Saturday, December 30, 2006

Our sixteenth wedding anniversary

Cathy and I celebrate our sixteenth wedding anniversary today. How long is sixteen years?

Sixteen years is longer than:
- Alexander the Great was a king
- the regency period of English history (the historical context for my wife's favorite novels)
- the Beatles were together
- the marriages of some friends who are very good people
- the marriage of Michael Jordan (okay, he made 17 years--but next year I will have done something better than him)

Sixteen years is not long enough for:
- my friends to stop telling me how lucky I am that Cathy married me
- me to stop agreeing with them
- her to throw away all her books with titles like "Smart Women and Foolish Choices" ;-)
- me to forget the tough years or to stop being thankful for God's grace in carrying us through them
- me not to smile when I roll over in the morning and see her
- us to stop holding hands whenever we drive somewhere
- me not to want a seventeenth year

Happy anniversary

Friday, December 29, 2006

Gallows humor

What better way to celebrate the holidays than gallows humor? In my last post, I used gallows humor in discussing my sons' accident. Chris Uggen referred to it when talking about his son's wrestling match.

Two questions:

1) Why do we do it?

2) What's your best gallows-humor story?

I'll give you my favorite... About a month ago I spoke with a young man who is a member of a NCAA hockey team who told me this story. During practice, one player skated over the hand of another player, cutting through the glove and severing the finger so that it was hanging downward from just a fold of skin. The trainer came over, looked at the injured player's dangling finger, and pronounced that it was just a sprain and that he would tape it up so that the player should be able to finish practice. (Of course the player was rushed to the hospital).

(I suppose a third question would regard the moral deficiencies of those who laugh hard at gallows humor, but to protect the guilty, I'll not ask it.)

Thursday, December 28, 2006

A painful example of spurious correlation

Part of teaching is keeping an eye out for good illustrations. I'm teach methods, and this Christmas season has given me a great example of spurious correlation (at least I hope that it is spurious).

I started cooking dinner on Tuesday night at about 5:30. Before the meal was done, not one, not two, but three family members were in the emergency room!

Correlation? Absolutely--my cooking is highly correlated with rushing people to the hospital.

Temporal ordering? Yes--cooking came before hospital.

Plausible mechanism? Not sure. I didn't think I was *that* bad of a cook, but I could be wrong.

Here's what happened: Grandpa had chest/back pains (that ended up being a severely pulled muscle). My two sons had a trampoline accident. One lost half his front tooth, the other got a 13-stitch gash in his forehead. (Why they were jumping on the trampoline, in the dark, in the middle of winter is another story--being the sensitive father that I am, I now call them "chip" and "stitch").

This all happened in a 15-minute span, and we spent boxing day evening down as a family at the emergency room.

Everyone should heal up okay, but I warn you, I'm cooking again tonight.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

How to present statistics with irony

Good statistical presentation makes a point clearly, accurately, and sometimes even memorably. Here's a story from The Onion that illustrates all of these.

Failed Attempt At Hyperbole Yields Dead-On Statistic
December 13, 2006 Issue 42•50

TOANO, VA—In an unsuccessful attempt Wednesday to illustrate a point through exaggeration, high-school senior Abby Hollard accurately informed classmates that someone "probably dies from AIDS every 10 seconds," the exact figure reported by the Joint United Nations Program on AIDS in 2006. "I bet, like, 40 million people have AIDS," said Hollard, failing again to embellish on the international agency's findings. "It's practically a pandemic." UN representatives said Hollard showed an impressive understanding of the crisis, although her estimate of the amount the U.S. spends combating the disease was off by about $99 billion.

Thanks to Carson

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

A sociology blog aggregator

In keeping with my rule of thirds, here are the three things I want for the new year: World peace, an end to global warming, and a sociology blog aggregator.

Blogs seem like they’ll soon be a big deal in sociology (analyzing everyday life and all that). (See Jeremy Freese's interview about them). So, it’s only a matter of time before someone has an aggregating site—that takes feeds from various sociologist’s blogs.

Sometimes these edit the feeds, producing a "greatest hits" of the day/week. E.g.,

Sometimes they just take whatever is posted by their authors.

Something like this seems like good, easy PR for a sociology department. Whoever sets up the first one will probably be the best known one, and it would bring a lot of traffic to the website + name recognition. (Could also have department advertising for grad students/ jobs/ etc...).

Anyone interested in doing this?
Anyone, anyone

Monday, December 25, 2006

Christmas tidbits

Okay, I admit to having a rather bah-humbug attitude toward Christmas, but compared to Susette Kelo, I'm Santa Claus. She was a homeowner involved in a property rights dispute here in Connecticut. This year, she sent out a Christmas card, showing her house, to various government officials with the following inscription:

"Your houses, your homes, your family, your friends. May they live in misery that never ends. I curse you all. May you rot in hell. To each of you I send this spell."


Funniest moment of the holidays: At Christmas eve service, my six-year old-son Floyd decided he was too warm, so he rolled his pant legs into shorts, his sleeves into short sleeves, and his shirt up into like an ab-shirt. (To get the full effect, imagine him also in dark socks and dress shoes). I didn't notice till we went to communion, and I heard people chuckling).

Apparently, the way to be smart is to be tall and salty.

A video
that exemplifies one of my core values in parenting.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Sociological rules of Christmas gift giving II

Here are the remaining rules for gift giving. Make sure not to violate them!

5) Money is an appropriate gift from senior to junior family members, but an inappropriate gift from junior to senior kin, regardless of the relative affluence of the the parties.

6) Family gatherings at which gifts are distributed include a "traditional Christmas dinner."

7) The Gift Selection Rules. A Christmas gift should :
a) demonstrate the giver's familiarity with the receiver's preferences
b) surprise the receiver, either by expressing more affection--measured by the aesthetic or practical value of the gift--than the receiver might reasonably anticipate or more knowledge than the giver might reasonably be expected to have
c) be scaled in economic value to the emotional value of the relationship

8) The Scaling Rules. In terms of the value of gifts:
a) A spousal relationship should be more valuable than any other for both husband and wife, but the husband may set a higher value on it than the wife.
b) The parent-child relationship should be less valuable than a spousal relationship but more valuable than any other relationship. The parent may set a higher value on it than the child does.
c) The spouse of a married close relative should be valued as much as the linking relative
d) Parents with several children should value them equally

9) The Reciprocity Rule. Participants in this gift system should give at least one Christmas gift every year to their mothers, fathers, sons, daughters; to the current spouses of these persons; and to their own spouses.

There you go, how did you do?

Citation: The American Journal of Sociology, 89(6), May 1984.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Sociological rules of Christmas gift giving

Sociologists will an analyze anything people do, no matter how taken-for-granted the activity. ( I suppose that's why I like it so much--always trying to look at things a new way). For the season, here is an except about from the famous "Middletown" study. Theodore Caplow, and a team of researchers, interviewed s in Muncie, Indiana (1979) about gift giving, and they came up with eight unwritten rules for gift giving.
Here are the first four:

1) The Tree Rule. Married couples with children of any age should put up Christmas trees in their home. Unmarried persons with no living children should not put up Christmas trees. Unmarried parents (widowed, divorced or adoptive) may put up trees but are not required to do so.

