William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

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The New Pew Religion Survey Isn’t What You Think (Probably)


Lot of chatter over the new Pew survey of religiosity, “Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow“.

Main result: Christianity down, “nones” up. Many take that as saying “religion is declining.” This is not only false, but ludicrously false. Religion is, if anything, increasing in frequency and in intensity. It’s only that Christianity is on the skids.

Catholics and mainline protesting Christians dropped over 3% each in seven years; and evangelicals are down about 1%. Catholics still make around 1/5 of the population, mainline protesters 1/7, and evangelical protesters 1/4. Historically non-Christian faiths, like Judaism, Islamism, Buddhisms, Hinduism and others are up about 1%, but in total are only 1/17 of us.

Loosely affiliated Christian-like religions, like Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormonism, remained fairly constant at around 1/35 the population. Orthodox Christian held steady at half a percent, and something under an unchanged 7% historically black Christian denominations.

Lump all the Christian or Christian-like sects together: in 2007 over 78% of the population, and in 2014 over 70%.

The real news are the yoga, hipster, progressive, environmental, agnostic, even atheistic “Nones” (or “unaffiliated”), which shot up about 7% and now represent about 1/4 of Americans. Atheists proper are up from just under 2% to around 3%.

Pew said, “More than 85% of American adults were raised Christian, but nearly a quarter of those who were raised Christian no longer identify with Christianity.” And “within Christianity the greatest net losses, by far, have been experienced by Catholics. Nearly one-third of American adults (31.7%) say they were raised Catholic. Among that group, fully 41% no longer identify with Catholicism.”

These people have slid over to the nones who “now constitute 19% of the adult population in the South (up from 13% in 2007), 22% of the population in the Midwest (up from 16%), 25% of the population in the Northeast (up from 16%) and 28% of the population in the West (up from 21%). In the West, the religiously unaffiliated are more numerous than Catholics (23%), evangelicals (22%) and every other religious group.”

To claim these nones are not religious is the mistake. Of course they are religious. They don’t say they are, but that is nothing. When pressed, they say they are “spiritual” or “caring” or “nice people.” But just you disagree with one of them over their dogma (equality, etc.) and you’ll quickly rediscover the meaning of “sacred.” Their religion is a mixture of old timey paganism, gnosticism, narcissism, nihilism, hanging-outism—and did I mention yogaism?

Mistake number two is to suppose that all those who volunteered they were Christians still believed Christian doctrine in its Biblical form; say, of the Nicene creed. Something that might be a good approximation to that is routine mass or service attendance. CARA tracks Catholic stats: In 1960 about 55% of self-proclaimed Catholics attended mass regularly, down to 24% in 2014.

Pew earlier said Christians (lumped together) who attended regular services was about 39%, while those who attended rarely or never was about 29%. The 39% is probably exaggerated, too: people lie to pollsters about going to service (see this or this)

A crude guess is about 1/3 in each of Catholic and mainline protesters and probably 5/6 or more of evangelicals are seriously serious. That means instead of the proclaimed 70.6%, we’re somewhere in the neighborhood of 20% to 30% of Americans who now stick to the traditional creeds. When push comes to shove—and it will—this will decrease further.

“I don’t follow you, Briggs. Explain what you mean about traditional creeds.”

All right. Yesterday in the far-left Washington Post, they had an editorial by Barronelle Stutzman, the florist who turned down making a floral arrangement for two men who wanted to pretend to marry. She stuck to tradition even though it is ruining her material life (the State chased her down like she was a rabid dog).

A commentor (one of six thousand) rejoicing under the nom de plume “BecauseIAmWeak” said that Stutzman was unChristian and that she, Stutzman, was not only disappointing Jesus, but that Stutzman’s actions were Satanic. Sticking to the creed is now the work of the devil! BecauseIAmWeak would have told Pew she was “Christian.” (You’ll have to trust my quotation because the Post’s commenting software sucks wind.)

There were, among certain blogs, some needless gasping and panting about the Pew results. To counter this, the ever-sober Thomas McDonald reminded us of Pope Benedict’s words in “What Will The Church Look Like in 2000″:

From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision…

The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystalization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek.

So Benedict was off by a couple of decades. Nobody bats 1000.


The Pontifical Academy’s Sustainablity Conference Podcast


Arrgh. I’m trying out a new podcasting plugin. It puts the podcasts into something-which-isn’t-a-post and which is impossible to find. So here is a regular post which links to the podcast. I won’t be using this plugin any more after today, but it’s too late to fix it for today. I’ll put up the real podcast here once I find a better plugin.


I was interviewed last Thursday for Marita Noon’s regular podcast “America’s Voice for Energy“. Few have yet heard the interview because there were some technical difficulties posting it. These were fixed Monday, and the broadcast is now available for one and all.

Noon interviewed some of the folks who were with the Heartland contingent at the Pontifical Academy’s curious sustainability conference. She also talked with me (I wasn’t in Rome).

