The Dark Art of Statistical Analysis – an Opinion

Last night, while browsing around the internet — I am on the road in Arkansas, back at my father’s house to move furniture and other heavy items that I wish to keep — I ran across an article on CNN proclaiming Christianity and Islam as the fastest growing religions in the world today. As I read through the article, I realized that there seemed to be a bit of a bias to either the study or the article. The article mostly speaks about the “big five” — Christianity, Muslim, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. There’s a nod to “Unaffiliated” beliefs, but that’s where it stops.

As I read through it, I started to get upset. How can Paganism, admittedly an amalgamation of many beliefs, not be included? ‘How unfair!’ – my mind kept crying out. And I started to write a scathing, very critical rant about this entire issue. And eventually, I grew tired enough to get to sleep, so I left the blog post unfinished. This morning, as I came back to my computer, and had a fresh cup of coffee in my hand, I sat and mulled my point. Watching the squirrels moving around in the forested area behind the town-home that we are renting — my mindset began to change, and I scraped that blog post in favor of this one.

Am I upset about the exclusion of the smaller faiths from the article, and possibly even the data study itself? Sure I am. I get just as upset when I hand data over to other departments at my job, only to watch them come to a very different conclusion than I had when pulling and compiling the data. But I also don’t have their agenda in my mind when I am looking at those numbers. In my position, I am supposed to be the Switzerland of the environment – always neutral. I can’t decry what the writer of the article says, nor can I proclaim the data study that was compiled to be completely inaccurate either. If I had access to the data utilized for the study, I might possibly come to the very same conclusions. I would actually need access to the raw data inputs that were utilized, as well as the explanations of what data inputs were discarded from the study, and why.

To be honest, data analysis is an art form. A dying one at that. It is easy to manipulate results to showcase or assist in the underlying definition of a previously stated conclusion. As a song lyric I vaguely recall once stated: “Give me facts and figures, and I can make them say anything you like” — or something like that. The hard part is taking those facts and figures and letting it tell the story it has. Even when it completely destroys the entire thesis of what you were trying to prove. But that’s not what happens in today’s society. Not one bit…

Somewhere down the line – my assumption would be that it happened somewhere between the late 1980s and the early 2000s – businesses realized that statistics could be manipulated in ways to get consumers to believe a particular way. I am sure its been done in various ways throughout History — its far too easy to do — but I believe the wholesale corruption of statistical analysis took place somewhere in there. And purely for the benefit of capturing the consumer dollar. Do I have proof? Hardly. Only a semi-educated guess. But I have seen many data studies, where data has been thrown out for being “outside of the statistical means”. In other words, the outliers have been removed from the equation, so as to smooth the data results. For those that may not remember their bell curve mathematics, outliers are those data points that fall outside of the primary population that is being studied. And in the case of the CNN article, I would posit that non-mainstream faiths and their current, as well as their new adherents, are considered to be outliers for this study.

What does it mean? Nothing much, really. Unless you take this particular study as empirical data, and its conclusions as concrete fact. Then, there’s a problem. But…to be perfectly blunt and honest, no one really cares about that. No one is going to dig into the particulars of a study to see where the source data came from, as well as what data was removed as being “inconsistent” or “skewed” — or even an explanation on the “whys” of this. And thus, statistical analysis remains a “dark art” — not one cloaked in evil, just one shrouded in the darkness of a forgotten corner.

ADDITIONAL

As I read through parts of the PEW Report, I discovered that the bias is not in the report, but rather in the CNN article itself. Paganism seems to be lumped into the “Folk Religions” area, or possible the “Other Religions” part of the study. It will certainly be interesting to read, at least for me.

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