2) The Wrapping Rule. Christmas gifts must be wrapped before they are presented.

3) The Decoration Rule. Any room where Christmas gifts are distributed should be decorated by affixing Christmas emblems to the walls, the ceiling, or the furniture.

4) The Gathering Rule. Christmas gifts should be distributed at gatherings where every person gives and receives gifts.

Do you think that these still hold today? Are there other rules you can think of?

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Christmas time by Larry Norman

It's a sad fact of life that song lyrics are only meaningful if you know the tune. (This is never learned until *after* the teenage years). Still, here's my favorite Christmas song. Sing along!


Santa Claus is coming and the kids are getting greedy

They know what's in the stores ´cause they seen it on the TV

You go into the forest and you cut down all the trees

I know you got a power saw, but who plants the seeds

I gotta buy a present, can´t remember who it´s for

I´ll see you in a hour when I get back from the store

It used to be the birthday of The Man who saved our necks

Now it stands for Santa Claus, they spell it with an "X"!

It´s Christmas time...

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Global rich list

If you only do one thing this Christmas season, buy me a present. (E-mail me if you need ideas).

But... if you do a second thing, go to this website: You type in your income, and in seconds it gives you your wealth relative to the rest of the world.

Sweet mother of pearl, I'M RICH!

Our considerable material privilege, and the injustice that it perhaps implies, might be a good thing to think about this and any season.

(Thanks Ben)

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Statistics about christian divorce rates

(This summarizes a series on Christian divorce rates that starts here)

Many people believe that Christian marriages end in divorce just as often as non-Christian, but it turns out, using the best data available, that this is not true.

To illustrate, here are the divorce rates among ever-married respondents in the General Social Survey (GSS, 2000-2004)—one of the best known sources of sociological data. “Frequent” is attending church about once a week or more.

58%, non-frequent Black Protestants
54%, non-frequent Evangelicals
51%, no religion (e.g., atheists & agnostics)
48%, non-frequent, other religions
47%, frequent Black Protestants
42%, non-frequent, mainline Protestants
41%, non-frequent Catholics
39%, Jews
38%, frequent other religions
34%, frequent Evangelicals
32%, frequent mainline Protestants
23%, frequent Catholics

I also analyzed data from previous years of the GSS and from five other national surveys, and they showed the same pattern: Christians, especially those who frequently attend church, have relatively low divorce rates.

This raises an interesting question: Why do so many people believe otherwise? It appears to stem from the work of George Barna. In well-publicized studies, he has compared divorce rates of “born again” Christians against non-Christians, and he finds little difference. Here’s the catch: his type of analysis labels as “non-Christian” many mainline Protestants, such as Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians, and most Catholics. As such, he is comparing Christians against Christians. Ron Sider has publicized Barna’s statistics in his award winning Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience.

Some qualifications: The real question here is whether being Christian lessens divorce, and while the data above suggest “yes,” they can be interpreted otherwise. Perhaps people who get divorced also stop attending church. Perhaps those who attend church are also those who would stay married anyway. In addition, members of other religions also have low divorce rates. This should not be surprising since these other religions, such as Judaism, Mormonism, and Christian Science, have similar moral teachings about divorce.

What does this mean for Christians, especially pastors and other Christian leaders? The message is good news: Church efforts to keep marriages together appear to be effective. Also, perhaps the best thing for marriages is frequent church attendance.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Statistics and the validity of Christianity

(Post 14 of a 14-part series on Christian divorce rates)

How much, if at all, can statistics tell us about the validity of Christianity? I have some ideas, but I would be interested in hearing your thoughts.

My own answer to this depends on what is meant by the question.

Christianity rests on a set of philosophical beliefs such as God sending his only Son into the world to give us eternal life. If, then, the question above refers to testing if these beliefs are “true,” then the answer would “no”--statistics can not test the central tenets of our faith; in fact, I can’t even think of how one would begin to do so? Maybe in our prayers ask God to fill out Likert scales?

If instead the question above refers to evaluating the behaviors and characteristics of the Church and its members, then the answer would be mostly yes because much of what we would expect from the church can be translated into empirical propositions. This is the logic of Ron Sider’s book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience,” and while in previous posts I suggest that he got his numbers wrong, I do not quibble with the use fo numbers to evaluate the Church. In fact, I applaud it (just want it done correctly).

I would offer one significant caveat: Evaluating Christian distinctness encompasses complex social processes such that simple statistics, while informative, are far from definitive. To illustrate, let’s take the case of divorce rates. In this series I have presented various data that make a strong case that Christians, especially those who frequently attend church have relatively low divorce rates. Does this mean that the Church is effective in promoting marital values into its members? Maybe, but maybe not. Here are some of the complexities involved in answering this question:

Reverse causation. It could be that other causal processes produce this correlation. Maybe Christians leave the church when they get divorced.

Spurious correlation. It could be a spurious finding, such that conventional people both become Christians and stay married.

Methodological artifact. It could be a methodological artifact, such that Christians answer surveys differently—wanting to present themselves in a positive light. (Thanks Ashley).

Moral selection. Perhaps Christianity naturally attracts more moral people, though who readily agree with its principles, so observed differences between Christians and others are not attributable to the effect of Christianity.

Immoral selection. Conversely, perhaps Christianity attracts less moral people, those most in need of the grace and forgiveness offered in Christianity. If so, then any observed difference would actually understate the effect of Christianity. (Thanks Corey & Michael).

Wrong question. It could be that this statistic asks the wrong questions. Maybe Christians stay in marriages, but they are bad marriages. So, maybe the question should be rates of “good” marriages rather than “any” marriages. (Thanks Corey again.)

Social mechanisms of faith. It could be that Christians have low rates but so do members of other religions, so this does not speak to the uniqueness of Christianity. As a counterargument to this last point, though, many of the “other” religions in the U.S. (such as Judaism, Mormonism, Christian Science) have similar moral beliefs as Christianity.

Furthermore, what if the Holy Spirit, in its literally infinite wisdom, set up a primarily social mechanism to promote marriage in the church, say teaching and social support. If this same social mechanism is replicated elsewhere, say in other religions or in other settings, such as counseling, and it proves to be effective, does that in anyway invalidate the work of the Spirit? Though I certainly believe, and have experienced, the supernatural, trans-rational work of God, not all things in our faith have to be such. Put differently, knowing how something was done does not preclude that someone did it.

Where does this leave us? Knowing that Christians have relatively low divorce rates is meaningful information, but we should be mindful that it raises more questions than it answers.


This concludes this extended series on Christian divorce rates. I would like to thank the various people who commented on previous posts, for they have clarified the issues and sharpened my thinking on them. I appreciate your time and insight.

As a convenience to new readers, I will post a much-shorter summary of the series tomorrow.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Intergenerational mobility in the arts

One of the many joys of parenthood is watching your children do things that you can not.

Having spent the weekend attending my sons' various Christmas performances, I've decided that artistic ability has no genetic basis.