Now Noon called the event the “Pope’s conference”, which it wasn’t. Rather, I don’t think it was. The PAS has a history of mixing green politics with actual science and it appears—I say appears—that this was their own doing. Everybody is anxiously expecting the Holy Father’s encyclical which, rumor has it, will cover, inter alia, the environment. Many want to share in its glory, including the PAS.

I wonder how close the guesses about the encyclical’s content will be to reality? Ought to be interesting. Regular readers will know that I haven’t said a word about what’s in a document I haven’t yet read.

Anyway, in the podcast, Cal Beisner, of the Cornwall Alliance For the Stewardship of Creation, is first up and tells us why Jeffery “Abortion Abortion” Sachs is not to be heeded.

Our friend Marc Morano batted second (starting at 15:13). Marc was muscled out of the conference by the PAS’s Open Dialog Police. Among other topics, Marc points out the cynicism of folks like Al Gore who facetiously say they’ll covert to Catholicism because Pope Francis is solid on climate “justice.”

The real ranting and raving and raillery—Yours Truly—comes at 30:45. I start by giving a textbook example of tongue tied. And I go downhill from there. I do give a shout-out to the National Association of Scholar’s sustainability report, which is worth reading.

It was Noon’s questions that gave me the idea of defining sustainability, incidentally, which I did in that piece for Crisis.

The last interviewee is Heartland’s Sterling Burnett (at 45:45) who gives an overview of Heartland’s counter conference.

Incidentally, another Catholic “environmental” conference is taking place as I type this. Caritas, an official umbrella charity group, is meeting in Rome.

During the five-day Caritas gathering that opens Tuesday, leaders of Catholic charitable organizations from around the world will focus on growing inequalities as well as the impact of climate change…

Beyond RodrĂ­guez and Gutiérrez, other keynote speakers during the five-day Caritas Internationalis will be Ghana’s Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, who helped write a draft of Francis’ environment encyclical; South African Prof. Beverley Haddad, an expert in the intersection of religion and the HIV epidemic; and famed American economist Jeffrey Sachs, a United Nations special advisor.

Jeffrey “Abortion Abortion” Sachs sure does show up a lot at Catholic conferences, eh?

Now what’s interesting (in this same article) we have Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga “blasting” folks who are critical of the Church’s newfound green love. The Cardinal said, “The ideology surrounding environmental issues is too tied to a capitalism that doesn’t want to stop ruining the environment because they don’t want to give up their profits.” Hmm. Not many of those profits are coming my way, so this doesn’t explain why I’m against folks like Sachs.

Also see this: Environmentalists are thrilled that Francis is lending his moral authority to provide an ethical foundation for action to stem climate change.


What Does “Sustainability” Really Mean?

Who is happier to be in this picture?

Who is happier to be in this picture?

I had originally titled today’s article as “The Theology of Sustainability“, which has a certain ring to it. But I admit the title chosen by the Crisis editors probably results in more curiosity, and thus more clicks.

That’s what you’ll have to do if you want to read about what sustainability really means. Click.

Besides vague environmental pieties, I could not discover any rigorous definition of the word. So I had to figure one out, and did so. And then worked out how sustainability, as touted by progressives, the UN, politicians, and even the Pontifical Academy for Science, fit, if at all, into a Catholic theological scheme.

It doesn’t. Environmentalists don’t like people, and God does. To see why this is so, head on over to Crisis (from where I swiped today’s picture).

Update A link I discovered too late and apropos to not being able to “afford” children:

Italian women would “like to have more [children], but the conditions just aren’t good enough,”laments one new mother as CBS News reports, official figures show that in 2014 there were fewer babies born in Italy than at any time since 1861. “Nowadays people don’t want to raise their child in poverty,” but Pope Francis had a different opinion, as The Guardian reported, “a society with a greedy generation, that doesn’t want to surround itself with children, that considers them above all worrisome, a weight, a risk, is a depressed society.”


Hypothesis Testing Relies On The Fallacy Of False Dichotomy

We have no choice: it's either bacon or ham

We have no choice: it’s either bacon or ham

Classical hypothesis testing is founded on the fallacy of the false dichotomy. The false dichotomy says of two hypotheses that if one hypothesis is false, the other must be true. Thus a sociologist will say, “I’ve decided my null is false, therefore the contrary of the null must be true.” This statement is close, but it isn’t the fallacy, because classical theory supports his pronouncement, but only because so-called nulls are stated in such impossible terms that nulls for nearly all problems are necessarily false, thus the contrary’s of nulls are necessarily true. The sociologist is stating something like a tautology, which adds nothing to anybody’s stock of knowledge. It would be a tautology were it not for his decision that null is false, a decision which is not based upon probability.

To achieve the fallacy, and achieve it effortlessly, we have to employ (what we can call) the fallacy of misplaced causation. Our sociologist will form a null which says, “Men and women are no different with respect to this measurement.” After he rejects this impossibility, as he should, he will say, “Men and women are different” with the implication being this difference is caused by whatever theoretical mechanism he has in mind, perhaps “sexism” or something trendy. In other words, to him, the null means the cause is not operative and the alternate means that it is. This is clearly a false dichotomy. And one which is embraced, as I said, by entire fields, and by nearly all civilians who consume statistical results.

