Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Oh, they're not quite that bad

We just got an department e-mail today entitled: "Faculty Meeting / Suicide Prevention Training."

Now, faculty meetings are not great joy, but they're not that bad...

(In fact, we'll have a guest speaker talking about suicide prevention for our students)

Monday, September 29, 2008

Paul Newman, role model

As has been widely reported, Paul Newman passed away on Saturday. He lived here in Connecticut (at the other end of the state), and his camp for terminally ill children is just up the road.

Some years ago, I sat down and tried to figure out who I knew of that had lives worth emulating, and Paul Newman was one of the people I came up with, so he's sort of been a role model for me.


He was married to the same women for 50 years.

He was a success in his chosen career.

He had a wicked cool hobby (race car driving).

He did great things with charitable giving.

Now, I know that he wasn't perfect, and there are things in his life I probably don't want to follow, but he's an inspiration as I try to stay married, be a good sociologist, have fun cycling and hang gliding, and make some sort of difference in the lives of others.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Evaluating surveys on religious research

As you know, I frequently harp on the need to evaluate religious research just as carefully as we do any other research. Ed Stetzer, of Lifeways Research, has posted a nice summary of some of the questions to ask when reading religious research.

There's a lot of things that we need to take on faith in Christianity... but empirical research is not one of them.

Thanks Ben!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

What not to do to Letterman

When the time comes for me to be invited on to David Letterman's show*, I'll remember not to stand him up. Watch his response when McCain did it... Make sure to watch the part where Dave is yelling at Katie Couric's interview with McCain. It's hilarious.

* It could happen--he does have stupid human tricks.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Are Christians uniquely irrational?

From a recent WSJ article, Bill Maher said "you can't be a rational person six days of the week and put on a suit and make rational decisions and go to work and, on one day of the week, go to a building and think you're drinking the blood of a 2,000-year-old space god."

This article summarizes a recent study done at Baylor that found that "in fact, It also shows that the irreligious and the members of more liberal Protestant denominations, far from being resistant to superstition, tend to be much more likely to believe in the paranormal and in pseudoscience than evangelical Christians."

Once again, data and assumptions don't match.

Thanks for the link, Ben!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

When workers go bad

In light of the current financial crisis on Wall Street, perhaps the executives under fire should realize that things could be worse for them.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A fall triathlon

Today I completed what I think of as a New England Fall Father's Triathlon. It had three events (hence the tri- in triathlon).

First I went on a nice, long bicycle ride-44 miles-in near perfect weather, sunny in the 60s.

Then, I came home and stacked a pile of firewood.

Finally, I took Floyd to Chuck E. Cheeses to blow through many tokens.

I'm a little tired now, but I do have a feeling of accomplishment!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The best of flights, the worst of flights

My brother John experienced the two extremes of hang gliding this month.

First, he had a magical day when he could catch thermals just about at will. He spent 3 hours flying, and he reached over 10,000 feet!

Here's the footage of it. Wait for the part when he is looking around to make sure that no airliners are going at him (seriously)...

12 days later, he had some problems with launch (somebody helping him messed up), and he had to intentionally crash his glider to be safe. He's okay (other than really scaring his brother), but his glider needs a fair bit of costly repair. Ugh...

Friday, September 19, 2008

Are megachurches impersonal?

A new study from Rodney Stark, at Baylor, finds that:

"Congregants find megachurches offer more personal worship and sense of community than smaller churches, a finding that challenges the conventional wisdom that some large churches are too big to offer a spiritual experience."

Guess they must be doing something right. Maybe those churches that offer the worship and community are those that grow?

Here's the article from the Washington Post.

