The Data That Do Not Fit

Recently I received an email about my findings about social trends in America from an eminent social scientist at an Ivy League university: “Dear Pat: Showing these bi-variate comparisons as you do is both misleading and amounts to nothing more than propaganda for your point of view. You should and, I think do, know better! Please unsubscribe.”

A word of explanation: “bivariate analysis” – my alleged crime – is the use of simple correlations. Now every undergraduate knows, and prattles on about all too often, that “correlation is not causation.” And very good it is that they know this is the case. But too many people blithely dismiss correlations, especially when they seem to point in uncomfortable directions, such as the correlation between the number of sexual partners before marriage and the rate of the breakdown of marriage later on. Young people and many of their social science professors prefer to avoid such data.

My offending numbers can be found at Mapping America, where various issues are illustrated from federal government surveys that permit a look at the U.S. population through the lens of marriage and religious worship. On issue after issue, we find that the pattern is very robust. Take a fairly uncontroversial yardstick such as grade-point-average: high-school-age children from always-intact married families score highest; those who worship weekly also score high; and those from intact families that worship weekly score highest of all.

On negative issues, such as drug use, the reverse is the case: those from married families who worship weekly have the lowest rates of negative behaviors.

We have been compiling these figures to bring a simple truth to public attention and to the academic debate: that marriage and religious worship are fundamental to individual well-being and to the normal functioning of society. The good professor was irritated, I suspect, because the pattern is becoming so glaringly repetitive that the question must arise about what is powerful enough to cause these differences.

I think it is “love,” to be precise, the two great loves: love of God, with worship as a social science proxy measure; and love of neighbor, with marriage as a social science proxy measure. But being on the “other side” on many of the social issues in debate today, my academic critic is more likely discomforted than intrigued by the charts, because a lot is at stake. He has not yet steeled himself to grapple with something I stumbled on as a Catholic undergraduate in the social sciences.

In my junior and senior years I learned a profound lesson: Well done, the social sciences cannot but illustrate the way God made man. At that stage in life, I was a little weak in trusting God and was afraid that positions like those in Humanae Vitae, which had just been promulgated, might confront me with good social science on one side and the Church’s teaching on the other. The first time I came across the potential conflict, I was reading a research article by a well known social scientist. I dug into the data, anxious that I might have to choose between the Church and science.

But the more I looked, the more I found that it was his deductions from the data – his take on reality – that were at odds with Church teaching, not the actual data themselves. This experience repeated itself for me a number of times, until I saw the pattern that is now familiar: the social sciences illustrate the way God made man. Social scientists often disagree with the Church but their data do not.

Increasingly, the Church stands before the world as the only great institution courageous in both truth-seeking and truth-telling. As all well formed Catholics know, the Church has nothing to fear from truths about Creation. The only thing the Church fears is sin and its fruits. God and his Creation are to be embraced, accurately known, and loved.

The academy ought to be an institution dedicated to the search for truth. In the physical sciences that happens, by and large. Though scandals sometimes occur in the physical sciences, the way they are handled (for the most part severely) testifies to that dedication.

In the social sciences, the abuse lies not in directly falsifying data (where the punishment is also severe), but in deliberate avoidance or blocking of investigation of a host of “politically incorrect” topics such as the effects of abortion, the psychogenesis of homosexuality, or the consequences of contraception. Most of the untouchables are in the realm of the sexual, the battle ground of the clash of civilizations.

In this clash, those who oppose the Church do not use the social sciences to disprove the Church’s positions, but instead discourage investigation of the data because, I suspect, the data may actually bolster traditional natural law.

John Boyd, military strategist, engineer, fighter aircraft designer and Top Gun of all Top Guns, has a great saying: “The data that do not fit are the most important data of all.” It leads us to new discoveries, to upending our own pet views of the world, or our academic theories when they don’t square with reality.

Today, many social scientists flee from uncomfortable data and in this flight are being untrue to their vocations. They are also slowing down the real progress that the social sciences might offer us. My eminent sociologist is an unfortunate example of a large cohort who see mere candid descriptions of reality as religious propaganda.

But this obvious averting of the gaze witnesses to the potential power of the social sciences to confirm natural law and help the Church help man be true to himself. To work as a truth teller in this field is a great vocation for bright young people. The good news is that some of our best and brightest are now ploughing there. Despite attempts to suppress their voices, you’ll soon be hearing more from them.

Patrick Fagan, Ph.D. is a Washington policy analyst and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Social Services Policy at the Department of Health and Human Services.