Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Helping Teenagers

I have another question from the studio audience:

Hello Mr. Fyfe, I am a believer and I am doing a paper on why prayer should not be forced in school. Part of that paper is on all of the violence that is taking place in the schools, how the atheists and the believers feel about them, what the two think should be done about the problems. Can you please help me and give me your views on the current problems in the school system. Sex, drugs, shootings, cheating on tests, unprepared teachers are just some of the problems that I am writing about. I thank you

I would be pleased to do so.

However, I must begin with a set of standard disclaimers.

The question of asking how ‘atheists feel” about some policy is about as fruitful as asking about how ‘heliocentrists feel.” Heliocentrists believe that the proposition, “The sun is at the center of the solar system,” is almost certainly true. This view is compatible with a wide range of views on how we on Earth are to live our lives, so that it is absurd to ask about the heliocentrist view on, for example, prayer in schools.

Atheists (as I and the vast majority of competent English speakers use the term) believe that the proposition “At least one god exists” is almost certainly false. This, too, is compatible with a wide range of beliefs about social policy.

It is also the case that belief that the proposition, “At least one god does exist” is almost certainly true is compatible with an endless array of positions on social policy. This is proved by the wide variety of religions that now exist, or have existed.

When I answer questions about how people should live, I do not derive my conclusions from atheism. Atheism is a view that I hold in addition to my moral view, which is ‘desire utilitarianism’. Atheism does not imply desire utilitarianism, and desire utilitarianism does not require that one be an atheist. A person can, for example, consistently believe that there is a God that created a universe in which the propositions that make up desire utilitarian theory are true – just as he can believe that a God created a universe in which humans evolved over billions of years.

Solving Problems

When it comes to solving problems, I think that we need to answer an important question before we start looking at policies, and that is, “How are we going to evaluate different policies?” We have a conflict here between two different ways of evaluating policies. One is to use the scientific method – the practice of making observations, coming up with a number of theories to explain those observations, making predictions based on those theories, and running experiments to see which theory holds up. The other is to trust that a bunch of ignorant tribesmen who have been dead for several thousand years somehow acquired perfect knowledge of the best way to organize a society to eliminate these problems.

If a person truly cares about finding policies that work – if they truly care about making the lives of more teenagers better than they would have otherwise been, then I hold that they would evaluate policies using the first method, rather than the second.

More specifically, the first method says that we take a set of observations about the real world (for example, comparing crime rates, student aptitude, pregnancy rates, prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases among students, suicide rates), and we look for real-world factors that can influence these rates (genetics, family income, social institutions). Theorists attempt to draw relationships between these factors that are consistent with the range of observations. They take these theories and they make predictions of the form, “Under conditions C, R will result.” They then either create conditions C or look for a natural situation where conditions C already exist. If they find R wherever they find (or create) conditions C, then this supports (though does not definitively prove) the theory. If not, this falsifies the theory, and the theorists look for another explanation.

For example, in examining teenage suicide, they come up with a theory that tries to explain and predict the circumstances under which teenagers are more likely to kill themselves. A theory that best explains teenage suicide will typically allow a theorist to say, “If we remove these conditions C, then we can reduce the number of teenage suicides.” They then look at situations where condition C exists, and see if teenage suicides are lower. If they are, then we have reason to advocate removing conditions C elsewhere.

One of the implications of this approach is that it allows for the possibility of expert opinion. Take two people. Person 1 has spent his life going through the data – the set of observations and theories on teenage suicide, read the studies in the peer-reviewed journals, and from this has formed an opinion on how best to reduce teenage suicide. The other is an IT support person who happens to have a blog on the internet. When it comes to trying to learn the best way to deal with teenage suicide, reason suggests trusting the professional who has spent her life studying the data and theories over the IT specialist with a blog.

Which means that I am not going to tell you how I feel about most policies. What I am going to tell you is that ‘feelings’ do not matter so much. What matters are facts. What matters are expert opinions.

I do hold that I am an expert in some areas. I have spent my life studying value theory – theories of what ‘better’ is and how to find it. I can tell you, in my expert opinion, that a ‘better’ policy is a policy that a person with good desires will want to see enacted, and a good desire is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires. I need the input of experts in a specific field to determine which policies in that specific field fit this criterion.

Looking For What Really Works

When people actually take the time to look at the evidence, or to listen to those who have spent their lives looking at the evidence, they may well discover that something they want to believe is false. A common reaction is to then deny what the evidence shows to be true. However, in the case of evaluating policies to prevent teenage suicides, homicides, unplanned pregnancy, illness (sexually transmitted or otherwise), and accident, this arrogant dismissal of the facts has a very real cost. It means embracing policies that fail to prevent the harms that an acceptance of the facts could help us prevent.