Thanks for the link, Mark!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Sociology at the amusement park

A couple of weeks ago, I took my two sons up to a big amusement park (this is New England, so unfortunately we don’t have Disneyland). Each summer we try to buy season passes to a different fun place, and this year it was this amusement park. The boys really enjoy the rides and the water park. Me? I kind of have fun being a sociologist and watching what goes on at the park because a lot of what goes on fits with sociological principles. These include:

Social Stratification is a social system that ranks people in terms of a hierarchy. Sociologists usually talk about it in terms of class, caste, and intergenerational mobility. Well, this amusement park had its own class levels. At the bottom were the regular people like my family who just buy a ticket and go on rides. Next up is what they call a “super flash pass.” This pass works like magic. When you go to one of the popular rides, and there is a long line, you show this pass and you get put into a much shorter line for the ride.

Cool, but the “super flash pass” starts at $50. At the highest level is the “very important you” experience. With this you go straight to the start of the line, you get to park your car close to the entrance, you get a private tour of the park (though, I don’t know how private it is with thousands of people around you), and you get a private autograph session with one of the park characters. Okay, as far as I can tell, the characters can’t talk, and they are really alienated teenagers dressing up like cartoon animals for minimum wage, so I’m not sure why someone would pay extra for the autograph of an irritated, silent young person. The price for this highest level of “service”? $250 per person with a minimum of four people. That’s $1,000 to be top dog of the amusement park.

conflict theory of crime holds that laws are passed to favor the wealthy (I know, you probably find this idea shocking), and it too was in evidence at the park. Being rather cheap, I don’t like paying $15 for the regular parking at the amusement park, so I pay $10 to park at a nearby restaurant that is actually a little closer to the main gate of the park. In speaking with the owner, I found out that the city is working hard to make it illegal to park there for the amusement park. So, if you want a bite to eat at the restaurant, go ahead and park your car. But, if you want to walk 100 yards to the amusement park, forget it.

Why would the city outlaw parking outside the park? Well, it’s a small town, and the amusement park is far-and-away their biggest tax payer. The amusement park makes approximately 1-trillion-dollars-a-day (their concession stands are really expensive), but they also want the less than one-thousand-dollars-a-day that this off-site parking place pulls in. The park, having lots of money, has lots of influence with the city government. The city government, eager to please the park, tries to pass an ordinance that doesn’t make much sense and only harms the average Joe looking to save a few dollars.

Another sociological observation involves the young people we saw at the park. Studies of
youth culture note how young people find their own, distinctive ways of doing things, and this culture works best when it is different than what boring-old-people are doing.

Well, walking around the park, I noticed a unique style of dress. Scattered about were clusters of high-school-aged kids who were dressed virtually identically. They all wore oversized athletic shoes and relatively new blue jeans. Around their necks, they wore white t-shirts twisted with a bandana. This bandana was folded so that, if they wanted to, they could pull it up over their mouth to hide their features. (“Hey, you guys want to go rob a train?”). The kids had similar haircuts, and they wore brand-new ball caps, turned about 90 degrees to the side.

Now, these kids carried a bit of an “I’m tough” scowl on their faces and had a tough guy swagger to their walk, but to me they looked downright silly. I honestly thought that they were park characters when I first saw them (“Hi, can I get your autograph for $1,000?”) More than anything they reminded me of little kids dressing up like cowboys, which didn’t fit with the tough persona they were trying to project. Okay, if I were younger, a lot younger, maybe I would think they are cool, so I’m not trying to impose some middle-aged standard of appropriate dress. Instead, these “outfits” they wore illustrate the powerful influence of youth culture.

So there you have it; in addition to offering roller coasters, water rides, and overpriced hot dogs, amusement parks serve up sociology as well.

Originally published in everydaysociologyblog.com.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A philosophical question about cake

Gus had his fifteenth birthday last week, complete with very success surprise party. (He's rather easy to deceive--like his father.

The big question to come out of his birthday, however, was what is the exact definition of a cake.

We were sitting around eating a chocolate cake that had lots and lots of frosting, and we started to wonder how much frosting you could have before it's no longer a cake. So, if it looks like a cake, but it's all frosting, would it still be cake. Floyd and I agreed that an all-frosting pseudo-cake would be a grand thing. Gus was less sure. Cathy was just grossed out at the thought.

