Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Pastors' deconversion?

I've been enjoying reading the blog A thoughtful analysis of faith & various social and political issues.

Earlier this week they posted a story about deconversion among pastors. It's a review of a Psychology Today article. Full out deconversion seem pretty rare among pastors, but I wonder if this will be constructed as a big scare for Christianity? I agree with the writer that doubt and changing beliefs are the bigger issues.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

An illustration in need of a lecture

With the semester going, I am in full lecture-writing mode. Usually, I write the lecture first and then look for illustrations for each of the slides. (I'm all PowerPoint these days). This picture, however, is so good that I'm wondering if I shouldn't create a criminology lecture just for it? (Heck, maybe a new theory?). Any suggestions on what it should be...

Maybe I find it so funny because both of my boys have very strong, specific breakfast cereal preferences.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Causal dynamics of church composition

Last Wednesday I posted on the issue of selection and causation effects in general. Both Kent and Mat commented on the applicability of them to the church setting, so I thought I would spell it out here.

At any given time, who is in a given church congregation results from four separate causal dynamics.

1) Awareness of a church.
Who in the community even knows about the church? Presumably people have to know about a church before they can attend it, and maybe certain types of people are more likely to know about a church.

2) Selection into a church.
Once people know of the church, maybe certain types of people are more likely to attend it.

3) Change while attending.
Among those who attend a church, some people change in various ways. Presumably these changes are for the better. Maybe people change in a certain way or maybe certain people are likely to change.

4) Selection out of a church.
Not everyone stays in a church, and maybe certain types of people are more likely to leave.

Here's why this matters: When we look at a church at a given point in time, we see some distinctive population characteristics. E.g., maybe most the people in the church have a certain worship style or set of theological beliefs. Maybe they dress similarly or are of the same cultural background.

These characteristics might be influenced by some or all of the dynamics listed above. (I have to say "some" because not all can be expected to change during church going. E.g., going to church probably won't change your gender or age.)

For pastors to understand what's going on at their church, they should probably know something about how all four of these dynamics work in their church.
- who knows about them?
- who attends?
- how do people change?
- who leaves?

Of course knowledge can be done formally via surveys, it's not necessary. Just observing and trying to figure out each one will go a long way.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Saturday stuff

Today was pinewood derby day for Floyd (who is a proud cub scout). We built the car together, his mother helped him with the painting (flames motif), and raced away. He won two races and then lost. One of the other tiger cubs won it all, so the den (pack?) is excited.

Both Floyd and I learned something working on this together.
- He learned rudimentary carpentry and painting skills.
- I learned that the cub scouts expressly forbid side betting on the races.

Here's an fun post by a member of our church who is in a Christian-biker rock band. It tells of playing in a medium security prison in Massachusetts. It's worth reading just for this line:

"[We were] looking like three scruffy insurance guys who had gotten lost on their way to Applebees."

On the flight back from Chicago, there was a Marine honor guard waiting for the plane, and they unloaded a casket from the cargo hold. It was very touching to watch, and it reminded me of a pair of photographs I came across on the web. They are of a younger brother saying twice saying goodbye to his older brother.

Publish Post

Friday, January 25, 2008

A visit to Willow Creek

This week the folks at Willow Creek Church who did the Reveal Study flew me out to talk with them. They'll be posting some of our conversation on a blog cast, but here are some impressions of the trip.

Willow Creek Church is certainly impressive. I went into the Wednesday service, and even though the arena holds 7,000 people, it felt as comfortable as walking into someone's living room. I have no idea how they do that... The teaching, by Randy Friese, was inspiring. I'm still thinking over his message.

I know that Willow has its critics, but they sure seem to be doing a lot of things right.

The next day I met with Cally, Eric, & Terry of the Reveal Study, and we talked for 4 hours about research stuff. An enjoyable, informative conversation. They have big things planned for Reveal, and I hope that our conversation was in someway helpful for them in what they are doing.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Social selection and social causation

Some of the most interesting puzzles for sociologists have to do with differences between groups of people, and two common explanations for social differences are “social selection” and “social causation.” They apply to a remarkably wide range of phenomenon, and they are kind of interesting to think about.

Here’s how they work. Suppose we have two types of people, those in social group “A” and those in social group “B”. Furthermore, we observe that the “A” and “B” people are different along some personal characteristic, say “X”.