My oldest son "Gus" plays the violin with remarkable proficiency. To the left is a picture of him playing with his chamber strings group at a local mall as part of Christmas entertainment.

My youngest son "Floyd" loves to dance and peform in front of others. Beelow is a a picture of him in today's Nutcracker performance.

Me? As a kid I was in one dance performance--part of kindergarten graduation--and I left my partner to pick up a worm out of the grass. (It was a pretty big one, so I thought worth examining). In fourth-grade choir, they gave me a musical triangle to bang at a key point during the performance, but I was told that I should not sing otherwise, to give my total concentration to waiting for the right cue.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Week end tidbits

We're coming up to one of the most important days of the year for me: December 23rd. No, I'm not mixed up about Christmas, rather that's the first day after the winter solstice, when the days start getting longer. I actually can't notice the light difference until early January, but just knowing that days are getting longer improves my morale. (Conversely, I'm a little sad on June 23rd).

Several poor googlers have found my website by searching for information on how cockroaches reproduce. (Something I actually mentioned in an earlier post). I'm thinking of changing my masthead to "Sociology, Christianity, and Insect Reproduction". Catchy, huh?

A clear voice in blogland belongs to Jeremy Freese. His posts convey an energy and interest level that I can only aspire to. From Jeremy's website, check out this visually entrancing punk-rock video.

Another clear voice, this one very quiet, is One House, "an exploration of contemplative life." In the midst of power surfing, I hit that site and pause, reflect, and wonder. I sometimes have to wait for a new post, so I'm thinking of writing them to "hurry up and contemplate faster."

I went for a walk Wednesday in my short sleeves. This weekend, in the 50s. If global warming is wrong, I don't want to be right.

My brother John has a talent for narrative. Here is his description of our first day hang gliding. BTW, he just bought a hang glider, the Falcon 3, making me green with envy but also red with joy for him. (One of my few seasonally-appropriate comments).

Friday, December 15, 2006

A critique of Ron Sider's "Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience" II

(Post 13 of a series on Christian Divorce Rates)

In a previous post, I critiqued Ron Sider’s use of statistics in his acclaimed book, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience.” Here I would like to address the rest of the book. I appreciate Sider’s emphases of holiness and the whole gospel, but based on the divorce data presented in this series, I would restate Sider’s argument somewhat.

Instead of the “church needing to be the church,” I would say that the “church is the church” and we need to bring people to it.

Here’s what I mean. Extrapolating from his statistical presentation, Sider argues that the Christian church itself is the problem—responsible for its members’ immorality (or, at least, not preventing it). He writes “the church itself [has] lost its holiness and righteousness (p. 57).” Also, “few things are more urgent today than a recovery of the New Testament understanding and practice of the church (p. 93).”

This approach to the church overlooks a salient point: Christians who frequently attend church appear to be more moral than those who attend less frequently or those who have no religion. If in fact the church were ineffective in producing morality, as assumed in Sider’s book, then church attendance should make no difference. In fact, church attendance does appear to make a difference, and a big one at that.

As such, the true problem for Christian morality is not the ineffectiveness of the church itself, but rather many members are infrequently, and thus ineffectively, engaged in the church.

Can the church do even better regarding moral teaching and training? Of course, and we should aspire to do so, but the true take-home message from divorce statistics is that the church should redouble its efforts to bring to the center those on the periphery.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

A radical observation

Our local high school, which is right next to UConn, has a student club: “Students for International Socialization.” (Yes, this is a college town).

I drove by the high school recently in mid-afternoon, about an hour after their school got out, and there they were about six high school students lined up along the main road holding signs deploring Bush, capitalism, and environmental damage. Standing with them were a handful of adults in their fifties or so (perhaps parents) who were also holding signs.

I had been teaching about class conflict and collective behavior, so I was interested in this little demonstration, but in looking at it I started laughing. The signs and the setting spoke of seriousness and anger, but the demonstrators themselves were smiling, talking with each other, and waving to passer-byers that they knew. It had the revolutionary intensity of a PTA bake sale or maybe a Cub Scout informational table.

I suppose that even international revolutionaries have to do emotional work.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

It's a small world

I love "small world" moments. Perhaps because my family moved frequently when I was growing up, but anything that makes me feel connected to a larger whole warms my heart.

Recently I was walking to my work (I live six minutes from my office--seven if there is traffic on the one street that I have to cross), and I started chatting with a guy who just moved in a block away (actually we don't have blocks, we have trees, so I should say moved in a few acres of trees away). Well, it turns out that not only was he from Fresno, California, where I lived for awhile growing up, but we attended the same church at the same time. Cool.

Another: At a party in Fresno I met a guy who went to my high school whose daughter attended the same small elementary school out here in Storrs, CT as did my son.

My favorite: A used-book buyer came to my office one afternoon, and we started chatting. I learned that he grew up in Bozeman, Montana, where my parents were from, and his doctor was my (revered) grandfather! He pointed to his leg and said that when he broke it as a kid my grandfather put it back into place. I had a hard time working the rest of the afternoon I was so teary.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A finals farewell

I have just come back from giving a final, and I'm reminded of the cycle of affect that I feel for my students each semester.

The first couple weeks of the semester they all sort of look alike, and I have no feelings toward them one way or another.

Then I get to know them (they are rather likable, and we do spend a fair amount of time talking and joking).

Well, by mid-semester, I really like like them such that when finals come, I'm rather sad to see them go. This makes for a funny emotional disconnection during the final. As they leave, I'm thinking that this is probably the last time I'll see them & I'm saying good-bye to a friend. They, on the other hand, are in a finals funk and sort of trudge off to their next final.


P.S., the student who was making out with his girlfriend in class asked if he got extra-credit for bringing a date. LOL

Monday, December 11, 2006

A critique of Ron Sider's "Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience" I

(Post 12 of a series on Christian Divorce Rates)

In 2005, well-known Christian author Ron Sider wrote, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience,” in which he rebuked American evangelicals for “living just like the rest of the world.” In support of his argument, Sider presents numerous statistics about moral issues, such as divorce, that portray American evangelicals as immoral as “the world in general.”

This book has received considerable attention, winning the Christianity Today 2006 book award for Christian Living. Christianity today described Sider's book as "a strongly biblical, unflinching, thoughtful assessment of the attitudes and practices of self-identified evangelicals relative to American culture at large."

Though well-intentioned, Sider’s analysis is fundamentally flawed because:

There should be little difference between the average Christian in America and the average American because the average American is Christian.

This statement unravels Sider’s argument like pulling a long thread unravels a knitted sweater, so I will repeat it.

There should be little difference between the average Christian in America and the average American because the average American is Christian.

Data from the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), conducted in 2001, found that 77% of Americans define themselves as Christians, about 6% other religions, and 16% of no religion.

In light of this fact, if Sider wants to retain his hypothesis that evangelicals are “no different from the rest of the world," he would have to elaborate it in one of four ways. Each of these alternatives, however, is theologically or empirically problematic.

