When Data Go Bad

Imagine if some evangelical social scientists set out 20 years ago to document how the children of “Christian” parents fare in life, and began the task by gathering a small sample of children even before they were born by recruiting married parents who attended Sunday School classes at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, the Wheaton Bible Church outside Chicago, and Saddleback Community Church in Orange County, California—all located in prosperous communities exhibiting above-average social support of families, children, and faith. And then these scholars interviewed and re-interviewed the parents—and later the kids themselves—off and on for 20 years, and called it the National Christian Family Study. Their findings were published in peer-reviewed social science journals with a good deal of regularity over the years, and were utilized by political and social movements to improve public perception of (all) Christian parents. The news media regularly run stories on this study and its updated findings. Occasionally those studies included a comparison sample of other parents and kids, pulled from other small datasets collected by other people, and an occasional comparison with nationally-representative data from large studies like the National Survey of Family Growth. The evangelical kids compared favorably. Year after year the kids are re-interviewed, regardless of their awareness of the media attention cast upon them—including cover stories in Christian magazines—and the obvious utility of the findings for the movement to enhance respect for Christians, especially evangelicals.

Would the social scientific community consider this study a solid one, employing high-quality sample selection methods and useful both for understanding the experience of Christian households in America and for comparing this group of children with those in other studies? Unlikely. Seriously unlikely. And I would concur.

Well, this is what’s happened in the social science of family, except the study wasn’t about evangelical parents and their children. Read about it here.

Before you presume I’m on the war path here, think again. Quality sampling yielding valid, reliable data is not threatening. It is what is: good information, subject to invariable limitations. I just want to see the social scientific study of children and families more rooted in good data in which we can have confidence. I’m not alone. Despite a summer of abuse, however, I continue to hold that accurate information on politicized topics is important to collect, even though it may not reveal what the conventional wisdom would suggest or what elites–including very many social scientists–wish to hear. So be it.

Democrats: Losing their Religion

It’s election week, and we’re inundated with polls, predictions, and predilections, so I’ll keep this short. While I was crunching NFSS data for an unrelated set of analyses, I stopped to dwell on an interesting survey question on perceived change in religiousness. We asked the 2,988 respondents:

Compared to today, were you more or less active in organized religion when you were growing up?

Given that we’re talking to 18-39-year-olds, and that young adulthood can often exhibit a notable decline in religiousness—something I’ve written about more extensively here and here—and that former US senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum misinterpreted here, it’s of course not at all surprising to see that most respondents said they were less active in organized religion now than when they were growing up. Fully 53 percent said that, whereas 34 percent said they were “about the same” and 13 percent reported being “more active” than when they were younger. But what aggravates these numbers in either direction?

My first guess is that age and marriage are apt to boost religiosity in some who had been flagging, while sexual “deviance” (from religious expectations about it) can cause it to lag some. Keep in mind, of course, that the question begs an unknown answer about just how religious respondents were when they were “growing up,” so a “more active” or a “less active” response is connected to a level known to them, but not to us. So be it. It’s still illuminating: only 8 percent of the youngest group (18-23-year-olds) reported becoming more religiously active, compared with 13 and 18 percent of the older two groups (24-32 and 33-39-year-olds, respectively). Makes sense.

Both married and divorced respondents reported comparable levels of growing religiousness, at 18-19 percent, while 63 percent of cohabiters said they had become less religious.

The most dramatic shifts, however, appear around personal politics. Political affiliation—a one measure, 1-5 scale of just how politically conservative or liberal our respondents consider themselves—takes the cake for shifting the bar on perceived growth or decline in organized religious involvement. Only 23 percent of respondents who said they were “very conservative” politically reported being less active in organized religion today, while 31 percent said they were more active than as a youth. Keep in mind that’s compared with 53 and 13 percent of the total population, respectively.

It’s a linear association, too: 48 percent of just plain “conservative” respondents reported being less active religiously, compared with 52 percent of moderates, 62 percent of those who said they were “liberal” and 76 percent of those who self-identified as “very liberal.” That’s quite a span–from 23 percent (among the most conservative) to 76 percent (among the most liberal).

The Democrats truly are losing their religion. Or perhaps these are persons who lost their religion and then decided the Democratic Party seemed most in line with their sentiments. There is probably plenty of both types.

This is not new news, I know. See here. But it’s heartwarming and confirming to me to see the NFSS data continue to make rational sense in so many domains of research questions, even while critics remain convinced that I got the basic story wrong in the July Social Science Research article on the adult children of parents who’ve had same-sex relationships. (I didn’t.)

Happy voting…



Is Massive Job Creation Likely?

While the third and final presidential debate focused on foreign policy, it was notable that even there—if my memory serves me—the answers offered regularly managed to find their way back to domestic economic policies. Unemployment and job creation have played a central role in this campaign.

But is it just me, or does anyone else wonder whether the information-based economy that is ours today simply cannot sustain the sort of job-creation demands we are placing upon it? Talk of creating 12 million private-sector jobs—or even 6 or 4 million—ought to give us pause, not because it’s not possible, but because it might be quite improbable, regardless of who’s in the Oval Office (or in Congress, for that matter).