How do we interpret this difference? If being in group “A” increases people’s “X”, then we are making a social causation argument. That is, we believe that being in that social group causes people to be different.

It could be, however, that being high on characteristic “X” makes people join group “A”. If so, we’re making a social selection argument because being the type of person “X” causes people to join a different group.

As such, the correlation between group “A” and characteristic “X” can be explained by both social selection and social causation, and what’s really interesting is to try to figure out which, if not both, are operating. To do so, you try to figure out which is the most plausible story and find any evidence that you can.

Here are some examples.

I know several people who graduated from Harvard, and they are some of the smartest people that I know. Freaking genius comes to mind. (Just for fun, I should say that one of them is a dunce just to keep my Harvard friends wondering if I mean them, but it wouldn’t be true. They’re all bright.) Why are they so smart?

It could be that Harvard provides a superior education. You have brilliant professors, world class facilities, and a rich legacy. If sitting in Harvard classrooms makes you really smart, this would be a social causation argument. Or, it could be that Harvard attracts the smartest students. The very brightest of high school students get their choice of schools to attend, and if they favor Harvard (and other top schools) then Harvard will produce very smart graduates, even if a Harvard education isn’t better than other schools.

Hm-m-m-m, how can we figure out which it is? If I were to guess, I would probably lean more to social selection. We know for a fact that Harvard attracts the best students. Ninety-five percent come from the top 5% of their high school classes, and they have SAT scores well north of 2000. Wow! (Digression. The best line I’ve ever heard about SAT scores—Jennifer Lopez was asked what she got on her SATs, and she replied “nail polish.”)

Harvard professors are brilliant, but they are selected for their ability as researchers, not teachers. Just because a professor creates new theories to revolutionize their field doesn’t mean they are particularly good at explaining the basics to students. They are also rewarded with salary and promotion for being star researchers, not for high quality teaching. I’m not saying they are bad teachers, but I can’t see how they would be much better teachers than those found in other four-year universities. If there is social causation, I would imagine it has to do with being around other smart students. Studying with, competing against, and talking to smart people will make you smarter, but this would be true with a group of people standing in a farmer’s field, it’s not a Harvard thing per se.

Here’s another social puzzle. There is a significant correlation between mental illness and lower social class; poor people are more likely to exhibit mental illness than rich people, including depression. How do we explain this?

A social causation argument would say that being poor increases mental illness. Not having enough money creates stress in people’s lives, and this stress can result in depression and other disorders. The poor are also less able to afford medication, counseling, and other ways of dealing with mental illness such that their conditions are more likely to get worse than those of wealthy people.

A social selection argument would portray the mentally ill as less able to get ahead in society. If you’re depressed, it may be hard to go to work regularly or to put a lot of energy into your career. People who have observable symptoms of mental illness might be less likely to interview well for a job or be promoted once they have a job. (An interesting question: Is this a form of discrimination?)

Which do I think it is? Well, I’m cheating here because I participated in a study that looked at this very question, and we found that both social selection and social causation mechanisms were in effect.

I’ve discussed two examples, but there are lots of other social phenomena that lend themselves to both social causation and selection arguments. For example:

Religious people live longer than non-religious people. Does religion change people’s life expectancy, or does it attract people who would live long already?

Criminals have more criminal friends than do non-criminals. Does having criminal friends make you into a criminal, or do criminals attract other criminals as friends?

Capitalist countries are wealthier than those with other types of economies. Does capitalism make a country wealthy, or do wealthy countries gravitate toward capitalism?

Interesting stuff, no? If you keep these two mechanisms in mind, you’ll be surprised by how many things you can explain by using them.

Originally posted

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

What makes a good professor?

Periodically I hear professors talk about what makes for a good teacher, at least a well-received teacher. Several common explanations include:

1) Personality. Somebody is a good teacher because they have the right personality--out-going, warm, etc...

2) Students. Some teachers attribute their success or lack of success to the quality of the students. E.g., feeling that they had "good" students who got the material.

3) Demographics. Some discussions revolve around characteristics like age, gender, race... E.g., a young professor thinking that students don't respect them because of their age.

