Sunday, August 31, 2008

A newspaper story about our small group

My wife and I host a small group Bible study at our house, and while this story isn't really about our small group Bible study, but it could be.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

What to name a truly hideous character

As I've written about before, Gus has gotten into playing World of Warcraft. Well, one day I was watching him play, and I noticed that he had a peculiar name for one of his characters. Most of the gamers name their characters something like "slayer", but Gus' character had a remarkably everyday name. Gus' character is also powerful but kind of funny looking.

He turned a bit red, then got a sheepish smile when he explained that that's the name of his social sciences teacher.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Passing along an inaccurate statistic

(Part 3 in a series)

In this series, I am tracking the creation and transformation of a statistic about Christianity. My goal in doing so is not to harp on this particular statistic but rather to show the various social processes that go into presenting information about Christianity to the public.

The next big mention of this statistic came in Christine Wicker’s 2008 book The Fall of the Evangelical Nation: The Surprising Crisis inside the Church. She writes that “when asked to rate eleven groups in terms of respect, non-Christians rated evangelicals tenth. Only prostitutes rated lower (p. 143).” She goes on to give elaborate the consequences of this “anti-evangelical sentiment” being so high. In presenting this statistic, Wicker gives no other elaboration nor does she give a citation, as such the reader is left with the impression that this is an unambiguous fact.

Wicker appears to have done considerable research for this book, and so it’s reasonable to ask why would she ignore the larger, arguably more persuasive literature that shows Christians held in relatively high regard? Even within Barna’s data, there’s a positive spin in terms of attitudes toward born-again Christians. Again, I do not deem to know her (or anyone’s) motivation, but this book’s thesis is that “Evangelical Christianity in America is dying (p. 1).” Fittingly, the statistics that she chooses to present fit with this assumption. In this sense, the books presentation of this point reads more like a debating position or a legal paper—marshaling evidence to make a point rather than letting the broader evidence speak for itself.

More generally, a book about the Evangelical Church dying would probably sell much better than a more balanced, neutral examination of the ebbs and flows of faith.

Part 4 of the series.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

My Morton's Fork

A Morton's fork refers to a choice with between unpleasant options. Well, because of my excessive use of my dinner fork, I now face a Morton's fork.

Over summer I sort of gained a fair amount of weight. Oops. I didn't really notice/ appreciate the change because I wore shorts every day, and they have elastic in them. Well, it was cold one morning last week, and so I put on my long pants, or, more accurately, tried to put them on. None of them fit, so I have several undesirable options.

1) Lose weight. Ugh, this is difficult and frustrating. If I could do this easily, I would have long ago.

2) Wear shorts all winter. I could just wear shorts all year around and be seen as eccentric (ah, maybe "more eccentric".) In not too long, I'll be looking like the guy in the picture...

3) Buy a pair of interim pants. As Chris Uggen defines them, interim pants are a larger size, used only temporarily until one "can presumably fit into one's real pants." The problem with this approach is that today's interim pants become tomorrow's "real" pants.

It's staying warm, for now, but somethings gotta give pretty soon.

Any advice?

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The media's use of a statistic

(Part 2 in a series)

Yesterday I recounted a study conducted by the Barna Group. This study can be summarized as positive, negative, or ambiguous in its portray of Christians. Positive in that born-again Christians were found to be well-regarded, negative in that Evangelicals were not, and ambiguous in that different reactions were given to what is essentially the same group (i.e., evangelical and born-again Christians).

As such, these data provide almost a Rorschach test in which people can see what they want about Christians. It’s informative, then, to see how commentators, both within the church and without, have used these data. Without exception, they emphasize the negative story, and each has different incentives to do so.

