Monday, February 19, 2007

Why do Christians use statistics badly?

In a recent issue of Christianity Today’s magazine Books & Culture, Christian Smith, sociologist at Notre Dame, discusses the misuse of statistics by evangelical Christians. He writes: “American evangelicals, who profess to be committed to Truth, are among the worst abusers of simple descriptive statistics, which claim to represent the truth about reality, of any group I have ever seen. At stake in this misuse are evangelicals' own integrity, credibility with outsiders, and effectiveness in the world.”

I don’t know that Christians are the worst abusers of statistics. Just about any advocacy group has examples of manipulated statistics, e.g., activists for the homeless, gays, poverty, sexual assault, drugs, guns, and eating disorders. (For a discussion of these, see Joel Best’s Damned Lies and Statistics). In fact, the evening news can be an exercise in statistical manipulation (to make viewers afraid and therefore willing to watch).

Still, as Smith implies, evangelical Christians may be the most ironic abusers of statistics. Christianity is based the reality of spiritual historical events (especially the life, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus) and their implications for people today. Given the centrality of “objective truth” in Christianity, it’s more than a little ironic that we settle for made-up and manipulated “facts” about Christianity today. (As a digression, sociology emphasizes the construction of subjective truth. This makes the attempted integration of sociology & Christianity such an interesting challenge).

Why do Christians misuse statistics? As Smith and others have pointed out, people with strong beliefs in a cause will manipulate information to advance their cause.

Another reason involves Christianity's emphasis on teaching. Every congregation has one or more designated teacher (i.e., pastors, bible study leaders) and most meetings of Christians dedicate substantial time to teaching (e.g., sermons). As such, there is ample opportunity for information abuse.

Perhaps seminaries and other places of Christian training can add a few lessons on being an informed consumer of statistics. A few basic principles, such as thinking about sampling and how the data are presented, can winnow out a lot of bad statistics.


ryan king said...

Another “group” that (in my opinion) has an obligation to aim for “objective truth” is the government, yet erroneous stats seem persistent. As one example, Attorney General Gonzales gave a speech about the importance of having more information from internet service providers, which is contentious on First Amendment grounds. He suggested that 50,000 sex predators are prowling for children. When asked where that statistic came from, he cited NBC’s Chris Hansen (from the “To Catch a Predator” series). When Hansen was asked about it, he couldn’t cite a source, and has stopped using the number (see Newsweek Mag., July 3, 2006). That stat might still sway lawmakers, and I’m curious whether it will surface in future congressional debates. I agree with your suggestion of teaching a few basic principles about stats, and that should probably hold true for our lawmakers and law-enforcers as well, although I would be remiss to suggest it is only highly religious lawmakers/enforcers that are guilty on that regard.

Brad Wright said...

Hey Ryan,

Pretty sad about top-level officials being so off the mark with such a simple statistic. Don't they have staff members to look these things up?

What's really crazy is that it's the simple statistics--uni- and bi-variate statistics that get messed up in public discourse; things you think people could get right (or at least spot when they are wrong).

Corey said...

Statistics are a rhetorical tool for persuasion. As Joel Best argues in several of his books, a number implies impartial precision. Numbers mask assertions and are hard to refute.

People make-up statistics all the time. Chris Hansen's 50,000 sex predators prowling the internet is one example... (which can not simply be "looked up" because there is no census of sex predators on the internet, or off it. How one defines "sex predator" is a difficult proposition.

The worst made-up statistic I've enountered lately was put forth by an advocacy group here in West Virginia. They claim:
However, according to a report by the West Virginia Division of Corrections, by the time the average sexual predator is arrested for the first time, he has already had at least 70 victims.

Now I've asked the webmaster of this group for his source, I've called the Division of Corrections, I've called the Criminal Justice Statistical Analysis Center, checked with colleagues in my department as well as Political Science. No one has ever heard of such a report. That didn't stop the advocacy group from circulating this claim in a petition seeking penalty enhancements for particular types of offenders.

The point is that numbers simply become rhetorical tools for persuasion, rather than points for analytic focus.

Brad Wright said...

Wow, that's a whopper of a statistic. How could anyone believe it?

Good for you for checking into it!