4) Class topic. Some classes are seen as harder to get good evals in than other classes. E.g., in our department research methods is seen as a tough class.

I was reading an article about Walter Lewing of MIT, who at 71 is becoming a teaching superstar on the internet. Apparently he preps about 40 hours for each class, and he does three full dry runs for every lecture. Wow!

When I read that, I had two immediate thoughts. 1) That's an awful lot of prep time! and 2) I almost never hear teaching-effectiveness discussions revolve around hard work and practice.

Maybe the way to teaching stardom is the same way to Carnegie Hall...

Monday, January 21, 2008

Policy & statistics

I've been thinking about the use of statistics in public sociology--using research to inform people outside of academics. It occurs to me that the statistics that make a difference in the public forum are very different than those published in the academic journals. Specially, they are much more simple (and presented with cooler graphics).

Here's my question then:

Has public policy ever been influenced by a statistic other than univariate or bivariate analysis? In other words, do any statistics matter beyond reporting levels of one variable (maybe over time) or two variables (e.g., comparing group means)?

It seems to me that most the policy-influential stats fit this description, but sociologists, even those who want to influence policy, put most their time into much more complicated statistics.


Saturday, January 19, 2008

Saturday stuff

Last Sunday I told the boys that it was time for church. They looked up with me with big, concerned eyes and explained that Ghostbusters was on television, and the Stay-Puft marshmallow man was just about to appear. The result of their pleas? We were 15 minutes late to church...

A scene in our house. Seven-year-old Floyd with a too-big plastic guitar playing Guitar Hero--the song: "Rock You Like a Hurricane."

I found a stash of Euros in a drawer left over from a trip a few years ago. I looked at that and realized that may be the only good financial investment I've ever made.

Tomorrow is the night-before-full-moon. As I understand it, this is the best night to photograph a moonrise, for it rises right at dusk. I hope it will be clear.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Runner on snowy hill (pic)

Here's a picture from a snowy day. I'm at the bottom of the hill, and the runner ran up the hill in the snow. At top she turned to look at her accomplishment, and I snapped away with a telephoto lens.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

What do former church-goers now believe?

Here's an interesting table from a report from Lifeway Research. It's based on a survey of about 500 adults who used to attend a protestant church. Now they don't attend any church. Interesting how few actually reject the idea of God.

Lifeway appears to be akin to the Barna Group--collecting survey data of use for the church. I'll enjoy reading the various reports they have posted.

Thanks David for the link!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Economic growth & religion

Here's an interesting paper by an economist, Michael McBride, at UC Irvine. He addresses the issue of whether religious participation should decrease as societies grow wealthier. People have long predicted that religion should decline in increasingly wealthy societies because increased secularlization should decrease demand for religion. Also, the better off live is in this life, the more difficulty we should have in thinking about the next life.

The paper is rather technical (I think economists get commission for every equation that they use), but his conclusions are pretty straightforward.

He finds that yes secularization & wealth decrease the demand for religion in some ways, but in other ways they increase it. Specifically, increased wealth allows religious groups to promote themselves more effectively. It also creates inequality in society which motivates people to find comfort in religion.

Thanks Jay for the link!

Monday, January 14, 2008

Funny picture

Click on this picture... I think that there's a deeper theological truth to what happens (notice who wins), but I just find it funny.


Sunday, January 13, 2008

A moral dilemma in the checkout line

At the grocery store today I used a rain check for 50% of kids vitamins (actually, all four of us take them because they taste good). The vitamins were originally $6 on sale for $3 last week, but they had run out, hence the rain check.

I noticed, however, that the clerk was entering them as $3 at 50% off, for $1.50. Trying to be honest, I brought this to his attention. He thanked me, and looked confused, and rang it up wrong again. I pointed it out. He then started ringing them up at 50% off $1.50, or 75 cents each! At this point, I realized that probably my only option was to go get the manager, and that seemed counter productive for everyone. Plus, the people behind me in line were getting impatient, so not knowing exactly what to do, I didn't say anything.

Still wondering if I did the right thing...

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Saturday stuff

Cathy is in the other room cheering and crying for the Packers in their game against Seattle. You can take the women out of Wisconsin, but not Wisconsin out of...

