Fudging Statistics about belief – Does it really matter?

In Today’s Daily Pilot, an LA Times website, Richard Flory of Newport Beach responds in an opinion piece to an article written by Bruce Gleason.

– One of the many original articles by Bruce is here
– Richard’s reply is here

To put this in context, Bruce wrote about Atheism on a Billboard back in August 2011 and in that article he stated that “more than 15% of Americans … do not believe in a god“.

Richard is no doubt a believer, so takes exception to both this and also other of articles by Bruce … but specifically home’s in on the 15% statistic from this august article …yea, it took him five fracking months to work out a response.

There is the usual collection of batty claims in Richards article, and tempting as it might be to chew on it all for a bit, I shall resist and instead just take a look at the statistics and how games can be played with them. Richard basically accuses Bruce of fudging the 15% and as a rebuttal quotes some alternative smaller statistics. Here is how he runs with the numbers …

…in one column he claims that atheists comprise 15% of the U.S. population, which he says is 54 million people. Not only is his math wrong — 15% of the U.S. population is actually about 46 million people — but according to the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the proportion of the U.S. population that does not believe in God is only 5%, with those who identify themselves as “atheist” making up an even smaller number, slightly more than 1% of the population (3.75 million people).

So who is right?

Well, Richard is correct when he points out that 15% of the US population is indeed 46 Million.

  • The CIA World fact book gives a total population of 313 Million in July 2011 when the article was writen
  • And 15% of that number is indeed 46 Million and not 54 Million

So did Bruce get his basic maths wrong? Well, hang on to that thought for a moment, I’ll come back to it.

First lets think about the 15% claim. Richard claims that a Pew Forum survey specifies that the proportion of the U.S. population that does not believe in God is only 5% and that only slightly more than 1% are Atheists

As for the 15%, well that is a widely accepted statistic that comes from the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) Summary Report

  • You can see that here – Table 3 on page 5 with the caption “Self-Identification of U.S. Adult Population by Religious Tradition 1990, 2001, 2008”. At the bottom under None/No Religion: 15%. (to make it easy, here it is)

The three columns represent the years 1990, 2001 and 2008. We can pluck out a couple of observations here …

  • First, note that the 15% represents 34 Million, so if you think back to the claimed 54 Million, I find it quite credible that it is a typo and should have been 34, not 54.
  • It is also quite interesting to see the trend over time that is taking place, so while things might appear to be quite insane at times, there does indeed appear to be a rising population of quite rational folks out there

So, yes, the 15% statistics for folks who do not believe in a god has a credible source and dates from 2008. But looking at the statistics that Richard leans upon, we find that 16.1% refuse to affiliate with a belief system.

So in conclusion, Bruce has numbers that are easily verified and factually based, but with a 54 Million number that I suspect is just a typo. Richard on the other hand appears to be doing his best to try and desperately squeeze the numbers down to be as small as possible. Note the Bruce simply talked about Americans who do not believe in a God, but Richard rapidly grasps for the, “Ah but only a tiny percentage are actually Atheists”. He appears to be rather keen to not acknowledge the number of people out there who are not religious. I do also wonder if the thought ever crossed his mind that the open hostility towards any who are openly Atheist might have perhaps motivated many to take the far more sensible approach of simply stating that they were not affiliated with any belief, and thus avoided the scary “A” word that might shock their relatives and friends, and perhaps self-brand them as the dark side of the force in the eyes of the theist community.

Now lets ask ourselves an interesting question – Do the Numbers really matter?

In one sense, the answer has to be no. Reality is what it is. Even if everybody rejected compelling objective empirical evidence regarding the world and what makes it tick, it would remain unchanged, it is not something you get to vote on.

But I’d also like to suggest that in fact it does actually matter. We are very curious to know, and so by measuring what was happening in the past and then comparing it with what is happening now, it allows us to see trends that tell us much about the direction we are going in. If we can measure, then we can also potentially control it. It also opens up further questions that we can then explore and ponder over, for example asking, “What happens if trend X continues?”,”What caused it?”, etc…

One further thought is that when dealing with statistics, we need a high degree of internal integrity so that we can then be open to what the numbers actually tell us. It can be oh-so-tempting to attempt to cherry pick the bits that confirm a belief or assumption as Richard did and then discard the actual trend.

  • If we see a trend that tells us something is getting better, then lets ask ourselves what we got right so that we can have more of that.
  • If find some dismal numbers we do not like, then don’t ignore it, but instead ask why, and ponder over what can be done to change it

Oh yes, and as a final sanity warning, the above all assumes that the numbers you are dealing with are robust and reliable, but you should never make that assumption. Whenever faced with statistics, either good or bad, be skeptical and question just how reliable they are …

  • How was the raw data collected?
  • Who collected it and what bias might they have had?
  • Is the sample size big enough to be meaningful?
  • How reliable is the source?

Why? Well perhaps Mark Twain summed it up best when he popularized the phrase, “Lies, damned lies, and statistics” , but that is simply a reflection of the fact that the world we live in  is populated with  liars, damned liars, and experts.

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