Using Science to Diss Religion

I love Pacific Standard magazine. Their entertaining, short posts and longer features use the latest research to examine conventional wisdom and to propose new ways of thinking about old or intractable problems… among other things. 

But, as one who’s often skeptical of the conclusions drawn from social science research—if not of the methodologies behind the research itself—I’m particularly disappointed to see misleading conclusions drawn from a PS post. 

I’ll explain. Earlier this week PS’s excellent staff writer Tom Jacobs outlined some of the takeaways from a Canadian study looking at the personality traits of those who lied for financial gain, including business majors, children of divorce, and those who make “the assertion that religion plays an important role in [their] life.” (That last quote is Jacobs’ take—the study is behind a pay wall.) 

He also quotes the study’s author, Jason Childs, who wrote: “We find that sex, age, grade point average, student debt, size of return, socioeconomic status, and average time spent in religious observation are not related to the decision to lie.” [Emphasis mine]

So those who are more observant aren’t any more likely to lie for financial gain, but those who claim that religion is important to them are. Without access to the study it’s difficult to say with total confidence what’s going on here, but what appears to be the case is something nuanced—and perhaps very interesting. Assuming that “religious observation” was measured, as it often is in such studies, as church (or synagogue, mosque, etc.) attendance, we’re left comparing those who attend services more frequently (no more likely to lie) to those who claim that religion is important to their lives (more likely to lie). 

It would be a mistake to assign primacy or legitimacy to one or the other metric without knowing a great deal more about the participants and the language used, among other factors, but the correlation between religiosity and lying for financial gain appears to be complex. 

So that’s the backstory as presented by PS. Typically, nuance is lost in translation from research to media, but it being 2013 the problem arises not in publication, per se, but in syndication. Witness the headlines chosen by two well-respected publications that republished Jacobs’ post—Salon and AlterNet

“Study: Religious more likely to lie for financial gain”

and: 

“Study: Religious People More Likely to Lie for Financial Gain”

There’s been a strangely persistent myth associated with Democrats, liberals, progressives, and the Left that they’re “anti-religion.”

This myth has been taken quite seriously by some in the liberal-Democratic establishment, who have responded with shallow religious proclamations, faith outreach campaigns and a cottage industry of groups and organizations whose raison d’etre is to declare that “yes, by golly, Democrats are religious!!” All this despite the lack of evidence from reliable independent sources that it’s made any difference. 

In any case, the careless treatment of data that effectively portrays religious people in a bad light only bolsters the absurd claim that anyone to the left of John Boehner is anti-religion. This isn’t a problem unique to Salon and AlterNet and it probably has more to do with lack a of familiarity with religion and the click-driven mindset that headline writers—myself very much included—find ourselves in. But it’s worth noting, in any case. 

It’s also worth noting, particularly given what a recent PS must-read points out, that the study consisted of “400 students drawn from introductory economics classes at the University of Regina in Saskatchewan.” That’s economics students from a college in a province that’s over 80% white. A province in which .7% of the population is comprised of religious non-Christians. 

But then how sexy is the headline “Among Christian economics students at a homogeneous Canadian university, those who claim that religion is important, in contrast to those who are more observant, are more likely, along with business majors and children of divorce, to lie for financial gain”?

I might choose “Religious More Likely to Lie For Financial Gain” myself. 

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