As sociologist James Hunter astutely points out in his book To Change the World, much of what drives and sustains the economy and so much of what it sells today is knowledge, information, images, symbols, and entertainment. According to the NFSS, one in three young adults—a significant group of consumers—spends more than an hour a day on social networking sites like Facebook. (I suspect that may quickly become an undercount.) That’s a ton of person-hours spent on something that’s delivered for free from a company that has less than 4,000 employees. By contrast, Ford still has 164,000 employees worldwide, but reported 300,000 a mere six years ago. Shell, the second-largest corporation behind Wal-Mart, only employs 97,000 people worldwide, compared to the 2.1 million that work for Wal-Mart. (And we all know how much Wal-Mart pays…)

The expansion of the State that we have witnessed is perhaps not due directly or even primarily to the heightened influence of decision-makers who wish for a more centralized State-shaped economy, but due to the State’s historically-stable role in the production of knowledge and information. In other words, when we made material objects with manual and skilled labor, the State’s role was less pivotal or obvious. (Think regulatory.) But in an economy like ours that privileges things like the health care industry, information technology, and social media—basically the creation and application of knowledge—the State has been and will likely continue to be more involved. We have countless state universities, training the software engineers and physician’s assistants of tomorrow. We have NIH grants to improve health (whether they genuinely accomplish this is not obvious), and NCI grants to combat cancer. We have a large population of aging persons, courtesy of the baby boom and improved ability to sustain (their) life, and hence the emphasis on health care delivery. Over a billion people have a Facebook account, and many use it daily. In other words, our economy is reliant on technologies (and their development) that require more and more knowledge—and hence historically greater State involvement—but fewer and fewer people. Of course we have unemployment issues. It should surprise us that unemployment isn’t notably higher than it is.

Add to this our expectations that if persons wish to be employed, they ought to be so. This seems comparatively new in human societies. Fewer women were consistently in the full-time labor force as recently as a couple generations ago. Now they are, and we generally encourage everyone to consider what they “want to do with their life,” by which we tend to mean careers in the paid labor-force. (When is the last time you heard a college student state they intend to graduate, marry, and then become a full-time, stay-at-home parent? I cannot recall one.) We expect everyone to seek work. In the past, we did not. The voluntary sector has given way to the demand for paid non-profit sector jobs. So we’re quite possibly trying to cram more people into the paid labor force than ever before, at a time when the sort of economy we have requires fewer and fewer people.

I’m not sure it’ll fly. I just don’t see how we in the West will witness an economy of the sort wherein nearly all of the people who wish to find paid, full-time work can do so. It’s not that kind of world. Of course there are partisan ideas about how best to help alleviate unemployment and foster better jobs—from tariffs to ease of access to education to unionization to stimulating lending. I get it, and some of these strategies could very well work.

But shouldn’t admitting the blunt truth about a very different sort of economy today be a good place to start? (Probably not at this point in the election, I understand…) Eight percent unemployment may not just be the new normal or benchmark. Someday we may well consider it an impressive accomplishment.

The Closing Gender Gap in Infidelity

A friend passed along this article from the Wall Street Journal, about the shrinking gap between men and women in terms of who reports marital infidelity. It relies on the good old General Social Survey, whose numbers can be compared from year to year for the purpose of assessing trends in Americans’ social behavior. It states:

Among the most reliable studies on this issue is the General Social Survey, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, which has been asking Americans the same questions since 1972. In the 2010 survey, 19% of men said that they had been unfaithful at some point during their marriages, down from 21% in 1991. Women who reported having an affair increased from 11% in 1991 to 14% in 2010.

Since I included a comparable question in the New Family Structures Study, I thought it’d be good to compare the NFSS and see what it says about the gender gap in infidelity. The NFSS surveyed a nationally-representative sample of 18-39-year-olds, albeit a more narrow range of persons than the GSS, which goes up to age 72 (if I recall). And my question is a bit different, in that it includes not only married (or previously-married) couples but currently-cohabiting ones as well. It reads:

Have you ever had a sexual relationship with someone else while you were married (or living with another romantic partner)?

So the NFSS widens the scope of relationships about which respondents will answer, while narrowing the age range, thus limiting the duration of time that people will be reflecting about when they answer. (In other words, a 60-year-old likely typically has more time-opportunity to stray than a 35-year-old). So what does the data say? The same thing as the GSS. The gender gap is indeed narrowing, and in the NFSS it does not appear at all: 19 percent of women report having ever had a sexual relationship with someone else while married or cohabiting, while the same is true of 18 percent of men. The difference is not statistically significant.

As the WSJ article goes on to detail, it’s not about declining support for fidelity. Although the NFSS can’t measure decline in support for fidelity over time–as the GSS can–such support indeed is strong among both men and women in the NFSS: only 3 percent of women and 6 percent of men agreed (or strongly agreed) that “it is OK for a married person to have sexual relations with someone other than his/her spouse.”

So why the likely uptick in cheating but stability in valuing monogamy? That’s a much deeper well to excavate, and I’m out of time today to discuss it at length, but in a nutshell, it likely has to do with expanded female opportunity and economic power, stability in what people wish for in a relationship, shifts in the mating market, online exposure to emotional relationship opportunities, etc. More on that some other day.