Let them eat what may be cake?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Evangelical's reputation is getting better since 1994

I've been posting a lot these past few months about statistics produced by Christian researchers that claim to show that Christians have an image problem and that it's getting worse over time. See here and here.

Inspired by David's comment, here, I used the Roper Center iPoll data base to find survey questions that asked respondents their view of Evangelical Christians. I found eight such surveys.

The question wording usually went something like this: "Would you say your overall opinion of Evangelical, is it very favorable, mostly favorable, mostly unfavorable, or very unfavorable." For parsimony, I combined the "very" and "mostly" categories to make the ratings just favorable or unfavorable. For clarity of presentation, I dropped the "don't know " or "haven't heard of" responses, and this is what I found:

For example of interpretation, in 1994, 57% of respondents viewed Christians favorably, 43% viewed them unfavorably.

What should we make of these data? Well, there's no evidence that Christian's reputation in general society is getting worse, and in fact it seems to have gone up since 1994--perhaps with Evangelicals being less associated with politics. If I get ambitious, I'll download the data and separate out the views of non-Christians, but at this level it doesn't look like Evangelicals are suffering from the supposed reputation crisis.

Data sources
1994: Times Mirror
2000, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2007: Pew
2004: US News and World Report

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Showgirls, the conversion

Joe Eszterhas, a well-known Hollywood screenwriter, had a rather dramatic conversion to Christianity. Here is his story, and he motivates it by asking:

Why did God save the life of a man who had trashed, lampooned, and marginalized Him?

Friday, September 12, 2008

Credit cards to China

Usually when we think of evil, it involves chain saws or bank robberies or men lurking in trench coats. Here's a story about some one who has the potential of doing a great deal of harm just doing his job.

Basically, most Chinese buy things using cash. This person, representing a bank's credit card division, is working hard to convince potential customers in China to use credit cards instead. What's the problem he's trying to overcome? "We have this traditional thinking. We don't like to spend more than what we have." Banks can't make much money on credit cards until this don't overspend mentality is overcome.

When I think of all the problems I've had in my life because of credit cards, as well as in others, I cringe to think of someone doing this.

Thanks Adrienne for the story!

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A dungeon? (Office pic)

Here's a picture of Jimi's office, and he has to stand on his desk to see it.  I'm not sure, but I think that he's being kept in some sort of dungeon.  Not to worry, though, he has a big-time job in Arizona coming up--bet he'll be a window there!

Getting urban (office pic)

Jeremy gets urban on us. What's impressive is that though he's only a grad student, he gets a window seat! Nice. I didn't get a window seat as a grad student or post-doc, and when I first came here, I spent several years with a window covered by a tree. Jeremy must be doing something right.

A field of dreams (office pic)

Here's Nate's view... a field with an orchard. Nice!

Just better than a brick wall (office pic)

Here's the office view of Elroy. His comment--not as bad as a brick wall.

Just another brick in the wall (office pic)

Upon seeing the picture of the view from my window, my friend Mark Edwards sent me a picture from his office window...

Before we feel sorry for him, though, he lives and works in Corvallis Oregon, a beautiful part of the country (just not out his window).

Any other office views?

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

My famous wife

My wife, Cathy, is a  historian, and as I talk, she is being interviewed on the radio about a research project that she did on the Hurricaine of 1938.  Needless to say, she sounds great (and I'm not the least bit biased)--telling stories about what happened and how people reacted to it.  Floyd and I are sitting on the couch, hanging on every word!

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

A room with a view

This is what it looks like out my office window (from where I sit at my desk). It's nice to watch the geese come-and-go each season plus the leaves change. Every once in a while, a brave undergraduate wades into the lake (think of the results of having so many geese in it).

