These points get no mention from the WSJ, perhaps because McGurn seems intent on interpreting the study’s findings in a positive way—as if to say, “See, pledging and the culture that engenders it do work!” He accuses the media of being too cynical, too dismissive of the pledgers, and he might have a point:

In other words, teens will be teens, and moms or dads who believe that concepts such as restraint or morality have any application today are living in a dream world.

But it’s a point that exists outside of any concern about disease, or teen pregnancy, or other public health issues. McGurn is simply interested in the amount of sex being had by teenagers, not the safety of that act. As both Talbot’s article and the Johns Hopkins study highlight, religiously conservative teens—those who pledge and those who don’t—are less likely to practice safe sex. That’s a measurable outcome.

Conservative groups argue that teen sex coincides with a host of problems including depression, drug use, etc, but proving that sex causes those problems is impossible. Showing that unprotected sex can lead to pregnancy and STDs is easy. That’s good clear science, and in the realm of public health, the best science should prevail.

In the precede to the study, the researchers note that “the US government spends more than $200 million annually on abstinence-promotion programs, including virginity pledges.” The goal of these programs matches that of comprehensive sex ed approaches: to reduce teen pregnancy and the spread of STDs. The problem is, as the study’s findings strongly suggest, only one method works. It’s too bad that the WSJ chose to side with a moralistic, ineffective approach, instead of a science-supported, value-neutral one. Teens may be teens, but journalists should know better.

Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.