Imagine a simple case in which research shows that policy P reduces teenage suicide rates by 30 percent (without having other adverse side effects). Let us say that policy P is accepting homosexuality – because research shows that negative social attitudes towards homosexuality contributes significantly to teenage suicide rates. However, for religious reasons, large numbers of people refuse to embrace this policy. The result is that we have teenagers killing themselves who could have otherwise lived healthy and productive lives.

One of the things that scientists know, and which they incorporate into their work, is the tremendous tendency that people have to allow bias to color what they think they see in the real world. To combat this problem, scientists have come up with a number of ways to remove bias. For example, doctors cannot be trusted to simply observe the results of any given drug. Instead, to get good data, researchers have to keep doctors in the dark as to whether their patient (in any given study) is getting a placebo or the real drug. This way, the doctor who wants to find a cure for a particular disease will not see what he wants (hopes) to see when he examines a patient.

Many scientists, when they send their papers in for review, are also required to send them blind – with the authors’ names removed, and all reference to an author’s earlier publications expressed in the third person. This is to make it easier for a reviewer to judge a submission by its content, rather than by the reputation of the author.

Consider this possibility: Assume that there is a choice between two policies. Policy A has a 45% effectiveness (e.g., 45% of students subjected to Policy A will not engage in risky behavior B), whereas Policy B has a 60% effectiveness. However, 90% of the people are living under Policy A, and only ten percent under Policy B.

Now, assume that the press or Congress, or just your average person on the street appealing to their personal experience, wishes to judge which one is better? They will probably know far more cases in which Policy A produced the desired results (40.5% of the population), but hear of very little in which Policy B provided a benefit (6% of the population). Unfortunately, their evidence gives them a distorted view of reality. They may ‘feel’ that Policy A is better, but they would be wrong. If society changed to Policy B, they could prevent an additional 13.5% of teenagers from engaging in this risky behavior.

It takes an appreciation of the scientific method to draw sift through these types of confusions and prevent mistakes. If somebody really cares about preventing children from engaging in risky behavior, then they should really care that we sift through the noise and expose the underlying facts of the matter. If they do not really care which option is best, we can conclude that they do not really care about what happens to teenagers. They should really care that we use the method of evaluation that does the better job at revealing which processes really work.


The argument above has one implication that leads directly to the issue of forced prayer in school. If, as I have argued, the scientific method is the method that best determines which policies work and which policies fail, and we have reason to educate children to evaluate policies using the best method available, then we should be teaching them respect for the scientific method. Failure to do so teaches them to rely on less reliable methods, which leads to the selection of worse policies, which means that more teenagers will engage in more risky behavior and suffer bad consequences that could have been avoided.

If we mentally tie students to a set of instructions written 2000 years ago by people who were substantially ignorant of the real world we are not teaching them to use the most reliable method for selecting policies. Teaching students to treat these archaic instructions of these ancient tribesmen as infallible is like teaching doctors that the medical claims of Hippocrates are infallible and nothing learned since then should be taken to contradict his medical opinions.

In the case of medicine, we can see how this will lead to a great deal of death, illness, and suffering. It is no less so in the case in matters of public policy. In the case of believing that some primitive tribesmen had perfect knowledge of how best to organize a society, the consequences could be just as bad.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In quantum mechanics, you usually don't compute what the outcome will be, but rather what the probabilities are for different outcomes.

They same is also partially true for polls (accurate to 2 percentage points, 19 times out of twenty). I don't think you can always deduce a course of action from this sort of probability data.

The choices you need to make are for the best chance of the best possible outcome, or the least chance of the worst possible outcome, or something in between. Science will provide the odds, but it will never tell you what outcome you should want.

If a practice has survived for centuries, then likely it is not extremely hazardous to the health of a society, otherwise it would have succumbed to evolutionary pressures and disappeared. Sometimes safeguarding (over-protecting) while producing a short term effect on fatalities, results in a weakening of the species. So if we have long term evidence, we should be not to quick to discount it.

I think some of the fears about prayer in school, and the mention of creationism, implies todays students are of extremely poor quality. They don't sing God save the queen in many schools in Quebec, even though it is allowed (as the queen is the head of state), because the french students would make a mockery of it. I think they would do the same with prayers. And if all the great scientists above 60, grew up in a world where creationism was the norm, how were they able to see the evidence so clearly, but today's students cannot. That being said, I am not for teaching creationism in science class, or prayer in public schools. Just that the notion that the truth is so delicate, or youth so impressionable, that either need to be protected at all costs, does not give me much hope for democracy.