The July/August issue of the Atlantic included a summary of Barna’s study, and it entitled this summary “Evangelicals and Prostitutes.” They write that “Non-Christians, it turns out, have a low regard for evangelical Christians, whom they view less favorably than all the above-mentioned groups except one: prostitutes.” While the Atlantic highlights the negative story, to their credit, The Atlantic also the positive story--that born-again Christians were well regarded. Of the hundreds, if not thousands of studies available to the Atlantic that month, why did they choose this one? It’s counterintuitive and catchy. Evangelical Christians are thought of almost as poorly as prostitutes? That’s “interesting,” and perhaps that’s why the Atlantic Monthly—a general interest, somewhat liberal publication—included it.

Part 3 in the series.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The creation of a useful, but inaccurate, statistic

(Part 1 in a series)

As a follow-up to yesterday's post, I am exploring the history of Christian-related statistic that might best be described as useful but inaccurate. I do this not to pick on this one statistic (though it is pretty bad), but to illustrate the social processes involved in creating, selecting, and presenting information about Christians to Christians.

In a December, 2002 report, The Barna Research Group details a study they conducted in which they asked 270 non-Christian respondents about their opinions of various groups in society. Specifically, they asked “Is your impression of people in this group generally favorable, generally unfavorable, or somewhere in-between?” They asked this question about eleven different groups in society, including born-again Christians, ministers, and Evangelicals.

As shown in Figure 1, military officers commanded the most favorable impressions while prostitutes had the least. Among religious groups, ministers and born-again Christians scored high (44% and 33% favorable impressions) while Evangelicals scored somewhat low (22%). In describing these findings, Barna concluded that “Surprisingly Few Adults Outside of Christianity Have Positive Views of Christians.”

Respondents’ Impression
Social group Favorable In-Between Unfavorable Don’t Know
Military officers 56% 32% 6% 6%
Ministers 44% 40% 9% 7%
Born again Christians 32% 41% 17% 10%
Democrats 32% 47% 12% 9%
Real estate agents 30% 51% 11% 8%
Movie & TV performers 25% 54% 14% 7%
Lawyers 24% 53% 18% 5%
Republicans 23% 47% 22% 8%
Lesbians 23% 38% 30% 11%
Evangelicals 22% 33% 23% 22%
Prostitutes 5% 29% 55% 11%

In looking at these data, we can make several observations about how Barna measured and presented these statistics.

A striking finding is the different attitudes expressed toward born-again Christians and Evangelicals. Despite the two terms being virtually synonymous, the respondents reacted rather differently to each. Why would someone think well of born-again Christians but poorly of Evangelicals? My guess is that respondents were confused by the question wording. The question asks about “evangelicals” instead of “evangelical Christians,” and so I wonder if perhaps respondents misinterpreted the evangelical term to mean evangelists or some specific denomination they’ve never heard of. As shown in the table, more respondents (22%) did not know who this group was than any other group.

In presenting these data, Barna emphasizes the low favorability scores for Evangelicals. He writes that non-Christians are “dismissive” of evangelicals, and that “one reason why evangelical churches across the nation are not growing is due to the image that non-Christian adults have of evangelical individuals.” One could make the opposite case just as strongly—while only 22% had favorable impressions of Evangelicals, only 23% had unfavorable impressions. These data could be spun either way, the cup being half-empty or half-full, and Barna chooses half-empty.

The sample size is rather small for this type of survey. With only 270 respondents, there is relatively little statistical power. Later in the report, Barna acknowledges this in writing that “the maximum margin of sampling error … is ±6.2 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.” That means that the estimates given above are probably accurate within 6 percentage points. So, our best guess about the favorability score for Evangelicals is between 16% and 28%--quite a wide range. Looking at the data, we can probably assume that the true population scores for military officers and ministers are high, and for prostitutes it is low. However, the remaining groups, from born-again Christians to Evangelicals are probably statistically indistinguishable. If so, that means these data are not sufficiently “powerful” to tell us if Evangelicals are more or less favored than most these other groups.

Now, understanding issues of statistical significance is not something that the average reader should be expected to know, but Barna and associates should. As such, their distinction between statistically-indistinguishable groups seems inappropriate.