1) Non-evangelicals are not Christians. Sider could make the case that Catholics, main-line Protestants and other non-evangelicals are not “real” Christians. If so, we can expect evangelical, “real” Christians to be morally superior than all others. This approach is implied in the work of George Barna, and Sider draws heavily upon Barna’s data, so perhaps Sider would endorse it. For me this evangel-centric view of Christianity is both troubling and inaccurate.

2) Non-evangelicals are less moral Christians. Sider could acknowledge that Catholics and other Protestants are Christians, but they are not very good ones, so we should expect the “better” evangelicals to be more moral.

My concerns: same as #1.

3) Non-evangelicals are more moral Christians. Sider could define Catholics and other Protestants not only as Christians but as “better” Christians—being more moral. As such, they would challenge us evangelicals to do better ourselves.

This approach would not be well supported by data. One could imagine some areas in which Catholics do better, others in which main-line Protestants do better, and still others in which evangelicals do better. I doubt, however, that one Christian group would prove morally superior to all others.

4) “I meant non-Christians.” Sider could clarify his argument as really being about evangelical Christians versus people who do not claim to be Christians, e.g., members of other religions and people of no religious beliefs.

This seems like a sensible approach, and it should receive empirical support. As I have posted previously, evangelical Christians have lower divorce rates than non-Christians (by virtue of the high divorce rates of those with no religious beliefs). However, this alternative would leave no room for a “hard-hitting” rebuke such as Sider’s book.

Even though these four alternatives are mostly mutually exclusive, Sider’s book uses each one of them. In his discussion of divorce (p. 18), he uses Barna’s data to compare “born-again” Christians against all other “non-Christians.” This is alternative #1.

In his discussion of racism (p. 24), he compares evangelicals versus other, non-evangelical, ostensibly less racist Christians such as Catholics and mainline Protestants.

This is alternative #3. In his discussion of giving to the poor (as a ray of hope—p. 126), he cites statistics comparing evangelical Christians versus people of no religious beliefs. This is alternative #4.

This logical inconsistency undermines Sider's case against evangelicals, and, in my mind, makes it difficult to accept.

Next: A critique of Ron Sider's "Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience" II

An evaluation of Barna's divorce statistics III

(Post eleven of a series on Christian divorce rates)

In examining divorce rates among Christians, George Barna measures “born-again” Christians as

“people who said they have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today” and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior”

From my perspective, Barna’s definition of “born-again” is okay—it’s his measure of “non-Christian” that causes problems. (Barna uses “non-born again” and “non-Christian” synonymously). Whom does Barna’s definition exclude from Christianity? Again using the MIDUS dataset, I examined the percentage of respondents described themselves as “born again” by denomination. For major Christian groups in the U.S.:

84% of Baptists described themselves as “born-again”
43% of “inter-denominational” Protestants
42% of Methodists
38% of “non-denominational” Protestants
38% of Presbyterians
29% of Lutherans
23% of Episcopalians
16% of Catholics

As such, Barna’s “non-Christians” includes most Catholics and mainline Protestants.

In addition, his criteria exclude many people who attend church on a weekly basis. Again using MIDUS, 60% of the respondents who attended a Christian church on a weekly basis defined themselves as born-again. This means that a full 40% of weekly Christian church-goers are defined as "non-Christian".

From my perspective, Barna’s analysis of divorce statistics is either theologically or methodologically erroneous.

Theologically, to exclude from Christianity so many bible-believing, God-loving and devout Christians is theologically provincial and unhelpfully sectarian.

Methodologically, if Barna accepts most Catholics and main-line Protestants as Christians, then to place them into a non-Christian comparison group is quite a methodological goof.

It’s fine if Barna wants to focus on “born-again” Christians, but if so, he should compare them against 1) other Christians, 2) people of other religions, and 3) people of no faith. To collapse these last three categories into “non-Christian” is a big problem.

Next: A critique of Ron Sider's "Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience" I

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Looking for a term

In writing about divorce rates among Christians, I've decided that there is a class of phenomenon that we might think of as urban legends about religion. E.g., misconceptions held by members of a religion or maybe about a religion.

However, I'm stumped on what to call them. So far I've come up with alter legends, but that sounds like a really good priest (did you see him give communion--he's an alter legend--and religious myths, which is accurate but not interesting.

Suggestions or thoughts for a better term?

We have a winner!


Translation: Should we accept only good from God and not adversity? Job 2:10

For those of you following this contest, you'll no doubt recognize that entry as being from Dan Myers (or Meyers, as he sometimes spells it). He and his family will receive a quart of maple syrup just in time for holiday (though I'm tempted to send it in Santa's name). I understand that he's thinking of quiting his job as prominent sociologist and department head to get into full-time caption writing... we wish him luck.

Second place goes to Mark Edwards for his pithy "peer review." For second place, Mark will be getting a photograph of a quart of maple syrup. Well done Mark!

I'll have another contest in January.


Yesterday my wife & youngest son made a whole mess of Christmas cookies which leads me to my annual lament about baking cookie dough--why?! Cookie dough tastes better than baked cookies, so why bake? It's like the Tibetan Buddhist monks who make a beautiful sand sculpture then dump it into the lake to make a larger spiritual point, except there is no larger point here.

Also, why do I get hit with spatulas when I try to eat cookie dough, but they have it offered to me ten minutes after it's baked, when I don't like it as much? It's not right!

I came across a funny site for office slang.

From a student evaluation of a professor here at UConn (not me): "on a scale of one to awesome, this guy is totally sweet." This scale is absurd but somehow it makes sense.

My brother, John (who posts as Knumb Knuts), looks remarkably good as a hot blond

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Terror in the mailbox

My wife and I have received a truly terrifying letter. The first sentence:

"The purposes of this letter are to invite you to our annual Open House and Orientation for Parents and to provide you information about the course selection process in the weeks ahead with activities planned for your sons/daughters that will help ease their transition to E.O. Smith High School. "

What bothered us so much? It isn’t the rampant use of passive voice and prepositions by my son’s future educators (though, this was disturbing). Instead…

My son is going to high school next year!

This is so wrong. He’s still my little boy who I chase around the house to tickle, who likes to climb trees, who I tuck in at night, who kisses me good-bye when either of us leaves the house. Just yesterday, it seems, he slept in my arms while I studied for graduate school area exams, took all his stuffed animals to sleep overs, and ran from room to room just for fun.

When I think about the pain, confusion, and many, many difficulties that I experienced and witnessed in high school, I would give anything to spare my son from them.

But I also remember the fun, memories, friends and growth, and I want all of those and more for him.

I feel like someone in a roller coaster car that has climbed to the top of the first peak and has paused, ready to plummet: I am very scared.

Friday, December 08, 2006

An evaluation of Barna's divorce statistics II

(Post ten of a series on Christian divorce rates)
In the previous post, I put forth that Barna's well-publicized finding of "no-difference" for Christian divorce rates results from his using a narrow definition of Christianity. Here I replicate his type of analysis with another data set, to show the impact of this definition.

As I understand it, Barna does not give others access to his data, so I analyze data from the Midlife in the United States Study (MIDUS), from which I have previously posted data.