Monday, September 08, 2008

The statistic evolves

(Part 7 in a series)

Various commentators picked up the statistic from the Off the Map website, and in doing so they put their own interpretation on it. Sometimes this results in the statistic being misquoted so that it’s even more damning of Christianity. The website a Blind Beggar, devoted to the journey of Christianity, summarizes the statistic as follows. “Jim Henderson in the latest “Off the Map” newsletter noted that only prostitutes rank lower than evangelicals in terms of respect in the mind of the public.” Notice that the low regard of Christians is now held by the general public, not just non-Christians. Likewise, another weblog summarizes the statistic as “Only Prostitutes Rank
Lower than Evangelicals” and attributes it to an American survey. Here we not only think it’s the general American public, but we’re not even told which evangelicals rank so lowly on.

What's the point? The statistic is changed with retelling, to become a broader and broader indictment of Evangelical Christians.

Ultimately, we have a statistic that is a mixed (if not ambiguous) message for Christianity, and it becomes more and more negative in its retelling. It seems that the statistic is chosen, interpreted and transformed in order to maximize its usefulness rather than its empirically accuracy.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The problem with college towns

Over all it's nice to live in a college town (though, I'm not sure that Mansfield is big enough to qualify as a town.  A college hamlet?)  Sometimes the college students driving is irksome, but overall having so many young people around is a plus.

 I recently bought a new bicycle (actually used, new to me--bought it off Craig's list) that I just love.  It's light, fast, etc....  I also splurged and got nice bicyling shoes and shorts and various other gear.   Well, I was going out for a spin, seeing how high an average speed I could maintain, and I started going up this hill.  It wasn't too steep or too long, but I did have to downshift.

Suddenly, to my left, I hear a cheery "hello".  I look over to see a college kid, on a beach bicycle with big fat tires (read slow), wearing shorts and flip-flops, flying by me up the hill.  Ugh....  It gets worse: My immediate conclusion was that I needed more/better gear (as opposed to losing weight and getting in shape).

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Paolo Carozza, featured Notre Dame faculty member

Congratulations to my brother-in-law Paolo Carozza.  He's a law professor at Notre Dame, and he's the featured faculty member at today's Notre Dame football game.  I'm not sure what exactly means, but I know there is a recognition thing during halftime.  The rest of the time he runs around in the mascot suit, I think.

Since UConn football was ranked higher in the preseason polls, I suppose I should offer him tickets to a Husky's game--might be fun for him to see some really high-level football.

As a follow-up, Notre Dame had a smashing 21-13 victory over previously-beaten San Diego St.  I think we know the reason!

Friday, September 05, 2008

Using a statistic in marketing Christian Ministry

(Part 6 in a series)

From Wicker’s book, the statistic was picked up by a Christian organization, entitled Off The Map. This is Christian non-profit devoted to making Jesus known through helping Christians serve others. They include this statistic in a section of their website that leads off with the statement: “Here’s why we must be born again.” It also presents various other statistics making the case that Christianity is losing its influence in America as well as shrinking in size. Also on the page are several advertisements for the “born-again tour” offered by this organization. This event includes music and speakers to teach and encourage people in living out their faith publicly. Tickets range from $69 to $109.

Why would the organization Off the Map link statistics negatively portraying Christianity with their efforts to promote Christianity? Organizations use statistics to present a problem, and it presents its programs as a solution. As such, including a statistic about the positive impressions held of Christians might diminish the perceived need of their ministry.

Part 7 in the series.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

How much difference? Maybe a couple of people.

(Part 5 in a series)

This post is a bit out of place, because I'm using it to expand a point made in the first post of this series. I'm addressing a statistic that, except for prostitutes, Christians have the worst reputation in American society.

I wrote here about various problems with that statistic. Here I want to elaborate on one of those points. Namely, Barna's study found few significant differences in reputation between Evangelicals and other groups. There are two ways we can think about this.

