Thursday, November 02, 2006

Lies, damn lies, and statistics

I went to a relative's wedding a couple weekends ago. During the Catholic priest's comments to the couple and the folks in the pews, he cited some data that have got to be complete hogwash. He said that 1989 U.S. Census data showed that while half of all marriages end in divorce, the figure drops to 1 in 1,100 when the couple shares the same religious faith.

Oh, really? First off, I don't know that the Census tracks religious beliefs. I don't see any mention of religion in this list of Census topics. And they don't currently count each year's number of marriages and divorces. So the source the priest cites sounds like hooey.

Then there's the issue of the actual data. Just 1 in 1,100 couples who are the same religion get divorced? That's funny. The divorce rate is higher among Baptists than among other religious groups or atheists, per the Barna Research Group's national study. Other research has shown that the South has a higher divorce rate than the rest of the country. Given that many Southerners are Baptists, I suppose that priest would have us believe that all those Southern Baptists getting divorced are the ones married to Jews, Catholics, or Presbyterians—and I highly doubt that's what's going on here.

It's insulting to have a clergyman cite evidence that—while he'd like to believe it's true—sounds highly implausible. The only concession he made was that 1989 data is a little outdated—but he stood by the findings.

I suppose some people believed what he said. These may be the same people who'll tell you about the kids who died—died, I tell you!—because of McDonalds ball-pit horrors like heroin-filled needles ('cause we all know that junkies never empty their syringes, and that they like to leave their syringes and drugs in children's play areas rather than hanging onto them) and poisonous rattlesnakes. (Astonishingly, at Ben's first acting class, another mom encouraged me to sit next to her...and proceeded to tell me both of these urban legends, no matter how assiduously I tried to work on a crossword puzzle instead of listening to her. She even poked me in the arm to regain my attention. And then she concluded by asking, "Can you believe that?" "No," I replied. "No, I can't.")


DoctorMama said...

And you can't even write a letter to the editor.

How could he possibly believe that number? Reminds me of the lecture we got in medical school about eating disorders where the lecturer said that 100,000 women die of eating disorders every year in the U.S. Turned out to be a complete misreading of prevalence data, but the thing that really got me was how many students just accepted it without more than a "wow." I mean, come on, people -- the streets would be littered with their bony corpses!

luolin said...

Well, if the Catholics get annulments instead of divorces (like one of my cousins), how does the census count it? In that case, I suppose, all of the 1100 would be spouses who shared non-Catholic faiths.

Sorry, I'm trying to work and getting silly instead.

Mignon said...

luolin, that was brilliant!

This summer I went to a wedding where the priest equated marriage to tape - "not just, like Scotch tape, or something, but, like, Duct Tape! With the sticky sides stuck together!" And then later went on to revise his analogy, "Or you could say it's like Super Glue! Very Sticky!" I kept looking back at Jim, playing with Quinn in the back of the church, and he forcefully shook his head at me, knowing full well I was about to guffaw in a very undignified fashion.

meno said...

I might have believed it if he said that one in every 2.5 marriages fail when the partners are of the same religion, but not 1 in 1,100. If you are going to use statistics that aren't true, you shoudl at least try and make them sound reasonable.
luolin, great point.

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