Part 2 in the series.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The worst statistic about Christianity for 2008

Last spring, I announced a contest to find the worst statistic about Christianity, and we have a winner submitted by Ben Dubow.

The website: has a headline that states in terms of respect in America, "Only Prostitutes Rank Lower Than Evangelicals." Wow, what a shocking finding, if true (though one commentator quipped "poor prostitutes").

This statistic is not only wrong, it's so wrong that it boggles the mind that otherwise thoughtful people could accept it as true. We Christians seems remarkably eager to think poor of ourselves.

I've posted before some survey data regarding this issue, and clearly Christians, even Evangelicals are reasonably well thought of. Click here. Among religious groups, Muslims and Atheists have a much greater image problem than Christians. In society as a whole, politicians are thought very poorly of.

Even a moment's thought would show the folly of this statistic. We've had Evangelical Christian presidents, and even in this campaign, both candidates are eager to associate themselves with Saddleback Valley church. Sports stars and all manner of celebrity have identified themselves as Evangelical Christian--something that wouldn't happen if it were as stigmatizing as suggested.

I did a little digging, and the creation and distribution of this statistic is rather interesting. I'll be posting on it throughout this week. In the meantime, congrats to Ben for sending me this statistic. The reward is maple syrup, but we can go out to lunch if you'd rather.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Watching the kids grow, right past me

As any parent, I enjoy watching my kids grow up, and I notice when they pass me in some area. For example, Gus last year could swim faster than me.

This week had two such milestones, one a bit disconcerting.

Around dinner table last night, Gus pointed out that et cetera means "and other things" and ex cetera means "and other people." Now, I don't know if he's correct, but I think it means that he's officially learned more in high school, by the start of his sophomore year, than I did the whole time. That I'm pleased with.

At dinner last night, we were laughing about something that happened earlier in the day (one of those you had to be there things), and my motto is that if something is funny once, it's funny a bunch of times. So, about halfway through dinner, I brought up the story again. Floyd looked and me and very kindly said, "I don't think that joke is funny anymore, Daddy."

Great, he's 7 years old and already more mature than me.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Value menu week

Cathy has work training this week--she's a lecturer for the English department, so the boys and I are hanging out together. That can only mean one thing--by the end of the week, they'll have memorized the value menus at local fast-food joints.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

My Dad is better than your Dad because...

Back in the 1920s, or whenever it was, I can remember a few discussions with other kids about whose Dad was smarter or stronger or richer. My Dad can beat up your Dad? (Though, I never said that--I tried to play the smart angle).

Well... this weekend I was blindsided by a modern version of that. One of Gus' friends came over, and they played World of Warcraft--and on-line role-playing game. (Think Dungeons and Dragons computerized). This friend logged into his account and used his fathers character, who was the highest level and could basically kick pixel butt. Gus and Floyd had big eyes watching this boy's father's character tear things up, and then Floyd asked me why I didn't play World of Warcraft.

Basically, the friend's Dad's character can beat up mine (if I had one).

Friday, August 15, 2008

Your money is no good here...

Here's a story about a church that refused a $600,000 donation from a member who won it playing the lottery. Turns out that the church doesn't support gambling, and presumably it doesn't want to accept money that's not gainfully earned.

Two thoughts:
- It's great to see a church stand on principle like that
- Makes me wonder why my church accepts donations from sociologists. ;-)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Taking the red pill makes all the difference, I guess

Sociology interprets its mission in various ways. One approach holds that individuals' behavior and life circumstances are usually interpreted predominately in terms of personal characteristics, but in reality larger social forces have a considerable impact. (I'm thinking C. Wright Mills here).


Two news stories came up this week that reminded me, once again, how much of our behavior results from things that we don't understand.

A study found that women who take birth control pills choose genetically less-suitable mates than those who are not on the pill. This, in turn, leads to less satisfying marriages.

Another study found that judges of taekwondo matches gave 13% more points to competitors wearing red uniforms than blue.

Yet more evidence that what we do is influenced by all sorts of things.