This study contains the following question: "Have you been "born again," that is, had a turning point in your life when you committed yourself to Jesus Christ?" While not identical to Barna's criteria, it's reasonably close. It was asked of Christian respondents, and 45% of them responded "yes".

We find the following divorce rates by religious group:
1) Christians reporting a born-again experience: 36%
2) Christians not reporting a born-again experience: 34%
3) Members of other religions: 37%
4) Individuals with no religious beliefs: 52%

If we compare Group 1 versus Groups 2, 3, and 4, we would find that "born again" Christians have divorce rates of 36% and all others have 38%, and we would conclude, like Barna, that born-again Christians have similar divorce rates as others.

If, however, we compare Groups 1 & 2 to Groups 3 & 4, we would find that Christians have divorce rates of 35% and non-Christians have divorce rates of 45%--a very different finding that Barna.

This analysis supports the contention that Barna's null-findings result from his use of a "born-again" measure of Christianity, one that excludes a large group of people who define themselves as Christian. This raises the question of what type of Christians define themselves using Evangelical, "born-again" language, and I will address this in the next post.

An evaluation of Barna's divorce statistics I

(Post nine of a series on Christian divorce rates)

Do Christians have lower divorce rates than non-Christians? The answer to this question depends on who is defined to be Christian.

There are four relevant religious categories here:
1) Self-identified Christians who describe their faith in terms of “personal commitment” “accept as savior” and other evangelical, born-again language.
2) Self-identified Christians who do not describe their faith with these terms.
3) Members of other, non-Christian religions.
4) People of no religious beliefs.

George Barna compares group 1 (whom he terms “born-again” Christians) versus groups 2, 3, and 4 (whom he terms “non-born again Christian” and “non-Christian”), and he finds no difference.

In a 2004 study, Barna used these two criteria to define respondents as “born again" Christians:

“people who said they have made “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today” and who also indicated they believe that when they die they will go to Heaven because they had confessed their sins and had accepted Jesus Christ as their savior.”

Approximately 41% (1,468 of 3,615) of his sample fit the “born-again” criteria, and they had divorce rates of 35%. The remaining 59% had divorce rates of 35% leading part to summarize: “Christians Have Same Incidence of Divorce.”

In contrast, my analyses compared groups 1 and 2 versus groups 3 and 4, and I found a consistent difference (though it’s due almost entirely to the high divorce rates of group 4).

This offers a simple explanation of Barna's findings: He is comparing Christians against Christians.

Here’s what I mean. Members of group 2 presumably include many Catholics and mainline Protestants who, though devoted followers of Christ, do not describe themselves with the Evangelical language of Barna’s criteria.

Data from the General Social Survey (2000-2004) indicate that about 70% of Americans affiliate with a Christian denomination. This suggests that about half of Barna’s comparison group (i.e., (70%-41%)/59) think of themselves as Christian. Barna lumps them with people of other religions and people of no religion. These group 2 members, especially Catholics, have low rates of divorce, so putting them in the “non-Christian” comparison group substantially changes the comparison.

Next: An evaluation of Barna's divorce statistics II

Thursday, December 07, 2006

It's all about the love

Tonight was the last lecture of the semester, and toward the end of class I saw a couple kissing in the back corner of the lecture hall (80 students, 200 seats). He was one of my students, she was not, so that can mean only one thing... my lectures are so good that people bring dates! I feel so affirmed.

After calling attention to them, and thanking them for the affirmation, their reaction varied considerably. The guy looked happy and was looking around. The women buried herself in a book and didn't look up again till the end of class.

Teaching can be pretty funny sometimes.

Rule of thirds

I have a theory about lists of options given in everyday life. When someone gives such list, which for whatever reason usually contains three elements, their preference is usually for the third option, even if they profess indifference.

For example. "Oh, I don't know honey, we could clean the house, sit and share our feelings, or go out for ice cream."

This strategy is effective because it takes advantage of the recency effect, plus giving other options up front makes the list-giver seem extra reasonable.

What do you think?

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Qualification of findings

(Post eight of a series on Christian divorce rates)

Okay, if the data show that active Christians have very low rates of divorce, then Christianity lowers divorce rates, right?

Maybe, but maybe not. We can not tell from the data that I've presented.

The association between active Christianity and low divorce rates may be due to one or more of the following:

1) Causation. Maybe being Christian lowers the likelihood of getting a divorce.

2) Reverse causation. Maybe getting divorce lowers the likelihood of becoming a Christian. Perhaps divorcees avoid the church for fear of being stigmatized.

3) Reverse causation. Maybe Christians who get divorced leave the church or attend less frequently. Perhaps they feel less comfortable or feel marginalized. Perhaps they feel pressured out.

4) Spurious causation. Maybe some factor, we'll cleverly call it "X" leads to both religious behavior and longer-term marriages. Perhaps there is a genetic predisposition to conventional behavior?

5) Methodological artifact. Maybe Christians are less forthcoming on surveys in regards to events that violate their beliefs, such as divorce. If so, this association is really a methodological artifact. (Thanks Ashley!)

All of these interpretations are possible, and it would take sophisticated analysis of either experimental or time-ordered data to sort them out.

Tomorrow: An evaluation of Barna's divorce statistics I

Summary of findings

(Post seven of a series on Christian divorce rates)

In the past several posts, I have presented data from various surveys regarding divorce rates among Christians compared to others. Here I would like to summarize these findings plus offer some qualifications about how much they tell us.

1) Active Christians vs. non-active Christians. In each of the studies, those Christians, whether Protestant or Catholic, who attended church about once a week or more had substantially lower divorce rates than those Christians who did attended church less frequently.

2) Christians vs. members of other faiths. It's not clear that there are meaningful differences in divorce rates between Christians and members of other religions. Of all the issues analyzed here, this is the most ambiguous because of the inconsistent nature of the "other religion" data. The composition of "other religions" varied a lot across sample, and a clearer statement on this comparison would need to examine other religions individually.

3) Christians vs. people of no faith. Christians as a group, but especially those who were active, had substantially lower divorce rates than individuals professing no religious belief (e.g., atheism, agnosticism). Sometimes as much as half the rate.

4) Black versus white Christians. Black Protestants, or, in the case of the GSS data, individuals attending predominately black denominations, have much higher divorce rates than white Protestants or members of other religions. It's unclear if this is a simple race effect (i.e., blacks vs. whites regardless of religion) or a race by religion effect (the effect of religion varies by race).

5) Protestants versus Catholics. In some data sets active Catholics had somewhat lower divorce rates than protestants, in other data sets they had comparable rates. No consistent difference emerged across data sets.

6) Frequency of attendance. Divorce rates for Christians drop considerably when going from period attendance to weekly attendance. I.e., the functional form does not appear to be linear, rather it's a threshold effect at about one week.


Monday, December 04, 2006

Divorce rates among Christians by church attendance

(Post six of a series on Christian divorce rates)

The data presented previously showed an attendance effect, such that Christians who attended church most frequently also demonstrated the lowest levels of divorce.

