Good thing we’re studying the important issues

We live, as we ever have, in a time of great uncertainty. Climate change is undeniable, but specific and plausible paths forward are seemingly beyond our grasp. We face an inscrutable economic future, with a whirlwind of contradicting ideas constantly blowing around us. Despite the progress we’ve made unlocking the mysteries of the cell and the double-helix, human health is still very much a crap-shoot. Genetic manipulation of food, once seeming to hold the promise for the cure to world hunger, has revealed itself to be far more complex than we could have imagined. In the face of these interminable unanswered questions, it’s hard to look at the scientific enterprise as something upon which we can consistently rely.

And yet, even with such epistemic despondency so justified, there are occasional bright spots where we can lean confidently upon the rigour that science provides us and make confident conclusions about the world. For it is science, that great illuminator, that has finally bestowed upon our poor race a great and fundamental certainty, answering once and for all one of the great questions that has plagued mankind, lo these many years: does getting an HPV vaccination turn your daughter into, like, a total slutbag?

Shots that protect against cervical cancer do not make girls promiscuous, according to the first study to compare medical records for vaccinated and unvaccinated girls. The researchers didn’t ask girls about having sex, but instead looked at “markers” of sexual activity after vaccination against the sexually transmitted human papillomavirus, or HPV. Specifically, they examined up to three years of records on whether girls had sought birth control advice; tests for sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy; or had become pregnant.

Very few of the girls who got the shots at age 11 or 12 had done any of those over the next three years, or by the time they were 14 or 15. Moreover, the study found no difference in rates of those markers compared with unvaccinated girls.

The study involved nearly 1,400 girls enrolled in a Kaiser Permanente health plan in Atlanta. Results were published online Monday in Pediatrics.

I barely know where to start with this one. I think a better research topic might be what the hell is wrong with people who think this is actually worth studying? There was consternation (from idiots) when the HPV vaccine came out that, with the elimination of the risk of cervical cancer (a fact only in evidence for the past 20 years and even then not exactly widely-known until a vaccine came out), little girls pre-teens all over the world would suddenly begin throwing caution to the wind and start banging each other’s brains out [commenter AsqJames points out the problem with the original wording – C]. I can only imagine their fevered fantasies about conversations like this one:

Archie: Hey Betty, would you like to engage in some consensual sexual intercourse?

Betty: I dunno, Archie. As a 14 year-old girl, I am acutely preoccupied with my 1 in 134 lifetime risk of developing cervical cancer.

Archie: Wait, but aren’t regular Pap smears and rapidly-improving technologies reducing cervical mortality year-by-year?

Betty: Why yes, Archie. Still though, since I cannot be absolutely 100% sure that I will never contract HPV, which by the way is the only health issue associated with sexual activity, I think I shall decline your offer of hot cock ‘n’ balls.

Archie: Aw, shucks! I guess I’ll just have to go to church instead!

This is a conversation I can more or less guarantee has happened exactly not ever. Anyone who thinks that a risk of possibly developing cervical cancer factors into the decision-making process when kids are figuring out if they’re ready for sex needs to report back to the rest of us post-haste regarding what colour the sky is on the planet they live on. Kids, like most people, are more likely to attend to risks according to their immediacy and likelihood – pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections like chlamydia or HIV, social stigma associated with sexual activity – as opposed to the far-flung actuarial calculus of cervical cancer. We’ve known about the risk of lung cancer from smoking for decades – youth smoking rates only started dropping when we actually started making policy about it, and when the stigma of smoking began to outweigh its ‘cool’ factor.

No, the kind of people who are likely to worry about whether or not kids are at risk of cancer are most often referred to as ‘mom’ or ‘dad’. It’s the parents who are supposed to take the long view and encourage their children to do things that keep them safe. Often that means providing kids with the information they need to make informed decisions about sexual activity; other times it means fostering the kind of safe and open environment where kids feel comfortable asking questions; it can also mean building up children’s self-esteem such that they can feel confident in their decision to say no or yes. Those tasks are tough for any parent, to be sure. But one easy thing to do to keep your kid safe is to let her (and/or him, depending on the jurisdiction) get a goddamn HPV shot!

