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Bonfire of the pieties

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There are certain things everyone knows, and if you dispute these settled understandings, you will be revealed not only as a member of the uneducated classes, but probably also a hard-hearted, right-wing, Tea Party climate-change denier.

As everyone knows, Head Start is a wonderful government preschool program that increases the academic achievement of poor, urban, minority children, giving them such a boost that by the time they get to elementary school, they’ve almost caught up with their wealthier suburban peers. American taxpayers spent $7 billion on Head Start last year.

As everyone knows, it’s pointless to tell adolescents to refrain from sexual activity. Since teenagers are going to bed each other anyway, they need to know as much as possible about sex, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases. This knowledge won’t stop them from sleeping around — nothing will — but it, plus condoms, will make them safer when they do.

As everyone knows, the Earth is heating up. The climate is changing due to human use of fossil fuels and, disastrously, the great glaciers of the Himalayas will be almost completely melted by the time today’s Head Start students have graduated from sex ed.

And yet, what is this? It seems that these true facts are neither true nor factual.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has just released a study of Head Start that finds that participation in the expensive preschool program has no impact on first-graders’ educational achievement.

“The study showed that at the end of one program year, access to Head Start positively influenced children’s school readiness. When measured again at the end of kindergarten and first grade, however, the Head Start children and the control group children were at the same level on many of the measures studied,” according to an HHS press release.

Sex education? A landmark study of young black teenagers found that when sixth- and seventh-graders are counseled to abstain from sexual activity, two years on, two-thirds of them still do.

Children in the study who received what has now become traditional sex education, with all the gory safe-sex details, were considerably more likely to become sexually active than their abstinence-only peers.

Climate change? The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been forced to retract the dramatic claims it made in the 2007 report that won it the Nobel Peace Prize.

It turns out there’s no evidence that the Himalayan glaciers are rapidly vanishing. Their snowy expanses will not, as feared, give way to bare rock by 2035, thus drying up the great rivers of Asia and inflicting drought and resource war on billions of people.

The basis for the IPCC’s assertion turns out to have been comically thin — a news story in the journal New Scientist published a decade ago, which itself was based on the speculations of an obscure Indian glaciologist.

The climate science isn’t settled. How can it be, when power-hungry bureaucrats and grant-seeking scientists join in peddling such howlers as the glacier panic?

The efficacy of sex ed isn’t settled either. Any parent can tell you that, actually, children are much less likely to engage in undesirable activities when the grown-ups around them make it harder, not easier, to engage in them.

And as for Head Start — well, it’s awful. It’s awful that poor children who’ve been in the scheme are no better off by first grade than those out of it. And it’s awful that we’re still sluicing cash into a well-intentioned but essentially useless program that, since 1965, has cost American taxpayers $100 billion.

Examiner columnist Meghan Cox Gurdon is a former foreign correspondent and a regular contributor to the books pages of The Wall Street Journal.

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