TIA Tuesday: More “fun” with statistics.

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone and seen them change their minds about something right in the middle of explaining it to you? If you have, then you might experience a bit of déjà vu when you read the following from Vox Day’s discussion of Sam Harris’ Red State/Blue State argument. See if you can tell how Vox’s attitude changes between the first excerpt, from page 115ff of TIA, and the second from just four pages later:

There are several layers of problems with this apparent proof of Christian immorality. The first is that political identity is a very poor substitute for religiosity… [I]t is absurd to credit all of the supposedly law-abiding behavior of “blue” voters to the 16 percent of them who lack religious faith…. If this isn’t sufficient evidence of the foolishness of trying to equate Democratic votes with atheism, the ARIS 2001 survey reported a higher percentage of Democrats among Jews, Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, Pentecostals, Episcopalians, Buddhists, and Muslims than among the not religious, of whom only 30 percent reported a preference for the Democratic Party…. So while the data may be striking, the argument based upon it can only be described as strikingly stupid.

and

What is much more important is the way in which using the more accurate county data demonstrates that Harris’s conclusions are precisely backward. Thirteen of the twenty-five safest cities are situated in RED counties and twenty-one of the twenty-five most dangerous cities are located in BLUE counties. This provides precisely the information that Harris claimed to have sought in vain, it is definitive proof that the social health of Red America is significantly superior to that of Blue America by Harris’s own chosen measure.

Did you catch that? On page 115 and following, Harris’ technique for correlating social health with Christian conservativism is “strikingly stupid.” Yet just four pages later, it’s a “definitive proof” (and not just “a sign,” as Harris called it). What made Vox change his mind so completely? Simple: he found a way to make the voting record say something that he wanted it to say.

Let’s get one thing clear right from the start: as seductive as it might seem to those who think it supports their side, the Red State/Blue State argument is utterly bogus. As Vox correctly observes (before realizing it could be used to support his own claims), it’s wrong on so many levels it’s hard to know where to begin. Vox already pointed out the non-equivalence between Republicans and Christians, and between Democrats and atheists. Add to that the influence of 9/11, and the fact that many of those who voted “red” were not even Republicans, plus the dirty tricks of the Swift Boat Veterans for “Truth,” and it’s doubtful that the 2004 results are even a reliable indicator of the actual liberal/conservative ratio, let alone anyone’s religious affiliation.

Likewise, Vox has pointed out the non-equivalence between the population of those who were voters in the 2004 election, and those who committed the crimes that were tallied in the 2005 statistics. He could also have mentioned (though he didn’t) that the Red State/Blue State argument completely fails to take into account other, more significant variables like population density, unemployment, poverty levels, education, social involvement of Christians vs. non-Christians, and so on. This is not to say that it would be impossible to investigate the statistically-relevant variables looking for a positive or negative correlation between “conservative Christianity” (whatever that is) and social metrics like crime rates, divorces, teen pregnancies, and so on. But if anyone ever does do such a study, it won’t be a matter of merely counting the colored polygons on the CNN map of election results.

Vox seems to have been under no illusion that Red State/Blue State was anything but a thoroughly bogus metric, at least when it was being used to deny a correlation between Christianity and social health. He even seems to have held onto that idea as he moves into the “devil’s advocate” portion of his rebuttal.

But just for kicks, let’s pretend that it is not a measure so ridiculously inaccurate as to be completely useless. Let’s imagine that Harris’s metric really is relevant, that an American voter’s 2004 presidential vote truly is indicative of his religious faith, or the lack thereof, and that statewide criminal statistics are a reasonable measure of an individual’s predilection for immoral behavior. This exercise in imagination is necessary, in fact, because only by accepting his measure at face value and examining it in detail can one fully grasp the true depth of Harris’s exceptional incompetence.

The irony here is absolutely delicious: according to Vox, the true depth of Harris’ incompetence is demonstrated by the fact that his methods lead to the conclusion that conservative Christianity promotes good social health! Talk about your shooting yourself in the foot! He starts by setting out to prove that Harris’ method leads to brain-dead conclusions, and ends by showing that the brain-dead conclusion is, in fact, an oft-repeated Christian claim.

Of course, Vox might be tempted to reply that Harris did indeed create a valid measure, and was incompetent only in applying it to the wrong set of figures. But if that were the case, why did Vox begin by (correctly) pointing out that the method is “a measure so ridiculously inaccurate as to be completely useless”? By trying to have his cake and eat it too, Vox ends up ridiculing the myth that Christian influence is a benefit to society as a whole.

I rather doubt that Vox intended to build such an incongruous case against conservative Christianity, and I think that what may have happened is that Vox began his argument with every intention of constructing a classic reductio ad absurdum, and gradually found himself seduced by the results he started getting when he used a different set of numbers. Instead of the intended “absurd” conclusion, he was getting an argument in favor of Christian conservativism, at which point he suddenly stopped mentioning the flaws in the method, and started crowing about the “definitive proof” of the results instead.

