Unpacking Arguments: McCain’s attack on Obama’s Sex Ed

16Sep08
Note: Today brings another edition of Unpacking Arguments. If you have an argument you’ve found that you’d like me to analyze, feel free to email me at Remixer96@gmail.com and I’ll feature it in an upcoming post.
 
Update: Hot Air seems to have picked up on York’s post as well, but it seems his primary concern is ansered by the local control discussion.
 
For those who’ve been listening to the news lately, there’s been an increase in mentioning that McCain has abandoned his principles and has begun to run a campaign based primarily on lies and distortions. One example that many cite in this claim is McCain’s recent ad attacking the sex-ed bill Obama supported in the Illinois Senate. Byron York recaps the situation fairly well, though he neglects to mention that the Fact Checking Organizations (factcheck.org and Politifact.com) have come out against the ad’s claims as well, calling it “simply false” and ranking it as a “pants on fire” class lie.
 
So the only thing left to do? Unpack Byron’s argument in defense of the ad.
 
Byron’s Argument
 
The condemnation has been so widespread that the Obama campaign has begun to sense success in placing the “McCain-is-a-liar” storyline in the press. But before accepting the story at face value, it might first be a good idea to examine the bill in question, look at the statements made by its supporters at the time it was introduced, talk to its sponsors today (at least the ones who will consent to speak), and find answers to a few basic questions. What were the bill’s provisions? Why was it written? Was it really just, or even mostly, about inappropriate advances? And the bottom-line question: Is McCain’s characterization of it unfair? [Emphasis Added]
 
So York has made his primary argument clear… for the most part: McCain’s characterization of the sex-ed Bill Obama supported was fair. What York might mean by fair is up to a degree of interpretation (perhaps it’s fair in a political contest or fair for television’s standards of veracity), but I think he would agree that in this case, fair means communicating a message that is mostly accurate and not intentionally intended to mislead its audience.
 
It should be noted that York appears only to be concerned with McCain’s characterization of the bill and that claim’s veracity, not Obama’s counter claims, or even the other claims in the ad, including whether the legislation was Obama’s single education accomplishment, or even whether it was an accomplishment at all.
 
Background: McCain’s Claim
 
McCain’s characterization of the bill, quoting from the ad, explicitly states that kindergartners will be learning about sex before they learn to read.
 
Obama’s one accomplishment? Legislation to teach ‘comprehensive sex education’ to kindergartners. Learning about sex before learning to read? Barack Obama. Wrong on education. Wrong for your family.
 
The “Legislation to” phrasing implies that this is the bill’s main purpose, or at least the bill’s primary effect. This is the statement I believe York is defending as fair.
 
York’s Evidence
 
  • The purpose of the bill in question (the first in a series of three) was to
    • Mandate information in sex-ed classes be actually accurate
    • Increase the number of children receiving education
    • Remove value-based language previously written into the law
      • ie. “Course material and instruction shall teach honor and respect for monogamous heterosexual marriage.”
  • The bill addressed that inappropriate touching be taught in classrooms
    • Though it was not the bill’s primary purpose
  • The bill mandated all sex-ed to be age and developmentally appropriate
  • The bill also states that instruction on the prevention of HIV shall be taught in every sex-ed classroom
    • For questions regarding this contradiction, it was discussed that local school control would be counted on for judgment 
  • York couldn’t get in touch with a majority of the bill’s sponsors
    • Senator Martinez didn’t see the bill as primarily about including inappropriate touching in sex-ed curriculum 
  • Planned Parenthood and the County Department of Health were significantly involved in the creation of the bill
 
York’s Reasoning
 
York believes that because HIV is mandated to be taught, and that local schools have the power to follow this or the age appropriate provision, that it’s possible that “comprehensive sex education” could be taught to kindergartners, thus the characterization by the McCain campaign is fair.
 
Rebuttal
 
I find Byron’s argument, that the McCain campaign’s implication that the primary purpose or effect of the legislation was to “teach children about sex before they learn to read” is a fair claim, to be unpersuasive.
 
First, as is supported elsewhere by Senator Ronen, if one primary purpose was to be ascertained for this bill it would have been the medically accurate portion, having been completely omitted from earlier laws.
 
The age appropriate clause, whose existence York doesn’t deny would seem to take care that no explicit material be taught to children before they are developmentally prepared for it… so there seems to be no link between the possibility that explicit things could be taught to kindergartners and the eventuality that they would be taught to kindergartners.
 
A significant boost in York’s argument would be to interview kindergarten teachers who would choose to teach their classes explicitly about HIV transmission and protection.  Alternatively, should the bill have passed, he could have found a school where explicit information was being taught to kindergartners. 
 
Evaluation
 
I’m not opposed to the theoretical truth of Byron’s claim if explicit mass sex-education for kindergartners was the primary effect of this legislation, but since the bill never made it out of the Senate we’ll never know the effects of the legislation for sure. 
 
However, we can with confidence say that teaching kids about sex before they can read was not the primary intent of this bill, due to its internal safeguards and backup reliance on local school control. So, McCain’s characterization appears designed to mislead the audience, and breaks the stated definition of fairness. Thus, Byron’s argument is presently false.
 
 
F False: This argument does not support its conclusion, or engages in a logical fallacy.
 
Tangential Arguments
 
Though the primary scope of York’s piece deals with the validity of McCain’s characterization of the bill, he repeatedly asserts that Obama believes that the purpose of the legislation was to include inappropriate touching instruction in the classroom.
 
For this claim, York’s argument stands, given his evidence of the bill’s other, multiple purposes. However, this does not prove that inappropriate touching may have been the only reason Obama voted for it, nor does it bolster his other argument that McCain’s characterization of the bill is valid.
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