1) The first has to do with the small sample size. Suppose I told you that I surveyed 100 people and 52 of them are going to vote for Obama, 48 for McCain. Therefore, I predict that Obama will win the election. My guess is that you wouldn't find my prediction very compelling because that's a fairly small difference with such a small sample. Well, it's the same point here. Barna's data was based on 270 people, and the study emphasized distinctions of only a percentage point or few. This works out to be only several people. To show how this works, here are Barna's data translated into numbers, rather than percentages. For simplicity, I show only the first column of data.

Respondents’ Favorable Impression
151 respondents viewed military officers favorably
120 viewed ministers favorably
86 viewed born-again Christians favorably
86 viewed democrats favorably
81 viewed real estate agents favorably
68 viewed movie & TV performers favorably
65 viewed lawyers favorably
62 viewed republicans favorably
62 viewed lesbians favorably
59 viewed evangelicals favorably
14 viewed prostitutes favorably

So, the difference between Evangelicals placing next to last and placing in the middle is... 9 people. I'm know that that is worth a headline.

[In statistical terms, Barna reports a confidence interval of 6 percentage points, which suggests that most the groups are not "significantly" different from Evangelicals.]

2) Barna's presentation uses the wrong denominator. Each of the 11 groups queried about had some percentage that were not familiar with them and as such had no opinion. For example, 22% were unfamiliar with the Evangelical group (probably due to awkward question wording). It doesn't make for these people to have an opinion about Evangelicals. As such, if we want to document how many people have a favorable opinion of a group, it should be out of how many people have heard of that group. For example, 22% of respondents had a favorable opinion of Evangelicals out of the 78% who had opinions. This works out to be 31%.

Here are Barna's groups, organized by this probably-more-appropriate computation:

60% respondents viewed military officers favorably
47% viewed ministers favorably
36% viewed born-again Christians favorably
35% viewed democrats favorably
33% viewed real estate agents favorably
28% viewed evangelicals favorably
27% viewed movie & TV performers favorably
26% viewed lesbians favorably
25% viewed lawyers favorably
25% viewed republicans favorably
6% viewed prostitutes favorably

Suddenly, Evangelicals are in the middle of the pack, and it becomes much less of a story. My guess is that if Barna had presented the data this way, that few, if any, news outlets, books, or conference producers would have picked it up. Why? It wouldn't be "newsworthy."

What's my point? Frankly, this statistic by itself doesn't really matter that much, and so the fact that many people appear to have gotten it wrong isn't all that important.

What is more interesting, however, is the way this statistic illustrates how data about Evangelical Christians gets used and transformed, often by Evangelicals themselves. Even a cursory look at this study sees the resulting conclusion as problematic, and yet, because of its provocative nature, the conclusion has lived on.

Part 6 in the series

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Thoughts on passing along an inaccurate statistic

In thinking about Christine's comments, let me start with some things we agree on and some possible clarifications.

First off, I agree that I make errors. Regarding errors, I've been doing sociology for about 17 years now (Yikes, I'm getting old...), and I continue to be dismayed by how often I get things wrong. Sometimes I do my analyses wrong, sometimes I miss or mangle relevant theories. Because of this, I value working with other people, from whom I learn, public discussion of research, as per this blog, and, especially, the peer-review process for publishing.

Second, I agree that I am biased. I've had a wide range of experiences in Christianity, and they can not help but influence my perception and general understanding of anything to do with Christianity. Furthermore, this type of bias is probably not testable, for we could put two people together who have different worldviews religion and no one "right" answer would emerge.

In recognition of this type of bias, I value the empirical study of Christianity. While not all Christian topics lend themselves well to data, some do and they should be studied rigorously. Data analysis, unlike personal assumptions, does lend itself to discussions of right and wrong, or, at least, better or worse. It is in this vain that I am discussing the statistic introduced here, that Evangelicals have a low reputation second only to prostitutes. I think this is an inaccurate statistic, and I believe that the case that I make against it holds regardless of my personal beliefs.

