Statistics Don’t Lie, But Liars Use Statistics

From Joel McDurmon’s book Biblical Logic in Theory and Practice in reference to the logical fallacy of Cum Hoc Propter Hoc (“With this, because of this”).

[That is, merely because two events happen at the same time, does not mean that there is a logical or casual link between them.

Note: footnotes deleted: get the book if you are interested in the nitty-gritty.]

In his book Letter to a Christian Nation, atheist Sam Harris cites statistical studies in order to popularize the following correlation:

The United States is unique among wealthy democracies in its level of religious adherence; it is also uniquely beleaguered by high rates of homicide, abortion, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease, and infant mortality.

Sam bases his claim on a scholarly study done in 2005 which many atheists have since used to attack religion. The study itself explicitly admitted that merely correlated events do not prove causality: “because potential causal factors for rates of societal function are complex … it is not the purpose of this initial study to definitively demonstrate a causal link between religion and social conditions.” Sam himself carefully avoids claiming causation, though he wryly suggests that some causal link must exist: “Of course, correlational data of this sort do not resolve questions of causality—belief in God may lead to societal dysfunction; societal dysfunction may foster a belief in God; each factor may enable the other; or both may spring from some deeper source of mischief.”

And that is how sophisticated people lie.

All of this said, however, at least one journalist completely ignored Sam’s carefully calyptopygian rhetoric and swallowed his hint in all its deceptiveness.

She bluntly announced the stats in as classically fallacious form as possible: “Religious belief can cause damage to a society, contributing towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide, according to research published today.” The allegation of a direct cause between religious belief and societal dysfunction overtly commits the fallacy of With This Because of This. Just because a scholar can present the two phenomena side-by-side in no way implies a causal link between them. Many factors exist—some we may not even know of—which could explain if and why the two things currently appear together. Even if we could nd no other factors (though we do, as you will see momentarily), this would still not justify the journalist’s claim (or Sam’s suggestion of it) simply based on the phenomena of religion and crime occurring in society at the same time.

One has a suspicion that the enemies of God are far more interested in convincing the crowd (and thus gaining power) than actually being right or wrong. Assuming that they even believe in such things, outside of the definition of “False = challenging the Right Sort, True = supporting the Right Sort.”

Despite anticipating that many would draw and promulgate this illogical conclusion based on his work, Sam goes on to present many similar statistics together, all claiming a correlation between religion and high crime rates, and thus suggesting a causal link to the reader. In order to do this Sam references the famous election map of “red” (Republican) and “blue” (Democratic) states (made famous by the 2000 presidential election, and used since). He compares the colors of relevant states with lists of cities ranked for high crime levels, and then reports that the conservative (and thus assumedly more “Christian”) red states contain more high-crime cities than do blue (more secularist) states. The data do seem to back Sam’s main conclusion that “widespread belief in God does not ensure a society’s health.”

It does not take much investigation, however, to expose the weaknesses of these “correlational” claims. In fact, a professor of physics at Michigan University who specializes in “complex systems” has provided very helpful analyses of the election maps to which Sam refers. The more detailed studies reveal a striking feature that Sam leaves out. When observed at the more detailed level of individual counties within the states, in almost every case of a high-crime city in a red state, that city’s county itself was blue. This holds true for most large cities in general—they almost all appear in blue counties, indicating that secularist thought predominates in urban areas. Only two obvious exceptions—Dallas and Houston—out of dozens appear. Even in those two cases, though, further maps modified for percent- ages of partisan voting showed their respective counties much closer to blue than the surrounding jurisdictions. In other words, those two particular counties had a majority of conservatives, but leaned more strongly toward secularism than other red counties.

This fact correlates directly to the level of crime reported in each state, and yet does not comport with Sam’s correlation of Christian conservatism with crime. The vast majority of the crime in these red states (in all states, actually) occurs in the metropolitan areas where secularist thought prevails and Christian conservatism forms a minority. In further support of this, FBI statistics show that for all types of violent crime, without exception, rural areas have much lower rates than metropolitan or urban areas. And this means that centers of secular thought and liberal politics correspond to high crime rates, even when these cities fall within the state-lines of red states. Anyone who looks beyond the surface appearances that Sam identifies will therefore see the fallacy of his presentation of the statistics.

In summary, then, it appears that the statistics belie Sam’s suggestion. In areas where conservative Christians have “overwhelming political influence,” crimes rates tend to be much lower. These facts show how many factors go into determining causes. Discerning these factors requires careful and tenacious study. In this case, Sam’s focus on large geographical boundaries hides other realities which turn out to be more detailed and complex, and yet crucially important. Careful and disciplined students will not draw—let alone publish—such claims before they first look for all the data.

Note that to uncover the truth, McDurmond has to think carefully and logically and connect with research that work the numbers.

Christians would be wise to get familiar with science, with logic, with research with a high level of integrity.

This is not only necessary to gain a genuine understanding of the world, and to so gain dominion over it. It’s also needed because our Secularist Overlords are increasingly uninterested in actual insights into the actual universe, and are far more interested in making powerful friends and building political power (and so, guarantee a nice salary and flow of grant money.)

The cosmos and creation is waiting for Christians to once again commit to expanding Christ’s Kingdom of truth and justice, liberty and law, over the entire earth, and over all our intellectual and economic and religious endeavors.

Let’s not disappoint out Creator.

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