As a reminder, the views of this blog post do not necessarily represent those of Chris Stedman, the other NPS panelists, or any of the organizations with which they affiliate.

Hopefully, my title hopefully gives you some pause. Atheists have our PR issues, but no one in their right mind could possibly think we’re as distrusted as rapists.

Are atheists the most reviled minority? If you don’t understand what”reviled” means, and look at only a few minorities, then yes!

But unfortunately, a certain camp of atheist has a contentious relationship with psychological research and surveys in the social sciences. Just do a quick Google of “atheists are the most reviled minority,” and you’ll see many hits referencing this 2006 study from the University of Minnesota, which shows that Americans are reluctant to vote  for an atheist president, approve of their child marrying an atheist, and think that atheists agree with their vision for society.

I want to make it clear from the outset that I think these are bad things that are worth focusing our efforts to change,but I don’t want to go into detail about this here; I want to address how poorly some atheists misconstrue and misrepresent otherwise legitimate and important research.

So with a mixture of regret, frustration, and incredulity, I read a  recent Alternet headline, ”religious believers distrust atheists as much as rapists.” Another post on Alternet went on in more detail, and the story was posted to Reddit (with the sensational headline that “rapists are viewed as more moral than atheists“).  The Friendly Atheist picked it up shortly thereafter, misreporting this finding. Hemant says, “Somehow, we’re less trusted than even rapists. That’s disheartening, but it really says more about how religious people think than anything about atheists.”

Let me be clear about this: no it doesn’t. The only thing this result says about atheists and believers is that they don’t understand statistics and study design. Let’s take a look at the graph that’s causing so much controversy:

One thing is immediately clear in this graph: the difference between atheists and theists aren’t significant. The skinny lines going up and down from each of the graphs is called the error bar, which is the range where the real value the statistic is meant to represent lies. Small error bars are in general good, while huge error bars are bad. If you’ll notice, not only are all of the bars huge, but the ”rapist” and “atheist” error bars overlap a lot. That pretty much guarantees any difference between the two numbers is statistical noise; the results are “nonsignificant,” which the study itself says clearly. This means you can’t actually say whether atheists or rapists are “distrusted” more; you can only say that how distrusted atheists and rapists are lies somewhere in those huge bars, and we don’t know which one is higher or lower.

On its face, it might seem equally bad that atheists and rapists aren’t “significantly different,” but this is based on some assumptions on the study design that may not be reliable. First, the subjects of this study are University students in Canada, and perhaps their attitudes aren’t generalizable (one could imagine they’d be more tolerant of muslims than the general population). Second, it might be the case that the measure used is sensitive enough to pick out the differences we’d want. Perhaps it’s just the case that only so many people (around half) would make the implicit error the study measures. If that’s the case, then a population where people distrust rapists far more than atheists would look identical to a population that trusts them the same, because the measure would “ceiling,” so to speak. Maybe a more sensitive measures would show atheists at 50 and rapists at 90. We just don’t know. But it’s clear, however, that for a a claim so strong, we need better evidence than this one implicit measure applied to Canadian students.

The authors, Will Gervais,  Ara Norenzayan and Azim F. Shariff are of course very careful about all of this, not making any unjustifiable claims about their results. But that didn’t stop their University’s press office from being sloppy and sensational, too.

The paper itself is smart, the findings are important,  and their measures are clever, so though I disagree with some of the theoretical underpinnings and how their results are interpreted, I’d definitely recommend checking it out (despite the minor misreport, The Friendly Atheist gives a good rundown of the study). My take on the results, though, is that the finding doesn’t report distrust in any meaningful way that we care about, but maybe that’s another post.

Lastly, I’m not blaming people who took the reports of these findings at face value, and expressed outrage at what looked like insane bias. I actually first heard about the study from Chris’ twitter, and saw it on a lot of my friend’s Facebook feeds. Not everyone knows about p-values and ceiling effects and how to properly read a scientific graph, and they shouldn’t have to. Science reporters need to know what they’re talking about, and atheists need to stop taking sites like Alternet to be trustworthy sources of news.

UPDATE: I’ve expanded on this post, clarified a little, and addressed a common objection here. Thanks–Vlad

 

Vlad Chituc is a senior at Yale University, studying Psychology and Philosophy with an interest in how we form beliefs (particularly moral and religious), and an interest in metaphysics and moral philosophy on the side. He has served as the Community Service Coordinator and President of the Secular Student Alliance at Yale (formerly the Yale Humanist Society), during which he participated in the Inter-Religious Leaders Council and worked closely with the Yale Chaplain’s Office to foster relationships with liberal member s of the Yale religious community. In his spare time, Vlad enjoys listening to hipster bullshit and writing sarcastic articles and music reviews for the Yale Herald.

