Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Kentucky’s school prayer petition makes blatantly false claims

3185-Lack-of-School-Prayer-Opened-Door-to-AIDSThe American Family Association of Kentucky has put up a petition to put prayer back in Kentucky schools. They claim that the law is ok because Florida and Mississippi have passed similar laws, though I suspect it is just a matter of time before the laws a struck down for church state separation violations. The AFA doesn’t even try to disguise their intent, they say outright the goal of putting prayer in school is to convert students. In their own words:
Now, I suspect that even if Kentucky passes such a law it will, within a few years, end up on the docket for judicial review and the law will be shot down amidst cries from the AFA that the liberal elite are destroying this country. So while I am concerned that there is a trend of states passing laws which have already been deemed unconstitutional, what I’m really concerned about is the blatantly false scientific claims they make as part of the petition. Claims that apparently no one bats an eye at, perhaps because they fit a narrative that this petitions audience already wants to believe. The narrative being that American society is failing because it doesn’t trust in god. So let’s take a look at the scientific claims which the petition makes:
Prayer was in our schools for over 200 years before the anti-God forces took it out in 1962. After prayer was removed from our schools, teen pregnancy went up 500%, STD’s went up 226%, violent crime went up 500% and SAT scores went down for 18 years in a row, opening the door for the AIDS epidemic and the drug culture.
Of course the notion that before the supreme court ruled on school prayer in 1962 and 1963 school prayer was common in all 50 states and totally uncontroversial is simply historically inaccurate.  But lets look at the four main scientific claims made here.
First, they claim that teen pregnancy has climbed 500% since 1962. This one is easy because I actually wrote a post about this claim last year which you can read here. In this article I point to a set of statistics found here which show that far from a 500% increase, since 1962 the teen pregnancy rate has fallen by almost 100%, in 2008 and more recent figures show even further decline. This claim is not only poorly supported, it seems to be an outright fabrication. Of course if they have alternate figures I can’t judge them since they fail to provide references for their claims.
The next claim is that STD’s have gone up 226% since 1962. Like the first one I seem to be unable to find any reports with this claim. Further, the claim is more difficult to judge than the one about pregnancy because while pregnancy is binary (you either are or you aren’t) STD’s come in many different kinds, some of which are very dangerous and some of which are fairly harmless, particularly if treated quickly. Though, in part, it is the very fact that STD rates are difficult to judge that make this figure so suspect. For instance, the infection rates of specific STD’s rise and fall at different rates as well, sometimes one will go up while another will go down in the same year. So if the figures for a less harmful one went up while one that was more harmful went down by a similar amount is the STD problem unchanged or is it improved? Further, if the figures go up for a particular STD, depending on how the figures are gathered, this might only indicate that more people are seeking medical treatment, not that infection rates have increased. For these, and other, reasons generalized rates like the one given in this petition are practically useless. They tell us less than nothing.
So how did this number hold up to the figures I was able to gather? I did find a paper here through the CDC which gives rates of infections for various STD’s. The rates fro Chlamydia only went back to 1990 so I can’t judge that one entirely, the rates have climbed since 1990 with women suffering from the majority of the cases but at a rate of about 375 per 100,000 it isn’t like there is an epidemic or anything.
I was, however, able to get graphs stretching back to 1941 for both Gonorrhea and Syphilis. Gonorrhea infections seem to have been on the rise in the early 1960’s all the way until the mid 1970’s. It was at about 150 out of 100,000 in 62 and climbed sharply to almost 500 by 1975. However, that trend was reversed in the 1980’s and by 1995 the rate was down to around 100, lower than it was even in the 1950’s. Syphilis, meanwhile, was at it’s highest rate of nearly 600 out of 100,000 in 1945. This was probably due to soldiers returning from WWII. The modern figures barely register on the graph with numbers under 50.
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Of course there are other STD’s we could look at. I imagine the rate of increase for AIDS between 1962 and now is off the charts since it didn’t exist then, but in general without some rather startling figures coming from some other form of STD it is pretty clear that the claim of a 226% increase in STD’s came from the same place their claims about teen pregnancy came from.
The third claim was that crime has gone up 500% since 1962. I found numbers for this here. This one could actually have some teeth if you measure the the straight numbers of crime without regard to the increase in population we have seen since 1962. For instance the number of Robberies in 1962 was about 110,000, and in 2011 they were about 354,000. That is an increase of well over 300%. However, when you note that the population of the U.S. has increased by nearly 1.7 times that increase falls to only about 190%.
However these numbers are not consistent. The murder rate, for example was around 8500 in 1962 and are around 14,600 in 2011. That increase is actually consistent with the increase in population, leaving the per capita murder rate relatively unchanged since the 1960’s. In fact, Murder numbers actually peaked in the 90’s and have been falling for nearly 20 years now. In fact pretty much every crime rate has been falling since the mid 1990’s so the only way you could get anywhere near this 500% figure is by looking at 20 year old data.
The last claim made is that SAT scores fell 18 years in a row. Once again I was able to find actual figures for this quite easily. This one has a grain of truth in it since the average score in 1980 was 424 compared to the 473 that was the average in 1962. However a new scale was introduced in 1967 which may muck up the comparison. If you only look at the averages from the new scale from 67 onward there was a downward shift in the 60’s and 70’s, but that trend reversed in the mid 80’s and has been climbing. Interestingly, numbers in the math section have been rising more than numbers in reading. Further the downward trend could have been due to increased college attendance or the fact that test standards were changed several times which could have made the test more difficult.
Of course the biggest problem with this argument is that even if their numbers were correct, and I have shown that they are not, they have done nothing to show any causal relationships between these figures. They assume, for no reason whatsoever, that these figures changed because of a change in school prayer, when it should be obvious that things like teen pregnancy and STD’s are affected by thousands of different factors. Of course acknowledging that there might not be an easy fix for our problems is usually a hard thing to do. We want our fixes to come easy, and to the unskeptical it is comforting to think that if they can just get society to change one thing everything will fall into place and be great. Seldom is this tendency seen in more prevalence than with the religious right.

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