Just Say No-To Bad Science; No One Is Saying That Researchers Cheat, but How They Design a Study of Sex Education Can Practically Preordain the Results

By Begley, Sharon | Newsweek, May 7, 2007 | Go to article overview

Just Say No-To Bad Science; No One Is Saying That Researchers Cheat, but How They Design a Study of Sex Education Can Practically Preordain the Results


Begley, Sharon, Newsweek


Byline: Sharon Begley

When Doug Kirby sat down recently to update his 2001 analysis of sex-education programs, he had 111 studies that were scientifically sound, using rigorous methods to evaluate whether a program met its goals of reducing teen pregnancy, cutting teens' rates of sexually transmitted diseases and persuading them to practice abstinence (or, if they didn't, to use condoms). He also had a pile of studies that were too poorly designed to include. It measured three feet high.

For us civilians, it's hard to grasp how much of science is subjective, and especially how much leeway there is in choosing how to conduct a study. No one is alleging that scientists stack the deck on purpose. Let's just say that depending on how you design a study you can practically preordain the outcome. "There is an amazing array of things people do to botch a study," says Rebecca Maynard of the University of Pennsylvania.

For instance, 153 out of 167 government-funded studies of bisphenol-A, a chemical used to make plastic, find toxic effects in animals, such as low sperm counts. No industry-funded studies find any problem. It's not that the taxpayer-funded scientists are hallucinating, or that the industry scientists are blind. But here's a clue: many industry studies tested this estrogenlike chemical on a strain of rat that is insensitive to estrogen. That's like trying to measure how stress affects lactation ... using males.

Choosing the wrong methodology can lead science, and the public, astray. Early studies of hormone therapy compared women who chose to take estrogen pills and women who did not. The studies concluded that the pills prevent heart disease. Wrong. Women who chose to take hormones after menopause were healthier and more plugged into the medical system than women who did not. Differences in the women, not the effect of hormones, explained the difference in heart disease.

Which brings us to sex ed. In April, scientists released the most thorough study of abstinence-only programs ever conducted. Ordered up by Congress, it followed 2,000 kids, starting in grades 3 through 8, in rural and urban communities who had been randomly assigned to an abstinence-only program or not. Result: kids in abstinence-only "were no more likely to abstain from sex than their control group counterparts ... [both] had similar numbers of sexual partners and had initiated sex" at the same age.

Earlier studies gave abstinence-only glowing evaluations, as social conservatives publicized. …

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Just Say No-To Bad Science; No One Is Saying That Researchers Cheat, but How They Design a Study of Sex Education Can Practically Preordain the Results
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