Today's data look at the functional form of the relationship between church attendance and divorce rates. Again using data from the General Social Survey, I calculated what percentage of Christian respondents were divorced by how frequently they attended church. The results:

49% Never attend church
46% Less than once a year
46% About once or twice a year
42% Several times a year
42% About once a month
41% Two or three times a month
31% Nearly every week
27% Every week
28% Several times a week

You'll notice that the relationship isn't linear. It's easily seen in the graphical plot of these data at the top of this post. So, divorce ratess among Christian church-goers drops dramatically among those who go weekly.

Technical notes:
Data from the General Social Survey, 1985-2004, Christian respondents only (including evangelical, mainline Protestants, and Catholics). N = 18,392.

Tomorrow: Summary of findings

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Photo caption contest ends Thursday

This Thursday marks the last day of classes for me this semester, and I will celebrate by picking a winner for the photo caption contest.

The prize? A quart of maple syrup.

If you haven't entered yet, you can do so here.

Some of my favorite slang expressions

Good slang conveys a concept better than "regular" language, has interesting origins, and is fun to say. Here are some of my current favorite slang expressions.

"Goat rope"
* Source. I heard this a couple of weeks ago from my brother John who picked it up in the navy. It comes from the term "goat rodeo," and it refers to a completely messy or disorganized situation.
* Real life example. The last time I did Sunday School it was a real goat rope. I haven't been asked to do it again.

"Jumping the shark"
* This phrase comes from television, and it refers to the moment when know that something has irreversibly dropped in quality. It comes from the old TV show "Happy Days" when a viewer gave up hope for the show upon watching Fonzie, while waterskiing, jump over a shark. The video clip.
* I'm not sure why, but I usually feel that my large lecture classes have jumped the shark by about week 12 or 13 of the 15 week semester.

"Epic shellacking"
* This is an original by my friend and colleague David Weakliem. We spent much of fall 2005 seeing if we could outwit the betting spread in college football, and in discussing one of the many games that we predicted wrong, David referred to it as an "epic shellacking." It refers to a defeat of historic proportions, but the word shellacking has a humorous connotation.
* My friend Mike suffered an epic shellacking in poker last night.

"Sweet mother of pearl"
* A sixth-grader in our neighborhood used this as one would use "holy cow" or "oh my gosh". It sounds so archaic that coming from a 12-year-old I haven't forgotten it.
* When I saw all the Christmas shopping traffic downtown today, I loudly exclaimed "sweet mother of pearl, that's a lot of cars." For a hilarious example.

* This refers to someone who is afraid to take risks, like the oldtime soldiers who held long pikes, thus keeping the enemy at a distance. I think that I heard this from Chris Uggen.
* When none of my students will answer a discussion question, I chastise them, saying "don't be a bunch of pikers."

"Bringing a knife to a gun fight."
* Being completely ill-equipped for a situation, being completely overmatched. (I think it's from the movie "The Untouchables")
* My arguing social statistics with David Weakliem (or discussing math with Andre) is like bringing a knife to a gun fight.

* I've heard this from my students, and they use it to refer to drinking at home before going out to drink. More generally, I would define it as anticipating an activity of excess by committing that very excess.
* E.g., when my wife asked me why I was snacking so much before Thanksgiving dinner, I told her I was just pregaming.

I always appreciate new slang, especially that which is both quirky and informative.


Saturday, December 02, 2006

In praise of... student athletes

In a recent sport section, the Hartford paper wrote of a UConn women's basketball player who was "jittery" in her last game and was hoping to overcome being "tentative." Here's the catch: that player, Tina Charles, is a seventeen-year-old freshman, and the last game was her first collegiate game.

How would you like to be have thousands of people publicly evaluating you as a seventeen-year-old? I couldn't handle it as a forty-four year old.

I appreciate student athletes because they work so hard. I realize that other students have part-time and full-time jobs, but few would be as demanding as being on a Division-1 team, at least in season. Their schedule is constantly interrupted by games and practices, and they are expected to carry a full load of classes. How they are not always asleep is beyond me. I realize that some of the athletes are in over their heads academically, i.e., they wouldn't have gone to a school like UConn if not for athletics, but, at least for those in my classes, they don't complain and just work harder to catch up.

Student athletes also live their lives under constant public attention. Above is pictured Charde Houston who, like most the basketball players, has had thousands of words written about her psyche, emotions, background, and all sorts of personal things. That just doesn't seem fair. Even athletes with less visibility are constantly monitored by various coaches, advisers, and counselors.

Finally, student athletes give far more to the university that it gives them. Certainly there are perks to being an athlete, in terms of scholarships, housing, and other things, but they still give more. In the case of UConn, we are in the midst of a two-decade, 2.3 billion dollar state-funded building program initiated in the mid 1990s. I've heard from several administrators from that time that it would not have happened if not for the UConn women's basketball team's national championship in 1995. (University of Connecticut-Lobo?). How much would it cost to buy the exposure that sports teams give us? A whole lot more than the administration would be willing to pay. Heck, even the number of student applications jump with each national championship (the numbers are getting pretty high now). Put differently, UConn academics would not be so good without its athletics.

So, here's to all you student athletes!

Now, get back to work.

(P.S., Tina Charles had 18 points and 17 rebounds in only 29 minutes the next night).

Friday, December 01, 2006

Divorce rates by religious affiliation II

(Post five of a series on Christian divorce rates)

Here are more data--reporting divorce rates among ever-married respondents in two national surveys. Why present replications? This avoids basing our knowledge on the peculiarities of just one data set, for it allows us to find patterns across data sets. Yesterday and today's posts contain data from nine different data sets (or series, in the case of the GSS) coming from over 40,000 respondents, and guess what: all nine tell pretty much the same story (and a story contrary to common wisdom about Christians and divorce).

Next week I will discuss what I think that main findings are, but for now I present the data without commentary for people to draw their own conclusions.

National Survey of Families and Households, 1987-8, n = 10,439

52% Black non-active Protestant
49% No religion (e.g., atheist, agnostic)
46% Black active Protestant
42% Non-active Protestant
41% All non-Christians
40% Non-active Catholic
37% All Christians
34% Non-active other religion
33% All other religion
31% Active other religion
26% Active Protestant
24% Active Catholic

National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States, 1995-6, n = 3,622

52% No religion (e.g., atheist, agnostic)
47% Black non-active Protestant
45% Non-active Protestant
45% All non-Christians
44% Black active Protestant
39% Non-active other religion
37% All other religion
35% All Christians
35% Non-active Catholic
32% Active other religion
25% Active Protestant
24% Active Catholic

For these data in tabular form, plus similar analysis of three other data sets, click here.

What do you think? Are these findings what you would have expected?

Technical notes

These surveys have less rich denominational labels, so I have collapsed religious affiliation into fewer categories. I.e., Protestant encompasses both evangelical and mainline. Other encompasses Jewish and other.

For the same reason, Black Protestant here means an African-American who affiliates with a protestant church (as opposed to attending a predominately black denomination).

Percentages report how many respondents had ever been divorced or were currently separated.

Active indicates attending church once a week or more frequently.

Credits and Disclaimers

Same as with yesterday's post.

