Some people who really ought to know better—but don’t—reported on the peer-reviewed paper “Divergent Effects of Beliefs in Heaven and Hell on National Crime Rates” by Azim F. Shariff and Mijke Rhemtulla and have concluded two contradictory findings.
- Belief in Heaven raises the crime rate
- Belief in Hell lowers the crime rate
The authors put it thusly: “Supernatural benevolence…may actually be associated with less prosocial behavior.” They say their findings “raise important questions about the potential impact of religious beliefs on global crime.”
Even so once an august news agency as CBS (which gave us today’s headline) reports “Believing if you are on a ‘highway to hell’ could impact whether or not if you commit a crime.” This matches the breathless coverage in many other places, proving once more that statistics should not be practiced without a license. Here’s what happened.
Our stalwart statistician want-to-bes took data from 1981-1984, a time long ago, a time when the Berlin Wall still held back the throngs of Westerners seeking to join the East German socialist paradise, and then they took more data from 1990-1993, and then again from 1994-199, and then still more from 1994-1999, and, would you know it?, still more from 1999-20004, and finally, not satisfied with all that, more data from 2005-2007.
The “data” consisted of answers from the World Values Surveys and European Value Surveys (different surveys, as in different). Citizens in 67 countries were asked questions on religious beliefs and other matters, such as their very own personal “Big Five Inventory of personality differences.” Only it wasn’t 67 countries. Sometimes it was 56 countries, others times 48, and yet other times 46, and then 51, 48, 47, 43, and even a lowly 39. Obviously—and the authors must agree, since they remain mute on this subject—nothing could have changed in these beliefs, not in nature or proportion, from 1981 to 2007.
They asked citizens Do you believe, yes or no, in “Heaven,” “Hell,” and “God.” They asked how many times do you attend religious services. They computed murder rates, robbery rates, and rape rates (in France in honor of film artist Roman Polanski, this was presumably modified to rape-rape rates). They even looked at car theft rates and human trafficking rates. No word on whether these measured rates matched the same years as the demographic data (I’d guess not).
And then they, yes, computed a “weighted average” for each of all these variables—even the variables “conscientiousness, agreeableness and neuroticism”—for each country.
And then? Then the real magic. All of these strange “variables were entered into a series of linear regression equations, with each crime regressed on beliefs in heaven and hell as well as all covariates.”
You know what’s coming next, dear reader. You know the thrills that await. For you, loyal visitor, know better than others the excitement that comes with tables filled with numbers with asterisks. For those asterisks lead to footnotes, and in those footnotes are found the joy of the small p-value, and in wee p-values are found promotions, glory, and honor.
To test the theories attested to above, regression models were used. Now the regression coefficient (see below if you don’t understand these metaphysical creations) between belief in Heaven and assault rate is 1.7, a number given not just one, not a mere two, but three whole asterisks! But don’t claim triumph yet, because the regression coefficient between belief in Hell and assault rate is -1.7, which also has three asterisks.
Steady on, dear one. Because if my math is right, this means the model coefficient adjustment for somebody who believes in both Heaven and Hell (which are most people who believe in either) is 1.7 – 1.7 = 0. Never mind, never mind. It’s the wee p-values that count. At least as far as publishing articles goes.
Yet there’s something screwy in my analysis, because let’s recall. This isn’t an individual’s belief in Heaven or Hell: it’s a nation’s (sort-of) weighted average of belief versus a nation’s (sort-of) weighted average crime rate. Yet this doesn’t stop our authors from writing: “Belief in hell predicted lower [overall] crime rates [coefficient -1.9, p < .001], whereas belief in heaven predicted higher crime rates [coefficient 1.9, p < .001].”
Which is still a wash if, as if very likely, the weighted (sort-of) average of Heaven believers equals the weighted (sort-of) average of Hell believers inside a country. The reason I’m probably right about this is found in their Table 1: all the positive coefficients of Heaven belief are matched by more or less equal negatives coefficients for Hell belief. Even worse for our authors’ theory, nearly all of these coefficients are similarly sized, and this is so even after “adjusting” for covariates like “Urbanicity” and “Life expectancy.”
Am I right? Gallup in 2004 reports that about 80% of Americans believe in Heaven and 70% in Hell. (The USA wasn’t in this data, of course.) And this site shows that belief in Heaven and Hell is, as we thought, nearly the same in a wide variety of countries. Significantly, it is nowhere wildly disparate.
Now a regression is a model of the central parameter of a normal distribution (ND), a distribution which is used to quantify uncertainty in some thing, like crime rate. We can write their unadjusted model like this (stick with me):
central parameter ND for crime rate = b0 + b1Heaven + b2Hell
where we substitute in a nation’s (sort-of) weighted average of Heaven and Hell belief. If b1 = b2, as the estimates do in this paper, and if Heaven and Hell percentages are equal, as they are in most places, then the equations simplifies to
central parameter ND for crime rate = b0
where b0 is just some number which is of no interest to anybody.
You cannot just examine b1 alone or b2 alone: you must look at both simultaneously. The entire study is thus a wash, nearly certainly a figment of (unconscious) data manipulation. Ignoring all the other ways the study goes wrong (mixing years wantonly, etc.), what would prove me mistaken is if the (sort-of) weighted averages beliefs in Heaven and Hell were not about the same, but were everywhere (or in most places) different. That is not likely, as we have seen.
And that’s just the misinterpreted statistics. Don’t get me started on discussions like this one given by the authors in defense of their theory:
Divine punishment, on the other hand, has emerged as a cultural tool to overcome a number of those limitations. Unlike humans, divine punishers can be omniscient, omnipotent, infallible, and untouchable-and therefore able to effectively deter transgressors who may for whatever reason be undeterred by earthly policing systems.
Thanks to Mike Flynn who suggested this (depressing) topic.