The fact is that the kinds of parents who think that keeping their kid at risk for cervical cancer is the lesser of two evils (the other evil being, I guess, sex of any kind) aren’t going to rely on science when they make their decisions anyway. These parents don’t live in a world where facts are to be relied upon – they live in one where every pre-teen is well-versed in the epidemiology literature, and where cervical cancer is YahwAlladdha’s punishment for spreading your legs and letting “Hell’s Punishment Virus” into your god-box. And there’s no scientific study in the world that can build a bridge across the yawning chasm of that kind of cartoonish ignorance.

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  1. ImaginesABeach says

    Conversation when I had my 13 year old GirlChild get the HPV vaccination:
    Me: It will prevent HPV, a sexually transmitted disease that causes a certain kind of cancer.
    Her: EEEWWW! MOM! I’m only 13! I don’t have sex.
    Me: You will get older. And eventually you will have sex. And by golly, if there is anything I can do to make that sex safer, I’m gonna do it.

  2. baal says

    This reminds me to check on the coverage for the shot for my son. The vaccine also reduce transmission rates of the virus if males get it too. I want him to get the shot but not if I have to pay the retail price on it.

  3. AsqJames says

    I mostly agree, however although a portion of those hostile to the HPV vaccine will be immune to science and evidence, some will not. If the existence of such a study tips the balance for enough parents (and I don’t know what that number would be), it’s worth it.

    There’s also some value in having the actual evidence to show how stupid some notions are. As opposed to only being able to say “there’s no evidence for that”, we can now say “there is positive evidence that is not the case.” This shouldn’t be over-emphasized though as it may encourage the kooks to claim their wildest notions are valid theories until time and money is wasted proving them wrong.

    with the elimination of the risk of cervical cancer […], little girls all over the world would suddenly begin throwing caution to the wind and start banging each other’s brains out

    Given the low level of STIs in the lesbian population, such an outcome would have quite the positive effect on the incidence of many other diseases. I’d pity teenaged boys though – relationships are hard enough at that age without drastically reducing the number of possible partners.

  4. davidhart says

    Yeah, I’m with AsqJames on this one… while in an ideal world this would have been a really stupid study to spend time and money on, in a world populated by a non-negligible number of nutjobs, it makes sense. At least if anyone tries to pass legislation hostile to HPV vaccination, they can have this waved in their face and, while their fellow nutjobs will be unswayed, they will themself have to face the choice of either bowing to the facts or being seen by all their non-nutjob electors as wanting to pass laws based on proven untruths, as opposed to mere personal conviction.

  5. left0ver1under says

    The anti-HPV-vaxers are the same idiots (or the same category of idiots) as those who are against sex education.

    They’re not interested in prevention or cure. They’re interested in causing lifelong misery, disease and poverty to anyone who won’t obey them.

  6. says

    All due respect davidhart, this study and any number of studies like it would have no effect whatsoever on attempts to pass such legislation.

    There is a mountain of studies showing that there is no link between abortion and suicide or abortion and breast cancer. Yet several states, including my own, Texas, legally require doctors to lie to their patients and say that abortion can lead to suicide and breast cancer.

    For the record, the doctors challenged this law in court. They lost. They also challenged the more recent law allowing the state to rape me with a plastic wand if I want a termination. Again, the doctors lost.

  7. says

    I know that this is supposed to be a bit of a polemic but please, please, please don’t write paragraphs like

    Climate change is undeniable, but specific and plausible paths forward are seemingly beyond our grasp. We face an inscrutable economic future, with a whirlwind of contradicting ideas constantly blowing around us…Genetic manipulation of food, once seeming to hold the promise for the cure to world hunger, has revealed itself to be far more complex than we could have imagined. In the face of these interminable unanswered questions, it’s hard to look at the scientific enterprise as something upon which we can consistently rely.

    Because this is exactly the kind of thing that the ones can point to that don’t (want) to reflect on the how the interest of power elites get in the way of scientific working, and claim: “Even Crommunist admits science doesn’t work!”

    I am preaching to the choir here but it bears repeating: we have a rather good idea what to do and not to do as regards climate change, the economic crisis, and GMOs – but the dos get in the way of making money and keeping power, so they’re not being done.