Next Week

I'll resume this series on Monday with data about the relationship between church attendance and divorce among Christians. Next week I'll also evaluate the work of George Barna and Ron Sider on this issue.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Divorce rates by religious affiliation I

(Post four of a series on Christian divorce rates)

Perhaps the best known series of sociological data is the General Social Survey (GSS), which contains data on religion and marital outcomes. Below I present the percentage of ever-married respondents who had ever divorced or were currently separated by religious affiliation and frequency of attendance.

Divorce rates by religious affiliation & attendance. General Social Survey, 2000, 2002, 2004 (N= 5,963)

58% Non-active Black Protestants
54% Non-active Evangelicals
51% No religious beliefs (e.g., atheists, agnostics)
48% Non-active other religions
48% All non-Christians
47% Active Black Protestants
42% All non-Christian religions
42% Non-active Mainline Protestants
41% All Christians
41% Non-active Catholics
39% Jewish
38% Active other religions
34% Active Evangelicals
32% Active Mainline Protestants
23% Active Catholics

Data from 1985 – 1999 show nearly identically religion-divorce patterns with an across-the-board increase in divorce rates. For these data.

Technical notes
The coding of the religious variable was taken from Steensland et al. (2000). Click here for full citation and description of coding.

“Active” was defined as attending church services about once a week or more often.

The GSS has various weighting variables for household composition and race oversampling. For simplicity sake, I have analyzed unweighted data, but others use weighted data.

I thank Christine Zozula for very-able research assistance. These analyses were informed by the work and advice of W. Bradford Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia who is an expert in this area. Thank you!

These data are from a working draft. I think that they’ve been done correctly, but I could be wrong. Any mistakes, and they do happen on a somewhat regular basis, are mine, and I will correct them as they come to my attention. I welcome replications of these and all of my analyses. Let me know what you find.

Tomorrow: Divorce rates by religious affiliation II

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Christian divorce rates compared to whom?

(Post three of a series on Christian divorce rates)

In thinking about Christian divorce rates, the thing that we really want to know is if being Christian lowers peoples’ likelihood of divorce. This is a causality question, and it is surprisingly difficult to conclusively test with empirical data.

About the only way to definitively answer this question would be to take a large group of married people, randomly assign some to Christian practice, others to other belief systems, and then observe their comparative divorce rates over time. Obviously infeasible (as well as immoral and not approvable by IRB).

For situations like this, where experiments won't work, social scientists have developed many other research strategies, and I’ll be using one of the simplest ones--comparing mean levels across groups. The idea here is that we take one group, e.g., Christians, measure some aspect of them, e.g., divorce rates, and then compare them to another group, e.g., non-Christians.

The question now becomes who to compare to whom? In this context, three comparisons appear to be useful.

1) Christians versus people of no religious beliefs, e.g., atheists and agnostics. This gets at the effect of Christian faith versus having no faith at all.

2) Christians versus people of other religious beliefs, e.g., Muslims, Buddhists, etc…. This is the effect of Christian faith versus other faiths.

3) Active Christians, e.g., those who frequently attend church, versus inactive Christians. This is the effect of greater participation and, presumably, adherence to Christianity.

To be clear, these comparisons can *not* conclusively test if Christianity lowers divorce rates for reasons that I will discuss in a later post, but they are informative, instructive, and, as to be shown tomorrow, counter to prevailing wisdom.

Tomorrow: Divorce rates by religious affiliation I


(My posts this week are rather cognitive, so I thought I would add something more visceral... my strong feelings about UConn cheers).

There’s a lot to like about being here at UConn, but it does have one big shortcoming—stupid cheers. What happens in a ballgame when its gets very close and the home team needs support? The crowd stands up and spells the school’s name, actually not the entire name, just an abbreviation:


(Check it out:

Doesn’t this speak of institutional insecurity? As if we don’t think that anyone will know who we are, so we constantly remind them—sort of like someone always reintroducing themselves to others at a party.

This spelling would make sense if it was of the university's whole name because Connecticut isn’t the easiest state to spell. In fact, I was here for a couple of years before I got it right every time.

It actually gets worse. Some guy from the community (Big Red?) usually leads the cheers—spelling out the letters with his body--suggesting that the students might have trouble going at it alone.

Since UConn is the #1 public university in this part of the state, it’s high time that UConn students do better in this important matter.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Prevailing beliefs about Christian divorce rates

(Post two of a series on Christian divorce rates)

For several years now I have heard from various sources that Christians divorce at the same rates as non-Christians, and based on a non-scientific sample of several pastors & various websites, I think that is the prevailing, albeit saddening, wisdom.
This belief traces most directly to the work of George Barna--a researcher with a background in marketing and polling who collects data on various facets of Christianity. In what I think is his latest report on the topic, in 2004, Barna writes:

Although many Christian churches attempt to dissuade congregants from getting a divorce, the research confirmed a finding identified by Barna a decade ago (and further confirmed through tracking studies conducted each year since): born again Christians have the same likelihood of divorce as do non-Christians. Among married born again Christians, 35% have experienced a divorce. That figure is identical to the outcome among married adults who are not born again: 35%.

These and similar statistics produced by Barna have reverberated throughout Christianity, with commentators writing that they send "Christian leaders scrambling for answers" and leave believers "disturbed." Perhaps most prominently, Ron Sider, well-known Christian author, used these statistics for his "stinging jeremiad" (a great phrase, no?) against the Evangelical church in America for living "just like the rest of the world."

When I first heard of these statistics, I had trouble believing them because I was aware of how much emphasis the Christian church put on marriage. Surely this teaching and training had to have some effect? At a personal level, I count the instruction and support received from Christian friends as a major reason that I'm still married, and I've seen the same with others.

So, a few months ago I started looking at data on this issue. First, however, I had to figure out what type of comparisons should be made. That will be the topic of tomorrow's post, and then on Thursday I will start presenting data.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Jimmy Swaggart's picture

I just came across a very interesting line of discussion about one of my earlier posts--about why pastors not falling into scandal.

My first reaction was great pleasure that someone took my ideas seriously (this pleasure, I suppose, is why I chose academia). Then I realized that these pastors understand the issues much better than I.

What interested me most was a concern raised by one commenter about the picture I had posted of Jimmy Swaggart. I attached a photo of Jimmy Swaggart's famous crying-confession to my post, just because that video-capture is perhaps the best known image of recent church scandal.

The commenter pointed out, however, that this is highlighting Jimmy Swaggart's sin, and should we just let it go. Now, I'm not a big fan of Jimmy Swaggart, for various reasons, but the more general principle here is the danger of highlighting other peoples' wrongdoing. I know for a fact that I would not want people publicizing my sins (which, there are many people who could have a lot to say), so why do it to others--even famous people with famous sins.

Okay. I went ahead and changed the photo on the post & will keep an eye on that in the future. Point taken.

Statistics about Christianity

(Post one of a series on Christian divorce rates)

There is disconnection between the social statistics produced by academics studying religion and those of interest to pastors and everyday Christian practitioners.

