Friday, November 27, 2015

"Lies, damned lies, and statistics." | "You are what you share."

Mark Twain popularized the first aphorism, but attributed it to Benjamin Disraeli. The second is from Charles Leadbetter.

I've been pondering them while reading a bit of sociology this week. Robert Wuthnow's Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and a Tenuous Question for a Nation's Fate, is a narrative I've been anticipating for quite some time, and there's nobody better to write it. Essentially, statistics on religion have been affected by two major trends. First, most statistical analysis is based on very, very small data sets, and is really statistical data about the people willing to respond to polls and surveys.

As a result, many of the nation's top and most respected polls vary widely from year to year. They're presented as science, as fact, solid and undeniable. The truth is more complicated.

In an era of dramatically declining polling response rates, polls that gather qualitative rather than quantitative data are better.  Yet we tend, in much of our public conversations, to prefer quantitative to qualitative data.

More importantly, often these polls are biased, presenting data that skews things in the direction the pollsters were already anticipating. In this sense, many polls are self-fulfilling prophecies. Again, it depends on the poll, but by and large, it's probably the case that polls create the world they measure, at least to a degree.

In religious polling, perhaps the least biased large data set is from Pew. After that, Gallup. The Barna Group is pretty questionable. And so on. For an excellent review of Wuthnow's book, read The Meaning of Life in One Amazing Chart.

The other book I've been reading is Joseph Baker and Buster Smith's American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems.  Baker and Smith are attempting to do what is seldom done in sociology--understanding the social phenomena of secularism as it is, for what it is. "To move beyond a binary classification [of secular and religion] requires the consideration of multiple dimensions of secularity and religiosity" (14).

About a third of the way into the book, they offer this remarkable description of media and change:
 While it is hypothetically possible for media consumption alone to lead to identity change, it is highly unlikely to do so absent interpersonal interaction. Social networks remain the key determinant of 'conversion' and role exit. People are inspired to change their identities based on interactions with others whose views they value rather than by encountering another position in mediated form. Disembodied appeals made through media alone are not effective tools for identity change, but mediated communication plays a critical, supplemental role in identity maintenance and change. Once a self-identity is in place, people consume mediated communication that reinforces, supports, or extends their views of the world. Consumption is identity maintenance in practice. (40)
Just so.

So what are we supposed to do? The statistics we read in ever-new reports from the polls are far less reliable than we assume, and all the sharing we do of all these articles and reports does very little to effect real change in the world. Should we give up, and join REI on a big group hike in the outdoors?

Well, in fact, yes, we should do that.

But then back to the data, and social media, it remains to be seen whether polls and statistics are completely useless, and it remains to be seen what social media sharing actually effects.

"If people define their situations as real, they are real in their consequences." (W.I. Thomas) Much the same could be said of our reading of polling data.

For example, some of the biggest movements in recent history have happened primarily via social media.

And many global young people, when asked, consider social media to be essential to real social change.

I believe, on the issue of polls and statistics, that awareness is half the battle. We need not abandon them altogether, but we certainly should consume them in smaller doses, and with greater moderation. And the cutting edge of sociology is precisely in what Wuthnow encourages--qualitative study, and perhaps also in ethnography.

Similarly, on social sharing and social change, I know that I need to consider more carefully the supplemental nature of mediated communication in identity maintenance and change. Mediated communication can quickly devolve into an echo-chamber of the likeminded. It's important to cultivate relationships with others in such a way that we end up valuing one another's views, because then we might actually change, together.

Then it's important not to forget that this focus on relationships is not at the expense of mediated communication. Instead, the ambient intimacy of media sharing can facilitate and continue and develop the real interpersonal communication we carry on with each other.

In other words, there's no replacement for getting to know one another. You can't know atheists based on polls. To know an atheist, you need to know an atheist. Your view of Syrian refugees won't change based on a Huffington Post article. It will change if you get to know and love a neighbor who is Syrian and whose loved ones still live in country or are currently in flight from their home country.

You will not hear the voices of African-Americans better because there is Black Twitter, but a real relationship with somebody of another race will help you code switch and read the communication of Black Twitter in more sympathetic and productive ways.

All of this being said, for all I know I'm contributing little if anything that is new when I share stuff on social media. Perhaps in sharing, I keep hoping what I share will change things, make a difference. But it's true"That my own contribution was simply a product of the Zeitgeist I have never pretended to question." (Lester Frank Ward) 

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