Texas Governor Rick Perry is toying with a run for president. Perry is a skilled politician and has never lost an election, but he has taken an increasingly antiscience turn in his approach to governing. On global warming he now says that the leading source of "supposedly deadly carbon dioxide" is the mouth of Al Gore. On education he has appointed creationists to lead the Texas State Board of Education. And on the issue of sex ed in Texas, Perry has taken governing positions that affect millions of children based on his own personal opinions, even when those opinions are overwhelmingly contradicted by the evidence.
Texas lawmakers cut sex ed from two six-month courses to a single unit of "abstinence only" education. But early indications showed that the program wasn't working. In fact, teens in almost all high school grades were having more sex after undergoing the abstinence only program. By 2007, Texas had the highest teen birth rate in the nation.
Nevertheless, the program continued. By 2009, 94 percent of Texas schools, which at the time were educating more than 3.7 million students, were giving no sex ed whatsoever beyond "abstinence only," a curriculum that includes emphasizing that birth control doesn't work.
Instead of providing fact-based information, the programs use fear and Jesus -- over-emphasizing the risks of sexually transmitted diseases leading to cervical cancer, radical hysterectomy and death, together with Christian morality.
One Texas public school district's sex ed handout is entitled "Things to Look for in a Mate:"
I. How they relate to God
A. Is Jesus their first love?
B. Trying to impress people or serve God?
Another public school district uses this:
Question: "What does the Bible say about sex before marriage/premarital sex?"
Answer: Along with all other kinds of sexual immorality, sex before marriage/premarital sex is repeatedly condemned in Scripture (Acts 15:20; Romans 1:29; 1 Corinthians 5:1; 6:13,18; 7:2; 10:8; 2 Corinthians 12:21; Galatians 5:19; Ephesians 5:3; Colossians 3:5; 1 Thessalonians 4:3; Jude 7).
The results? Teen pregnancy in Texas went up -- higher than before "abstinence only," and more than 50 percent higher than the national average. Even more troubling was that repeat teen pregnancy went up -- to the point that it, too, led the nation. It turns out that Texas kids thought that "if birth control doesn't work, why use it?"
It's also extremely tough for teenagers to get contraceptives in Texas. "If you are a kid, even in college, if it's state-funded you have to have parental consent," said Susan Tortolero, director of the Prevention Research Center at the University of Texas in Houston.
But none of this seems to matter to Gov. Rick Perry. When confronted with the dismal statistics during an October 15, 2010 televised interview with Texas Tribune reporter Evan Smith, Perry's response was to reaffirm that "abstinence works."
The audience laughed and Smith pointed out the state's abysmal teen pregnancy rate. "It works," insisted Perry. "Maybe it's the way it's being taught, or the way it's being applied out there, but the fact of the matter is it is the best form of -- uh -- to teach our children." Smith asked for a statistic to suggest it works, and Perry replied that "I'm just going to tell you from my own personal life, abstinence works."
Perry could be a good leader. But the United States faces mounting challenges around science policy issues ranging from energy and climate change to ocean health to science education and American economic competitiveness. Perry's willingness to base policies that affect millions of children on his personal opinions even when they are contradicted by overwhelming evidence suggests a governing style that would not be constructive for dealing in reality when tackling America's complex problems. If Perry continues his campaign for president, he should renounce his past antiscience positions and pledge to make governing decisions based on the best available science.
Shawn Lawrence Otto is author of Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America. Find him on Facebook.
Follow Shawn Lawrence Otto on Twitter: www.twitter.com/shawnotto