Monday, December 20, 2010

The Impact of College on Nonsense: A Drop of Only 3 Percentage Points


  1. I think this article, like almost all journalistic reports on popular surveys, dangerously reinforces a common equivocation on the notion of 'belief.' This equivocation, I submit, misleadingly generates many of these shocking statistics, and thus constitutes a systemic flaw in the survey methodology. Asked "do you believe X," few people will challenge the questioner to clarify whether she means:
    1) do you subscribe to X as a matter of personal faith, trust, or ideological commitment?
    2) do you assent to X as intuitively plausible based on your general experience and what people around you think?
    3) have you been convinced of X after extensive evaluation of available evidence, and independent analysis of that evidence, for and against it?
    It is likely that religious people are answering the first question, almost everyone else is answering the second, and a statistically insignificant clutch of intellectuals is responding to the third -- but the survey compiles their answers as though they were answering one question. Our natural association of "college graduate" with "educated person" (in the sense of approaching questions in the spirit of #3, or even questioning the question) is naive in the extreme, since most people treat college as mere credentialing and technical training, and most colleges and universities make little effort to disabuse them of this insidious misconception.