Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The British Humanist Society Learns about Polling

Susan Blackmore, a Dawkinista who has recently popped up in the Guardian with some anti-religious diatribes (among other things), today claimed that the faithful have departed the United Kingdom. Her evidence for this was an opinion poll carried out by the British Humanist Association ("BHA").

Now I love polls, not so much for what they tell us as for what they don't. For political junkies who want to get into the nitty-gritty of polling, there is no better site than Long experience has taught us that the important thing about polls is not the answers but the questions. You can ask the same question and get radically different answers depending on how it is phrased. Here's an egregious example. Asking "Do you support a woman's right to choose?" will get you a very different answer to "Do you support the murder of unborn children?"

Now the BHA understands this. It is an association of one-eyed atheists of the sort that think Richard Dawkins is fab and Sam Harris isn't a lunatic. However, they call themselves humanists because that sounds so much more gentle. After all, I am happy to call myself a humanist if it just means being nice to people (or, in its original sense, someone with an interest in classical literature). Their opinion poll is very similarly misleading.

They carefully crafted the questions so they could claim that most people give the 'humanist' answers to three queries about science and ethics. Well, I'm a committed Christian and I'd give the 'humanist' answer to all three. The first question gives two choices: 'scientific or other evidence' provide the best way to understand the universe; or religion is necessary for a complete understanding. It's a false dichotomy of course. The two statements are not mutually exclusive; the first statement is made as broad as possible (what exactly is the 'other evidence'?); the respondent effectively has to reject science in order accept religion; the first statement talks about 'best' while the second uses the word 'complete'. It is phrased so that only an out-and-out young earth creationist would answer with the second option.

The two questions on ethics are fixed in similar ways to give the desired result.

The third question asked , whether this is our only life, is the most transparent. It also gives the highest proportion of religious respondents. I'd usually be one of 45% who said there is something more, but on a bad day I would be a "don't know". Surprisingly, 38% of those who gave humanist answers to all three of the other questions believed in some sort of life after death.

Now, here is the kicker. In her article, Blackmore never mentions the most crucial figure that comes out of the poll. The proportion of people who gave the 'non-religious' answer to all four questions was only 20%. Yet Blackmore (and the BHA) are claiming their poll says 36% of us are humanists. How come? They simply ignore the result from the question that gave the highest proportion of 'religious' answers - the one about life after death. In other words, the question they ignore is the most explicitly religious one.

If I was commissioning a poll to show the UK is a religious country, it would not be hard to frame the questions to get a positive answer. All the BHA's poll shows is that they want you to be sceptical, but only selectively.

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