And to put the icing on the cake, Vox goes on to accuse Sam Harris of intellectual dishonesty, on the grounds that he should have known about the figures Vox cited in building his own “proof.” Not that he necessarily did know, but that he should have known. Vox has only just finished building a “definitive proof” of the benefits of Christian influence, using a method that he knows is bogus and that he explicitly said was completely useless, and now he’s going to accuse Harris of being intellectually dishonest. Call it what you will, that’s high-grade chutzpah.

Then again, I could be mistaken. Vox has promised to respond to this series as soon as I’m done with it. Let’s see if he does indeed publicly acknowledge that his version of the Red State/Blue State argument is at least as bogus and dishonest as he accuses Harris’ version of being. Anyone want to lay the odds?

 
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Posted in Society, TIA, Unapologetics. 6 Comments »

6 Responses to “TIA Tuesday: More “fun” with statistics.”

  1. jorgaba Says:

    hmm…I think Vox may be on OK ground here. To me, he seems only to be saying that Harris’ conclusions are backward given the measure he uses. I don’t see where Vox is actually saying the red/blue state measure is valid…only that, even if it were valid, Harris should have drawn the opposite conclusion.

    So now we’ll look for Vox to clearly state in his forthcoming review that, yes indeed, the red/blue state measure is invalid regardless of the conclusion.

  2. Deacon Duncan Says:

    That’s the defense I’d raise if I were Vox, but we’ll see. I think that was certainly his original intention, but by the end of his argument he’s using pretty triumphal language to describe the conclusion that Christianity promotes social health. Can he resist the temptation to use this as an argument supporting religion? And more importantly, will his conservative readers recognize the argument as bogus, or will they thank Vox for “proving” the value of Christianity?

  3. Deacon Duncan Says:

    Vox (and some of his friends) have commented about the above post, and even some of those who liked it are saying that I missed Vox’s point. Amazingly, nobody seems to have noticed that I pointed out repeatedly that Vox did indeed begin by calling Harris’ metric “bogus.” Oh well. I also said Vox was right about the flaws in the Red State argument, but he calls me “dimwitted” anyway. This guy cracks me up! I know he doesn’t intend these little double entendres, but they still strike me funny.

    In any case, my point in the above post was to document the shift in language. Maybe he does acknowledge that RS/BS is a bogus argument if you press him on the point, but he definitely set up a good quote that seems to say Christianity benefits society. Yes, elsewhere he calls it a stupid and useless metric, but those disclaimers are conspicuously absent from the paragraph that talks about “proving” that red states have less crime. I’m still waiting to see Vox say something that explicitly identifies the pro-Christian conclusion with the disclaimer that it’s a bogus result.

  4. Deacon Duncan Says:

    I’ve had a request from an anonymous reader to post the following comments, so here they are:

    A couple of points.

    Vox claims that being an agnostic is perfectly reasonable (p. 23) but

    he’s a little less charitable towards atheists (p. 17):

    Agnostic: I don’t believe there is a God. Because I haven’t seen the

    evidence.

    Atheist: There is no God. Because I’m an asshole.

    The author identifies himself as a Christian, so presumably

    Christianity is another reasonable position on this issue.

    So, let’s recap. When presented with a question (“Does God exist?”)

    that cannot be answered with absolute certainty, it is unreasonable to

    assert that “no” is more likely the correct answer. But it is,

    however, perfectly reasonable to answer the unanswerable question with

    a firm “yes”, and in fact to go further by selecting the particular

    religion that must be the correct form of the “yes” answer. Glad

    we’ve cleared that up.

    The inconsistency goes a little deeper. The author points out that

    Dawkins rates himself as a 6 out of 7 on a hypothetical atheism

    scale. But rather than concede that by his own logic that this is a

    reasonable position to take, on pages 11 and 12 he basically mocks

    Dawkins for being insufficiently committed to atheism.

    And the second point. On page 38 the author refers to “the New

    Atheists’ stated desire to destroy religion”. Wow. It’s one thing to

    be unhappy about religion, but to go so far as to state a desire to

    destroy religion?! Why the nerve of those atheists!

    Ah, but of course the author doesn’t provide a quote, a footnote, or a

    citation where we can confirm for ourselves this “stated desire” from

    any of the New Atheists. For a guy who has written a 305 page book

    with countless footnotes attempting to eviscerate the New Atheists,

    surely he can bother to identify precisely where each of the New

    Atheists has actually stated this “stated desire?” Surely on such a

    basic point as this he can’t be simply fabricating a caricature, can

    he? Oh, of course we all know he can and does.

    I’ve had enough. Reading this book doesn’t merit any more of my time.

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