higher rates of abstinence and lower rates of adverse consequences than did comprehensive sex education could one call it superior, even on the basis of its proponents stated values. But it doesn't. If you wish to encourage abstinence, you will have to find other means. And, if you don't provide young people with comprehensive information about sexuality and how to mange its consequences, they'll go ahead and have sex anyway but the consequences will be worse.

A further embedded error is that, because proponents believe extramarital sex to be immoral, they promote falsehoods about its dangers. For example, a curriculum promoted by the Department of Education, and the Vatican, both make false assertions about the unreliability of condoms. Some people insist that condoms are far more prone to failure than they really are because they start out believing that people shouldn't use them on moral grounds. They are concluding that what they would like to be correct is true.

Now, even granting the facts, one can still be opposed to extramarital sex. Fundamental moral rules or principles are not susceptible to evidence, at least not in strictly logical terms. You can just say, "It's wrong," I can say, "Not necessarily," and you can say, "Is too," and that's that. But you could ask yourself why you believe that, and you could also try putting the belief in historical context to understand why some people have believed it in some times and places and others have not. For example, you might say, "I believe it because I believe in the teachings of the Bible." But if you were to honestly follow that assertion everywhere it leads, you would find yourself on a journey that few Bible believers are willing to take. The Bible, it so happens, endorses polygamy, concubinage (which is sexual slavery) and the rape of women and girls of people conquered by Hebrews. You might also find yourself in difficulty with your condemnation of abortion, since that is a position which lacks any biblical authority whatever and was not a Christian doctrine until the 19th Century.

But this sort of reasoning backward from conclusions to evidence is characteristic of the contemporary conservative movement in all areas. For example, the Bush administration makes conclusions about climate science based on protecting oil industry profits, on the environmental impact of mercury emissions based on the profits of electric utilities, and about the existence of chemical and biological weapons, and nuclear weapons programs, based on its a priori conclusion that war with Iraq is desirable. It concludes that abortion causes breast cancer because it doesn't like abortion. It concludes that marriage has always been "between one man and one woman" because that's how it wants it to be today. And so on.

Conservative chatterers and supporters of the Administration consistently display these habits of thinking backwards. There is all sorts of good news from Iraq that the media aren't reporting. Eliminating taxation of the wealthy makes poor people better off. Democracies don't try to acquire weapons of mass destruction™, and democracies don't start wars. Saddam wouldn't let in the UN inspectors. No-one could have anticipated that people might try to fly planes into buildings, or that the levees would fail.

But the fact is, they are simply wrong, about everything.

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