  8. sawells says

    Speaking as a research scientist I think it’s really, really important that we do actually check the things that we assume are true. It’s important both in principle – if we claim to be guided by evidence we actually need to seek it out – and in practice. It’s always good to have real facts to back up your intuitions.

  9. says

    I sincerely doubt anyone looks to me as a cite-able authority on matters scientific (at least outside my field, and even INSIDE my field I’m almost entirely unknown).

    Otherwise, criticism noted.

  10. smrnda says

    It can appear wasteful to test things like this, but it’s important since there’s a great danger in going with what seems obvious.

    The problem, and I agree with LeftOver1Under, is that the people who oppose the HPV vaccine and sex education don’t care about evidence. I’ve pointed out to these people that abstinence based sex education has been proven to be a public policy failure, and all I get is hand-waving obfuscation and talks about sometimes an explicit ‘no matter what, we can never send the message that sex before marriage is okay’ or some nonsense that should *never* form the basis for educational policy. Here is a sample conversation:

    Me: It has been proven that abstinence based sex education does not work.

    Them: No, you’re wrong. Abstinence works every time!

    Me: I’m not saying it doesn’t. Abstinence based sex education only works if nobody has sex. So if it does not make teenagers stop having sex, it will fail.

    Them: Well, if they don’t want to follow what we tell them, which works, why should you hold us accountable for that?

    Me: Because it is possible to have sex and avoid pregnancy. There is no reason why young people should not have sex.

    Them: yeah, but it’s not 100%.

    Me: Driving a car isn’t 100% safe, but you aren’t protesting drivers ed.

    *** this is how it usually goes. The argument is that young people who choose to have sex should just obey them, but they can never give me a reason on why that’s an imperative not to engage in sex. I mean, nothing is 100% safe, but it seems like they’re arguing that sex is *different* and that, even though NASCAR isn’t 100% safe people should still be as safe as they can speeding around in cars around a track, but that sex is different.

  11. carlie says

    baal – it’s actually three shots, so keep that in mind, and they are spaced a few months apart.

  12. madisonburnett says

    I really wish I had your writing ability… or rather not necessarily yours, because you need it, but one similar to it would more than suffice.

  13. says

    I’ll give you the same advice that I give everyone, which is the same advice that I followed: steal. Find a writer you like (or preferably a bunch of writers you like to make the forgery less obvious), and steal from them unashamedly. Then do it again. Then do it again and again and again until their style/styles become your own. It’s sincerely the fastest way to becoming a better writer.

    All that being said, thank you for say so, from the bottom of the hearts of Christopher Hitchens, George Orwell, Greta Christina, Lawrence Hill, Ta-Nehesi Coates, Sikivu Hutchison, and a long list of others whose styles I have simply learned to ape.

  14. TGAP Dad says

    This study strikes me as an academic pursuit to produce evidence in order to convince people who will be unmoved by evidence. My own observation shows that it is (primarily) the conservative anti-HPV crowd that plays the “promiscuity card,” which is the same crowd that will deny the evidence of their error.

  15. No Light says

    OTOH – think of the reduction in teen pregnancy rates.

    That’s actually half serious, because girls who are attracted to girls are currently more likely to get pregnant.

    Yeah, sounds arse-backward I know, but thanks to the stigma involved with not being straight, they’re not only more likely to sleep with boys, as they’re under pressure to prove they’re “normal”. But, they’re less likely to be using hormonal birth control or carrying condoms.

    Then, when pregnancy occurs, it is likely to go to term as an act of “camouflage”, a marker for heterosexuality.

    So, reducing stigma about being an LGB teen has a doubly protective effect against teen pregnancy.

  16. davidhart says

    Wow, that’s depressing. Were the judges also immune to evidence on those sorts of question? Because a person whose job is to consider evidence really oughtn’t be able to get that job in the first place if they are.

    Still, I maintain that studying this sort of thing is worth doing because, no matter how many wingnuts you are unable to convince at any one sweep, you will always get the people who are open to evidence on your side if you actually have the evidence, and eventually you may be able to persuade enough of them to be able to turn the tide.

    That’s unless Texas does things like deliberately opposing the teaching of critical thinking skills in schools.
    Hmmm…we may have a problem there…

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