Blessed Are the Happy

Happy“Like dreams, statistics are a form of wish fulfillment.”

─ Jean Baudrillard

Molding statistics to fit one’s preconceived conclusions is such a common practice that it’s a cliché even to point out when it occurs.  But sometimes, I just can’t resist….

The following headline appeared on the 5 October 2012 on-line edition of Deseret News, Utah’s 2nd largest daily newspaper by circulation:

“Religious Americans more inclined to have upbeat outlook.”

The article by Matthew Brown begins with the following declaration:

“Religious Americans, despite suffering hardships during the recession, still have faith in the American dream and are optimistic about the country’s future, surveys in the past two years have shown.

“The most recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found 53 percent of Americans believe the American dream still holds true, while 54 percent said the nation’s best days are ahead.

“According to a demographic breakdown of the survey taken in August, 81 percent of the 2,500 sampled said religion played an important role in their lives.”

Checking the survey myself, I found it confirms the 53% and 54% figures, but these reflect the responses from all Americans, not just the religious respondents as Brown implies.  In fact, since the survey focused on the white working class, religiousness of the respondents wasn’t even a factor in the American dream question.  And while the optimism question did differentiate responses by religious affiliation, white evangelical Protestants and white mainline Protestants are less optimistic about America’s future than religiously unaffiliated Americans, a category that includes atheists and agnostics!

The 81% percent statistic cited by Brown is found neither in the report nor in the Public Religion Research Institute’s summary of the report, so even if it is accurate, there is no way to know how it relates to the other data.  The most one can conclude from the report is that a majority of Americans surveyed believe in the American dream and are optimistic about America’s future, and some religiously affiliated Americans are more optimistic, and others less optimistic, than religiously unaffiliated Americans.

Brown’s article continues on to cite another survey that presumably provides additional evidence to his claim that religious Americans tend be more upbeat.  Again, when I checked the actual survey, the data were inconsistent with Brown’s interpretation.

In recent years, several studies have reported that religious Americans might be happier than non-religious Americans.  As with the results of any serious study, these should be reviewed and validated, employing the proven best practices of scientific research.  The data then lead to improvements in our understanding of American social psychology and culture.  In contrast, Brown reverses this process by sustaining a preconceived conclusion with handpicked bits of data taken out of context from their sources.  Pointing out the error of such statistical manipulations is worth a cliché or two.

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