  • John Small Berries

    “you’ll see a depressing number of hits referencing this 2006 study from the University of Minnesota, which shows that Americans are reluctant to vote for an atheist president, approve of their child marrying an atheist, and think that atheists agree with their vision for society.”

    I’m not sure whether you meant to point out that Table 1 of the linked PDF shows that the percentage of respondents indicating that they would disapprove of their children marrying an atheist and that atheists do not at all agree with their vision of American society are both below 50% (and therefore technically still a minority), or intended to acknowledge that, of the groups studied, atheists are the least trusted, but simply missed a couple of negative modifiers in that sentence.

  • Nick Rogers

    Vlad, I’d like to point out, though, that the error bars for atheism and rapist overlap a whole lot, while neither overlaps much with Muslim or Christian.

    So, yeah, a correct observation would be “Atheists are distrusted about as much, if not more. as rapists”.

    That’s not much better.

  • Nick Rogers

    Pardon my grammar error, I mean “as much as, if not more than,”

  • Vlad Chituc

    Hi guys, thanks for the reply!

    I address the concern that atheists and rapists are comparably distrusted with my point about the ceiling effect. Because we don’t have enough information on the measure they used, we can’t actually know for sure if they’re similar, or if the measure simply has a low ceiling, making the two look similar.

    thanks for the comments, though!

  • Callum Schmidt

    I’ve heard people saying things like this in passing but haven’t actually looked at the graphs until now. What you say Vlad is right and needs to be understood by atheists if we want to keep our credibility so thanks heaps for this.

    Nick, the muslim confidence interval does indeed overlap with both atheist and rapist intervals, by quite a lot as well. Also your point about ‘a correct observation’ is also wrong. If we wanted to say the correct thing we would say, “with 95% confidence we can not say that atheists, rapists” and “with 95% confidence we can say that christians are distrusted less than rapists and atheists but not less than muslims”.
    Something like that anyway.

    Then there is the ceiling effect which can skew the results further. Generally with something as subjective as trustworthiness it’s hard to get good data and the massive confidence intervals show this.

    Basically my point is that your observation is also wrong becuase it misses out the fact that atheists could be (and I would wager they are) distusted less than rapists *and* muslims as well.

  • Callum Schmidt

    Somehow deleted a part of the second paragraph. It’s meant to say “with 95% confidence we cannot say that atheists, rapists, or muslims are distrusted less than, or more than, one another”

  • Marshall

    Trusting a rapist is easy, as long as you know they’re a rapist. Trust an atheist is difficult because they could be anything, even a rapist…or worse—a Christian.

  • Burro

    You think atheists have it bad?

    What about people who believe in aliens? Does ANYBODY give those folks any credibility?

    And yet, if there were a deity who created Earth and all its denizens, let alone the whole universe, that deity would be an alien, by definition, right?

    :-D

  • http://epiphenom.fieldofscience.com Tom Rees

    The SD of the athiest and the rapist target bar is large, indicating plenty of variance in this measure. If there was a ceiling effect the SD would be compressed.

    The proportion of conjunction errors was ~45%. The maximum possible is 100%

    There’s no evidence of a ceiling effect, but if there was then a priori it’s just as likely that the atheist target would have more conjunction errors.

    In other words, you’re speculating outside the data based on an assumption about a ceiling effect for which there are no data!

  • Herbert Latschenberger

    I think, that most americans dont really know how many famous americans was, or are “atheists”.
    From John Adams (Americas 2nd president), who says “this could be the best of all worlds, if there was no religions at all!”, to Bejamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison a.o.
    From Marlom Brando, to Androw Carnegie, Charlie Chaplin, George Clooney, Jack Nicholson, Nick Nolte, Larry Cohen, Theodore Dreiser, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Richard P.Feynman, Robert Frost, Matt Groening (The Simpsons),Butch Hancock, Ernest Hemingway, Sidney Hook, Robert G. Ingersoll, Billy Joel, Stanley Kubrick, Bill Maher, Arthur Miller and many. many others

  • Dan Conine

    I think this falls well within my description of how people think. We all form a model of the universe in our heads as we mature. Some form a plastic model, adaptable to changes and new experiences, while others form a hard, narrow model that doesn’t accept the jagged lines of reality. Religion starts young to form a ‘perfect’ model in a person’s mind of God, life, and everything. These models can be busted up or fragmented or even made flexible, but it usually takes a long time or a catastrophic event to do so. Most people rely in the model to direct their choices, but what it really does is simply make up a story after their sense-response mechanisms have already taken action. The ironic part is that people with rigid models are probably happier because they become satisfied with what they are and what they have, whereas people with a flexible model are never quite sure what satisfies them.

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  • Jean-Guy

    What about the Muslim and Christian being teachers ??? Does it affect the results?

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