September 29, 2005

Religion: One Kind of Lie

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."
-Mark Twain

Statistics are funny things: we’ve had them with us for centuries, but they’ve really only entered the public discourse with the inspiration of Madison Avenue (“4 out of 5 dentists recommend…”). Everybody hears about them, but no one does anything about them. We know that they can be manipulated, leading to one of Mr. Twain’s famous quotes, but we’re not too sure how. Plus, if they favour our point of view, then hey, it must be good!

Some of the ways to skew statistical findings:

1) Claim turf. Recently seen in the gay marriage debate in Canada, where almost all of the surveys are split one-third opposed, one third in favour, and (this being Canada) one third in favour of a compromise, allowing gays civil unions, but not calling it marriage.

Damn, I love this country.

Anyhow, as a result, you see social conservatives claiming 66% of the nation opposed gay marriage, and social liberals claiming the same number favour it, leaving those in the middle saying “Um, wait… that’s not what I said…”

2) Harvesting. The approval ratings of George W. Bush have seen the most use of this lately. Most opinion polls have three to five options, like so: “Bad”, “Mediocre”, “Average”, “Okay”, “Good”. For the sake of ease, let’s say they each get exactly 20% of the ratings in a freakish result. Those who like President George would say: “Only 20% of people think George is doing a bad job!” While it’s a true statement, it doesn’t reveal that only 20% think he’s doing a good one…

3) Leaning or tilting. This involves manipulating the question before it even gets asked, for instance: “Do you favour the government using the military to enforce smoking bans in privately owned homes and/or businesses?” Perhaps unsurprisingly, you’d soon see that in a survey (conducted by Phillip Morris) more than 95% of respondents opposed smoking bans in “restaurants and other businesses”.

4) Marketing. This is asking only a specific group of people that are more likely to give the result you want. A survey of teachers will show a very strong support for education spending, but if you only asked teachers, you’d come under fire for being too obvious. But if you were to conduct the same survey, say at 8:30 AM outside the building where the teacher’s union is meeting to discuss a strike vote starting at nine…

5) Apples to oranges. Ignoring an underlying trait in the sample group that makes comparisons meaningless. Comparing the ability of the population to speak french in France and Bolivia, for instance.

6) Causality. This is as much a logic problem as a statistical one, where a conclusion is drawn that may have nothing to do with the information gathered. Noting a lower cancer rate in China compared to America, and concluding that the Chinese are genetically superior to Americans, for instance. This ignores diet, exercise, accessability to carcinogens and the notorious underreporting of any bad news by the communist government of China.

So why is this under the heading of “Religion”? Because of this study, released by Gregory Paul in the Journal of Religion and Society, which states, in part:

“In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy and abortion in the prosperous democracies. “The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developing democracies, sometimes spectacularly so.”

You’d think I’d be happy that someone reached the same conclusion I have, but this time without just observation: this time there’s a report that has hard statistics behind it.

Which is why I hesitate to brag.

Apparently, his method was reasonably sound, being a straightforward collecting of social indicator statistics already known, without asking new questions or gathering opinion: well and good, but I want to see why he reached the opinion he did regarding causality (sure it was religion?) and his methodology (are the comparisons between countries legitimate?) before I accept his conclusion.

In the meantime, though: told you so.


posted by Thursday at 11:08 am


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