Academics like to publish books and, especially, peer-reviewed journal articles. Three main journals devoted to the study of religion are Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Religious Studies Review, and Sociology of Religion (edited by my friend David Yamane), though occasional articles on religion appear in many social science journals. Most articles presenting statistics report multivariate analyses--equations of containing multiple predictor variables. Academics usually report their results in tables containing dozens of numbers measuring the effects of variables and estimated certainty of their effects (e.g., regression coefficients and standard errors).

The problem with this approach, though, is that most people outside of academia neither read these journals nor would they understand the statistics even if they did. (Sometimes I think the same holds true for those of us in academics, but that's another story...). To the extent that the everyday Christian cares about statistics, which understandably may not be much, they are interested in univariate or bivariate statistics. For example, what percentage of Christians believe “x” (sociologists frequently refer to a mysterious “x” when using a generic example—I’m not sure why not other letters). Or do more of this type of person, say Christian, experience “x” (there it is again) more than that type of person, say non-Christian.

It’s not that academics aren’t interested in simpler statistics, rather by training and rewards we gravitate toward more complex statistical analysis, and if we present uni- or bivariate statistics, we usually hide them in the recesses of our articles such that few will ever find them. Also, we probably couldn’t get our quantitative articles accepted for publication in good journals without multivariate analyses, so we make sure to emphasize them.

This gets at a potential value of blogs—as a place to share research information that either would never make it to peer-reviewed publication or, if on its way, is presented in a more consumer-friendly presentation.

As such, I would like to try using this blog to present on occasion statistical data that might be of interest to Christians. I’m starting with a series of posts about divorce rates among Christians, for I suspect that there is a lot of misunderstanding (and perhaps misinformation) about this topic.


Sunday, November 26, 2006

How much is a good blog?

Something that I enjoy in sociology (and of sociologists) is creating theories for everyday things.

As a great example, Notre Dame sociologist Dan Myers posted a wonderful definition of what constitutes a power ballad in rock music.

In getting this blog going, I've been thinking of how often I should post, and what the trade-off is between quality and quantity.

How often should one post to keep readers' interest? If it's once a month, the blog will feel stale. If it's once an hour, there will always be new material, the writer has to quit their job, family, etc... to keep it going. (Though some people manage multiple daily posts and appear to have an otherwise normal life; e.g., Scot McKnight). I think that there is a threshold effect of about once every day or two--enough so that most people checking it will find new material each time. Much less than that might signal waning interest by the writer, much more is more often than most people check blogs.

As for quality versus quantity--I could post frequently, but what about when I don't have anything to say? Is it better to have new, not very good material or to just not write anything? One way to think about this is to ask whether blog readers add or average the quality of postings in evaluating a blog? If adding, two good posts + one not so good post is slightly better, certainly not worse, than just two good posts. With averaging, two good posts + one not so good post is worse than just two good posts. I'm guessing that readers mainly average (once the above mentioned quantity-threshold effect is reached). To illustrate, I was reading a blog that had some lively posts, and then a post in which the writer spoke of going to a movie with the family and thinking it was okay but that another one was better. I had QWERTY embossed backwards on my forehead from having fallen asleep while reading that post, and I don't think that I've checked back since--not as a punishment, but more from having redefined the blog from that post.


Saturday, November 25, 2006

Cockroaches & students' critical thinking

One of my goals this semester has been to teach my students to critically evaluate the class content & my presentation of it. I've tried to do this in various ways, including, as mentioned in the previous post, by rewarding them (in a small manner) when they successfully challenge me.

I was reminded of how much influence that professors have over students' thinking (the power of the podium?), and the correspondingly great need to do the above, when I was teaching about cockroaches last week.

Robert Zajonc (1969) did a fun study demonstrating the social psychological principle of social facilitation--the idea that we perform better (or sometimes worse, and then it's social interference) when others are watching us. What made this study noteworthy was that he used cockroaches. He trained cockroaches to run down a clear tube toward a light (running toward the light, isn't this a basic principle of spiritual life), and he found that they ran faster when their fellow cockroaches were visible.

Well, I was drawing the set-up of the study on the class whiteboard, and in doing so I drew (badly) a cockroach that I referred to as "he." Then, commenting on my unnecessary use of gendered language, I joked that as we know, "all cockroaches are males," and went on with my lecture.

At the end of the class, one of the students remarked on the interesting fact that they had learned about cockroaches... it turns out that about half the class believed me that all cockroaches are male (which, I suppose is different than all males being cockroaches), and they thought that was really cool, though they wondered (as would I) how cockroaches procreate. One student was looking forward to sharing this interesting fact with his roommates.

Now, the students in this class are pretty bright, so the point of here isn't "oh those college students today!" Rather this story reminds me of how powerful is the role of teacher, and how we have to educate our students to be informed consumers of the knowledge that we and others give them. Not that all teachers are as confused about basic biology as I seem to be, but we all have our inaccuracies and biases that surely come through in our teaching.

I'm not sure how this fits with the pulpit, but it seems that it would. If a college professor has some authority, how much more someone reporting to speak for (or at least represent) God? Even the best-intentioned, most well-informed preacher will get it wrong sometimes, and so it seems important to explicitly teach those in the pews to think clearly about what's being told to them. How much, if at all, should this be done, and, if so, how? Certainly one can go too far and create a culture full of deconstruction and void of faith, so there is a balance here, but--having driven 14 hours yesterday (back from Thanksgiving in Indiana)--I can't get this line of thought much beyond the questions.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Teaching sociology: The power of small rewards

One place where I’ve successfully used small rewards is in teaching. My classes have probably 90% attendance + almost all of the students do the readings. Why? I would like to tell you it’s my magnetic personality, but in reality I’ve structured the course requirements so that this happens.

At the start of every class period, no matter how large the class, students write an essay about that week’s readings which, if successfully done, credits them with one point (out of a semester-total of one hundred). Not only do they do the readings, they make extra efforts to show up for class, and, somehow, they’ve gotten it into their mind that they like writing the essays. (Really!).

Well, I’ve done this since I started teaching, but this semester I’ve taken the power of small rewards to a new level, one involving handcuffs and chocolate. I’ve recently edited a text-reader for criminology classes, and at a conference one of my editors gave me some left-over promotional items for criminology textbooks including some thumbcuffs (think small handcuffs). They really work, with a key and everything. I put the thumbcuffs in my book bag and forgot about them.

I’ve always been a little frustrated with my inability to get my students to critically engage the materials and their unwillingness to challenge me or the ideas under consideration. (The modal student behavior is simply taking notes). So, on the first day of class, on the spur of the moment, I made an offer to my criminology class. If they could successfully challenge me or the material I would give them a shiny new pair of thumbcuffs. Now, you wouldn’t think this would make a difference, but they went for those thumbcuffs like, well, me going for fudge cookies. This semester I’ve had great participation, and the quality of comments is the highest ever. I end up giving out 2-3 thumbcuffs a lecture, and I’ve expanded the offer to reward comments integrating ideas across theories. I’ve also had to add chocolate as a reward for those who have already gotten a pair of thumbcuffs.

The only downside to this system: I eat a lot of the chocolate during office hours.

For additional essays on teaching sociology: