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.
UPDATE: I’ve expanded on this post, clarified a little, and addressed a common objection here. Cliff notes version, for a taste: “Essentially, it’s just an absurdly strong conclusion that’s based on a bizarre implicit measure whose data don’t support a claim the authors of the paper weren’t even trying to make.” I’d appreciate it if you read that to get my latest thoughts on the controversy! Thanks–Vlad
If there’s any good left in this world, my title hopefully gave you some pause. Atheists have our PR issues, but no one in their right mind could possibly think we’re as distrusted as rapists.
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 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 want to make it clear from the outset that I think these are bad things that are worth focusing our efforts to change, and that this is one of the areas where atheist and LGBTQ comparisons are appropriate: we do that by being “out and normal,” or open about our atheism without making a big deal about it. 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 not at all sensational headline that “rapists are viewed as more moral than atheists“). Even the Drudge Retort picked up the story. I realize that Alternet and the Drudge Retort are known for
their objective, thoughtful, and well-written content being terrible, terrible blogs that no serious human being should ever trust for news, but even otherwise solid sources like The Friendly Atheist are 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. Let’s take a look at the graph that’s causing so much controversy:
If you’ve studied any statistics or research methods, this should scream out two things without even having to know what the graph represents: “not significant” and “ceiling effect.” First, if you’ll notice the skinny lines going up and down from each of the graphs, that’s called the error bar. The error bar basically frames the range where the real value the statistic is meant to represent lies, so small error bars are good and 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. There is no significant difference between their measure for atheists and rapists, which 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.
Now maybe it troubles you that atheists and rapists are even so close as to be statistically indistinguishable (but again, check out how huge those bars are), this still doesn’t suggest they’re even close to as distrusted. That’s because the study is pretty likely reporting a ceiling effect. That is, it could be the case that it only takes a little distrust to show as much of an effect as the measure will show, so different levels of distrust are going to look the same past a certain point. Imagine that distrust can be measured on a 10-point scale. It may be the case that using the conjunction fallacy can only measure distrust up to a point of say, 3 or 4 on that scale, because not that many people are going to make the fallacy. So even though atheists might look similar to rapists on this scale, atheists could be a 4 while rapists could be a 9, and no one would be able to tell. Without reference to a group we know are more distrusted than atheists and rapists to compare the bars to, we can’t know whether atheists and rapists are actually comparably distrusted.
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 I’m not the biggest fan of, though Norenzayan and Shariff’s other work in the field is exceptional. The paper 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. 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.
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.