Joshua is on the high school swim team, and we're astounded by how much he works. He swam five miles the other day. Yikes! At meets, the parents sit around and talk about how much the kids eat at home. We've just about had to add another shopping trip a week since the start of swimming season. Below is a picture I took at one of the meets--a teammate of Joshua's (a diver).

Floyd showed a new side of himself over the holidays. His younger cousin jokingly threatened him, so Floyd stood up, puffed up his chest, and asked his cousin "do you want a piece of me" said in the best 7-year-old tough-guy voice. Then he giggled.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Thoughts about grading

Over the holidays, Day Myers posted some interesting thoughts about grading.

When I started off teaching, I thought that tough grading was the way to go to get the students to learn. Now, I tend to consider grades as less important, and, like Dan, have sought otherways of motivating students. Yes, if the grading is too hard or too easy it interferes with learning. But, within the wide range of the middle, grades don't seem to do much.

From Dan Myers...

"I don't think it is a good way to motivate students to actually engage with the material and in fact, I think it distracts them from what we really want to happen in a course and focuses them on grade grubbing instead. I hate that and have tried a variety of ways of reducing their attention to the grade and increasing it to the material."

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Storrs Congregational Church (pic)

Last Sunday morning, the sun came up under the clouds, and it light up the local congregational church beautifully.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Stereotypes of Arabs

Here's a short film about stereotypes of Arabs in films (think terrorists). The far-fetched plots and occasionally really bad acting are amusing, and the consistent portrayal of Arabs as terrorists is depressing. (The worst scene: Maybe the one with Chuck Norris).

If such a film were made about Christians in the media, which stereotypes should be in it? Certainly money-grubbing, sexually-abusive clergy.

Which other ones?

A deconversion story

Here's a deconversion story from

The first paragraph: "I broke free from Christian fundamentalism in April 2006. I was a third year student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. This seminary is considered by many to be the intellectual hub of evangelical seminaries. The president of the seminary, Dr. Albert Mohler, has been called "the leading intellectual voice for evangelicals in America." He has been a frequent guest on Larry King Live, debating controversial topics such as gay marriage, abortion, religious tolerance, etc. Dr. William Dembski also teaches at the seminary, who is widely considered the world's leading proponent of Intelligent Design. Dr. Dembski was my professor in the fall semester of 2005...."

What's makes this very interesting is that the former-Christian also includes several e-mails sent to him by his pastors, after he told them.

Here is an excerpt:

"Gabe lets cut to the chase here---what drugs are you on? Is it cocaine again?--I know you told Ryan you used to snort. Are you on meth? Smoking weed? What is it Gabe? No Christian in the history of creation walks away from the faith in the manner that you have. There is always a sin issue!! ALWAYS! I will not except this garbage that you just stopped believing because of some doubts you had. You can tell me that all day long and I don't except that Gabe."

In our research on deconversion, we've found that Christians' responses to initial doubt often serve to further alienate the doubter.

Thank you Edward for the link!

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Saturday stuff

The countless hours & dollars spent on 9 years of violin lessons have finally paid off, big time. Joshua bought the XBox game Guitar Hero for Christmas, and he is picking it up really fast. It's amusing to hear these classic rock songs playing in the other room. Sometimes Floyd gets a turn, and holding a too-big-guitar, looking as serious as possible playing a rock anthem.

How Cathy and I celebrated our anniversary--had the boiler break so that we both lost heat and water! (Party on Garth). It was fixed the next day, but both heat and water are handy during winter.

We had my Dad visit, and after that my Sister and family. One of the highlights--taking the cousins to play laser tag. I got shot so many times that I still have smoldering laser burns!

I took a unique strategy--I chose player names that would incited my sub-teen competitors to enraged irratationality. My names included: Obeyparents, and dohomework.

I don't think that I'll ever be interested in doing photojournalism, but I sure appreciate it when done well. Below is a picture that I've been thinking about since I saw it. It certainly conveys an aspect of the modern military.

Friday, January 04, 2008

A believable pie chart

An ongoing issue with social research is how to present findings that are both accurate and accessible. Here's a chart that sets the bar in both...

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Bench in snow (pic)

I finally had someone want a print of some of my pictures! Okay, it was my sister, and I think that she was asking just to be nice, but, hey, interest is interest.

Here's a picnic bench on the UConn campus after a recent snow storm.