Stray thoughts about this...

I'm now going to wear only red clothing when I teach.

Also, it makes me wonder about this dialogue, from the matrix, about red pills.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A perfect opportunity for a practical joke... let go

Last weekend, in a rare moment of maturity, I let pass a perfect opportunity for a practical joke. You see, a good friend and his wife were having a dinner party at their house. He's a professor, and he was hosting the University provost plus their clergy member and some other important people in their lives.

They also did not turn off the answering machine, which is located in the kitchen, right next to the dining room. That means that any message I left during the party would be heard by all the members of the party. Wow, what an opportunity.

Here were some of the messages I could have left. "Hey Fred...

* I spoke with an attorney friend, and he said that as long as no one finds the evidence, you should be okay. If you get caught, though, your doing some time."

* I did some research on the web, and having it hurt when you pee can be a really bad thing. You need to see a doctor, dude."

* How was your dinner party last night? Is your provost really as incompetent as you say? Hard to believe."

or I could play nice

* Hey Fred, does your department/school know that the top Ivy League Universities are recruiting you? Bet it will take a lot of money to keep you there."

Well, you get the drift. There was a time when I would have jumped at this chance; I think that I'm getting old.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

An example of religious discrimination in academics

Last week I posted about some stories regarding discrimination and religion in academic settings. Jim posted a comment that I think is worth highlighting. It's his own story of the problems of having faith in an academic setting. My sense is that this type of discrimination is under the radar for most college administrators, but it does seem to happen. Thanks Jim!

"While I was on the tenure track at U of Central Arkansas (chemistry), two of us were warned by the department chair that the fact that we could be identified as Christians would be negatively considered during his review of our tenure applications. His evaluation was a major portion of the tenure process there. Within three years, both of us had left (one tenured Christian chem prof was denied promotion to full professor in the same time period), in part at the suggestion of tenured chemistry faculty that were themselves visibly active Christians and worried that we were not going to be granted tenure based on the chair's "block". Keep in mind, NONE of us mentioned our Faith in class or to our students during professional interactions and the only way that we could be identified was because in one departmental social setting (a birthday party), church attendance was mentioned. I went on to becoming the project head for a educational project for the Lebanese government, my colleague is a senior research biochemist at the Mayo Clinic Research Facility.

God is Truly good"

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Bone marrow donation?

I recently signed up for a bone-marrow donor program, and I had to send off swabs of my cheek cells--DNA that they record in case it matches someone needing a bone-marrow transplant.

Now, when I took the swab, I had recently finished a handful of raisins, which leads me to wonder if that will increase the likelihood of matching the bone marrow of someone living in the Central Valley of California.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Gus' sense of fashion

I was going through some pictures last week, pictures of me in high school. One of them was me as a sophomore, so I showed it to Gus who is entering his sophomore year himself. He laughed with appreciation at the differences, and then he said something that indicated how much styles have changed.

In the picture I was wearing rainbow-colored suspenders--which were popular at one time--and Gus commented that it "would be cool to wear suspenders to school," and he paused, "without getting beaten up." Hm-m-m, I guess they aren't acceptable now.

Friday, August 08, 2008

A marriage like our parents?

I was in a session at the ASA meetings that involved the topic of marital satisfaction. As a way to motivate the issue, the speaker asked the crowd how may people would like to have a marriage like their parents had. There were maybe 50 of us in the room, and only 6 people raised their hands. I was very surprised.

Now, there could be a selection effect I suppose--people from unhappy homes become sociologists. Also, it could be an issue of style rather than quality, that people today would want a different kind of marriage, but still the number seemed very low.

I would hope that my marriage is good enough that my boys would like to have a similar marriage.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Compartmentalizing faith and career, until tenure?

At the Sociology meetings this last week, I attended a meeting of the Christian Sociological Society. It was interesting and encouraging to hear other Christians talk about making their way in the sociological world.

I was surprised, though, to hear a professor tell of being given a bad time from his colleagues about his faith.

