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Christian Smith

Evangelicals Behaving Badly with Statistics

Mistakes were made.

American evangelicals, who profess to be committed to Truth, are among the worst abusers of simple descriptive statistics, which claim to represent the truth about reality, of any group I have ever seen. At stake in this misuse are evangelicals' own integrity, credibility with outsiders, and effectiveness in the world. It is an issue worth making a fuss over. And so I write.

By simple descriptive statistics I mean elementary ways of quantifying differences in the world, such as percentages and averages describing distributions and trends in populations. Now, I am not among those who believe that the ability to quantify is the true test of authoritative knowledge. I am not even a quantoid-geek type of sociologist. But I do think that statistics can often usefully represent what is going on in reality. They can help to get at what seems to be true about what is actual. So statistics are well worth doing well and getting right.

Of course statistics are generally well known for their misuse. Anyone can easily twist, misrepresent, and lie with statistics. And it takes a bit of basic knowledge for even well meaning people to avoid common statistical pitfalls. But none of that exempts evangelicals from having to use statistics responsibly. The problem is, they often do not.

Why do evangelicals recurrently abuse statistics? My observation is that they are usually trying desperately to attract attention and raise people's concern in order to mobilize resources and action for some cause. In a world awash in information and burdened by myriad problems, some evangelicals may justify the problematic misuse of statistics to get people to pay attention to what they think are good causes. But this is inexcusable. Such desperation, alarmism, and sloppiness reflect the worst, not the best, in evangelicalism.

Let me here give one specific illustration of the larger problem I am talking about, although examples could be multiplied many times. In a recent issue of American ...

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