Now most statistical models involve continuity in their objects of interest and parameters. A parameterized model is Y ~ D(X, theta)—the uncertainty in the proposition Y is quantified by model D with premises X and theta—where the theta in particular is continuous (and usually a vector). The “null” will be something like thetaj = 0, where one of the constituents of theta is set equal to a constant, usually 0, which is said to be “no effect” and which everybody interprets as “no cause.” Yet given continuity (and whatever other premises go into D) the probability thetaj = 0 is 0, which means nulls are always false. Technicalities in measure theory are added about “sets of measure 0″ which make no difference here. The point is, on the evidence accepted by the modeler, the nulls can’t be true, thus the alternates, that thetaj do not equal 0, are always true. Meaning the alternative of “the cause I thought of did this” is embraced.

If the alternates are always true, why aren’t they always acknowledged? Because decision has been conflated with probability. P-values, which have nothing to do with any question anybody in real life ever asks, enter the picture. A wee p-value allows the modeler to decide the alternate is true, while an unpublishable one makes him decide the null is true. Of course, classical theory strictly forbids “accepting”, which is to say deciding, a null is true. The tortured Popperian language is “fails to reject”. But the theory is like those old “SPEED LIMIT 55 MPH” signs on freeways. Everybody ignores them. Classical theory forbids stating the probability a hypothesis is true or false, a bizarre restriction. That restriction is the cause of the troubles.

Invariably, hunger for certainty of causes drives most statistical error. The false dichotomy used by researchers is a rank, awful mistake to commit in the sense that it is easily avoided. But it isn’t avoided. It is welcomed. And the reason it is welcomed is that this fallacy is a guaranteed generator of research, papers, grants, and so on.

Suppose a standard, out-of-the-box regression model is used to “explain” a “happiness score”, with explanatory variable sex. There will be a parameter in this model tied to sex with a null that the parameter equals 0. Let this be believed. It will then be announced, quite falsely, that “there is no difference between men and women related to this happiness score”, or, worse, “men and women are equally happy.” The latter error compounds the statistical mistake with the preposterous belief that some score can perfectly measure happiness—when all that happened was that a group of people filled out some arbitrary survey. And unless the survey, for instance, were of only one one man and one woman, and the possible faux-quantified scores few, then it is extremely unlikely that men and women in the sample scored equally.

Again, statistics can say nothing about why men and women would score differently or the same. Yet hypothesis testing always loosely implies causes were discovered or dismissed. We should be limited to statements like, “Given the natures of the survey and of the folks questioned, the probability another man scores higher than another woman is 55%” (or whatever number). That 55% may be ignorable or again it may be of great interest. It depends on the uses to which the model are put, and these are different for different people.

Further, statements like these do not as strongly imply that it was some fundamental difference between the sexes that caused the answer. It keeps us honest. Though, given my past experience with statistics, it is likely many will still fixate on the possibility of cause. Why isn’t sex a cause here? Well, it may have been some difference besides sex in the two groups was the cause or causes. Say the men were all surveyed coming out of a bar and the women a mall. Who knows? We don’t. Not if all we are told are the results.

It is the same story if the null is “rejected”. No cause is certain or implied. Yet everyone takes the rejection as proof positive that causation has been dismissed. And this is true, in its way. Some thing or things still caused the observed scores. It’s only that the cause might not have been related to sex.

If the null were accepted we might still say “Given the natures of the survey and of the folks questioned, the probability another man scores higher than another woman is 55%”. And it could be, after gathering a larger sample, we reject the null but that the difference probability is now 51%. The hypothesis test moves from lesser to greater certainty, while the realistic probability moves from greater to lesser. I have often seen this in, particularly in regressions. Variables which were statistically “significant” according to hypothesis tests barely cause the realistic probability needle to nudge, whereas “non-significant” variables can make it swing wildly. That is because hypothesis testing often misleads. This is also well known, for instance in medicine under the name “clinical” versus statistical “significance.”

It may be—and this is a situation not in the least unusual—that the series of “happiness” questions are ad hoc and subject to much dispute, and that the people filling out the survey are a bunch of bored college kids hoping to boost their grades. Then if the result is “Given the natures of the survey and of the folks questioned, the probability another man scores higher than another woman is 50.03%”, the researcher would have to say, “I couldn’t tell much about the difference between men and women in this situation.” This is an admission of failure.

The researcher was hoping—we have to admit it—to find a difference. He did, but it is almost surely trivial. How much better for his career would it be if instead he could say, “Men and women were different, p < 0.001″? A wee p provided freedom to speculate about what caused this difference. It is a good question to you, dear reader, whether the realistic approach as advocated here will be preferred by researchers.

Update Forgot to mention this is a reworked introduction to a section on hypothesis testing in my book. My deadline for finishing it is fast approaching (mid June).

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