04 December 2011

A disappointing study, disappointingly reported

I'm upset about a recent study at UBC that suggests atheists are distrusted about as much as rapists.  I'm even more upset about the weak journalism that went into reporting it at CTV.

The study is upsetting because it is weak.  They surveyed 351 Americans between the ages of 18 and 82.

Americans?  It's a Canadian study, presumably funded by Canadian research dollars.  Considering how rampant both fundamental religion and ignorance are in the USA, asking an American about atheists would be like asking Anne Frank about Nazis.  There are wild extremes of "opinion" in the USA, ranging from Rick Perry on the irrational end of the spectrum to Sam Harris on the rational end.  A sample size of 351 is probably just large enough to demonstrate how under-sized your sample size really is.

Why Americans?  Was it because der Führer Stephen Harper - a born-again nut-job himself - has made it clear that this sort of research is unacceptable in Canada?

Also, the age range is troubling.  Polls are clear that they young people are not into religion anywhere near as much as the older generations. (Google can point you at various sources on this.)  So by conflating the age groups - and not being clear on how many in the sample were from specific age sub-groups - there seems to be a distinct possibility that trends found in the data are not representative of the general population.

The study's authors also polled over 400 UBC students.  Oh, so now Canadians are good enough?  Furthermore, what do you expect to find out from students, except the depths of their ignorance and naivety?  Doesn't anyone think that there might be differences between students at UBC and students at some other school?

As if these issues were not troubling, CTV gets its hands on the story and pronounces its headline as if it were a new law of thermodynamics: "Atheists roughly as distrusted as rapists, UBC study finds."  CTV is clearly trying to suggest that the whole world's behaviour can be intuited from 351 Americans and 400+ Canadian students from one university.  Nor does CTV raise any of the issues I have here, thus lending tacit support to the study.

Now, don't get me wrong - discrimination against atheists is sick and disgusting.  But this research, and how it's been reported by CTV, isn't helping at all.

Of course, I may have some or all of this wrong, so I invite corrections.

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