There are a couple of other issues that I'll develop in later posts. A few quick comments:

CW: "I'm Christine Wicker. I wrote the book you're calling inaccurate."
Me: To be clear, I'm not addressing your book as a whole. I'm only discussing a couple of sentences on the top of page 143. My interest is this particular statistic, how it gets used and modified. It would be unfair to evaluate your book on the basis on this single point.

CW: "You often quote statistics without researching them fully. Or presenting contrary data."
Me: This being a blog, I will sometimes present studies that I find interesting without any critical analysis. In my published writing, however, I try to avoid that.

CW: "I agree with Helen's idea that you could easily find out what the rest of the world thinks about evangelicals."
Me: By virtue of being on the faculty of a public university + teaching a class on the sociology of religion, I end up hearing a lot of people's perspectives about different religions.

CW: "BTW, reporters aren't popular either. But I don't try to kill the messenger for saying so."
Me: My interest is in the use and interpretation of this statistic rather than who in particular uses it. I apologize if you feel like I'm shooting the messenger (i.e., you)...

Part 5 of the series.

Christine Wicker responds

Christine Wicker, author of The Fall of the Evangelical Nation, posted two comments on my blogging about her use of a statistic. I truly appreciate her doing so because this type of exchange helps to clarifies and informs the questions under discussion.

Christine raises some useful points about how and why we use statistics about religion, and I'll respond to them. First, however, here are her comments in her own words:

Comment 1:

"Let me correct your error.

You are able to find other statistics that don't back this one up. That doesn't make this one inaccurate.

It simply means that you would rather use other studies. Just as you accuse me of being sensationalist, I'd say that you are biased toward evangelicals and Christians. Your own use of statistics in other parts of the blog show that quite clearly.

In that bias, you have a huge amount of company. In fact, selling books that favor evangelicals is much easier than selling critical ones because there's a motivated, organized audience for favorable books.

Giving evangelicals what they want is an easy path to money and power.

To return to the question of statistics, you often quote statistics without researching them fully. Or presenting contrary data. For instance your blog on marriage shows one study. You like that study. You quoted it. There are many others.

But you didn't apply the same rule to yourself that you applied to me.

As for the attitudes about born-agains, in that section the book is looking at evangelicals as they are perceived in the public square. They themselves know quite well that their reputation has dipped, particularly because of their political activities. I quote a number of them saying so."

Comment 2:

"I'm not so great on blogs, I guess. I didn't mean for my post to be anonymous. In case this one is too, I'm Christine Wicker. I wrote the book you're calling inaccurate. See my post below.

I agree with Helen's idea that you could easily find out what the rest of the world thinks about evangelicals. If you live near an evangelical megachurch, go into social groups where people don't know you, don't bring up your faith, and bring up the name of the megachurch. You won't have to do that for long before someone will tell you what they think.

One of the most memorable of my experiences came after having written a three-part series about a megachurch in Dallas when I was a reporter some years ago. I was searching for something in the library when a librarian said of the series, "I don't know why they had to put that mess on the front page of the newspaper."

When I asked why what I'd labored over for months was a mess, she gave me an earful about her opinion of evangelicals.

Here's another idea, announce to people who don't know about your faith, that one of your relatives has become an evangelical. Say it in a despairing way if you want to encourage honesty. See if anyone defends them. Or even tries to pep you up. Chances are good that they'll have a pack of horror stories to tell you about holidays ruined and relatives insulted.

Being defensive and denying the problem won't solve the problem.

BTW, reporters aren't popular either. But I don't try to kill the messenger for saying so."

Monday, September 01, 2008

Me, at the computer

My department recently gave me a used iMac (only 1 year old), and I've been playing around with it. Turns out that it has a built-in camera, and so I start using it somewhat randomly. Once I got over being reminded that I'm not very photogenic, it's kind of fun. Here's me typing away at something.