Later in the meeting, I spoke with someone who had recently gotten tenure but it was a bit rough because a couple members of the department had "concerns" about this person's religious faith. (This person, btw, has a very strong vita).

Yikes! This is a bad thing for Christian junior faculty, i.e., pre-tenure, because they are in such a vulnerable place.

I don't think there are many contexts in the U.S. in which Christians are discriminated against, but academics might be one of them. See here, and here.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The effect of measurement

A friend of mine bought a hybrid car—one of those cars that runs on both gas and a battery engine—and when he gave me a ride, I was struck by two things. First, the car is amazingly quiet when it is running on battery power; in fact, I wouldn’t have even known that the engine was running except we were driving down the street. This, I thought, would be perfect for sneaking up on pedestrians (but that’s a topic for another blog post). Second, my friend, who is otherwise quite sensible, spoke at great length about the gas mileage that he gets with the car, and how it varies by driving patterns and terrain. Apparently braking slowly is good (or bad) because it does (or doesn’t) charge the battery. (You can tell I wasn’t paying too much attention).

Now, I thought my friend was unusual in his fascination with miles-per-gallon until I read this Washington Post article about hybrid owners. It tells of various owners who seem willing to do anything for that extra mile-per-gallon. One driver changed his route to work, just to avoid a big hill that drops his mileage to below 20 mpg. Another is so keen on keeping his mpg high that he won’t let his wife—who apparently just drives normally—drive his hybrid.

The key feature of hybrids that makes this mpg obsession possible is a dashboard mileage monitor that indicates how many miles-per-gallon the car is getting at that exact moment. This feedback appears to change drivers’ behavior.

Sociologists have long understood what is called an observer effect (also called the Hawthorn Effect). The idea here is that people change their behavior when they know they are being observed. This is why sociologists will sometimes use covert observation to study a situation, so as not to change it unnecessarily. It’s also why experimenters will often deceive their subjects about the true purpose of the study.

Well, related to the observer effect might be something that we can a measurement effect. Just the act of measuring a behavior changes it to be (usually) more in-line with our preferences and goals.

This principle applies to much more than driving hybrid cars. In fact, when people want to change their own behavior or that of others, one of the first things they’ll do is start measuring that behavior. It’s remarkable in how many areas of life we use this measure-to-change-it approach to behavior.

Weight Watchers is one of the best known weight loss programs. What’s one of the first things that a person does at the Weight Watcher’s meeting? Step on a scale, and have someone write down how much you weigh. This measurement brings your attention to what you’re trying to do, and it indicates how well you’ve done it in the previous week.

Most money management programs operate on the same principle. They have you keep track of all your expenses (i.e., measure them), and then see how they change over time. (I tried a program, called Money Counts, and I realized that I’m better at sociology than managing money.)

Want to live a more holy life? Start confessing. The Catholic Church encourages its members to periodically tally up their sins for a priest who then (hopefully) absolves them of these sins. The awareness of sin that the periodic confessions encourage should help move the individual away from behaviors they don’t desire.

Fundraising programs not only ask for money, but they also let their target audience know how much they’ve already raised. This is why every summer we see signs with thermometers painted on them. The more money given, the higher the red-mark on the thermometer.

I suppose that even classroom grading works this way. Students who know their grades throughout their semester probably study harder and are more engaged in the tests than those who are not told their grades. (This is why professors always tell students their grades.)

This principle has implications for social research. Just the act of measuring someone’s behavior, e.g., as is done in a survey, can change that person’s behavior by making them more aware of what they are doing. This may not matter in a cross-sectional survey, done only once, but with longitudinal research, it may alter the data. That is, if we measure a person’s behavior a second time, we may observe something different than if we hadn’t measured it a first time.

What’s the bottom line here? Well, when we measure anything, whether in professional research or everyday-life, realize that we’re probably changing some aspect of it. If we want to change something, probably the first thing to do is to start measuring it.