Cheryl Russell – Society, Statistics and Skepticism

March 21, 2011

My guest this week is Cheryl Russell, a recognized authority on statistics and demographics.

Cheryl is the editorial director of New Strategist Publications and the former editor-in-chief of American Demographics magazine. She is the author of the “Demo Memo” blog and the books The Master Trend, 100 Predictions for the Baby Boom and Bet You Didn’t Know: Hundreds of Intriguing Facts about Living in the USA.

In this interview with Karen Stollznow, Cheryl reveals that demographic information challenges deeply embedded beliefs about society and explains why there is such a gap between belief and reality. She shows that statistics and demography are not so dull, but instead they afford us a fascinating glimpse into society.

Cheryl explains that typically, the more economically developed the country, the lower the religiosity. Paradoxically, the United States is one of the world’s most religious countries. Cheryl discusses some statistics about belief. What percentage of Americans believe in god without a doubt? Do Americans think it is necessary to believe in God to be moral? How many people believe in religious miracles? How many believe in evolution? How reliable are these statistics anyway?

This is point of inquiry for Monday, March 21st, 2011. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Karen Stollznow point of inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. My guest this week is Cheryl Russell, a recognized authority on statistics and demographics. Cheryl is the editorial director of News Strategist’s Publications and the former editor in chief of American Demographics magazine. She’s the author of the Demo Memo, blog and the books, The Mosta Trend 100 Predictions for the Baby Boom. 

And Betty didn’t know hundreds of interesting facts about living in the USA. Cheryl, welcome to Point of Inquiry. Thank you. Your book, I bet you didn’t know. Hundreds of intriguing facts about living in the USA contains numerous statistics about American society. What are some of the topics that you’ve researched? 

Well, I’m a demographer and demographers study population trends. And that can mean at the most basic level, studying births, deaths and migration, because those are the three things that create population change. But demographers are usually go beyond that and study all sorts of statistics having to do with people in groups. And so aggregate behavior, and that can mean school enrollment or homeownership or occupations or health. Health statistics basically can cover anything that people do as a group. So what I did in my book was I looked at all sorts of different things. I looked at people’s housing. I looked at their family life. I looked at their incomes, their spending, their wealth, their health. And I just looked at just about everything that happens to people in groups and looked at the trends in those various areas. 

This is a kind of social eavesdropping, in a sense. 

Right. It was looking at what was really going on with people in the United States. I focused on Americans. That’s my specialty. And to see what’s going on, because I think a lot of what people hear about what’s going on is it’s either sensationalized or a lot of it is just simply untrue. 

And I wanted to ask you, you’ve said that demographic information challenges deeply embedded beliefs about society and that it separates fact from fiction. Why is this such a gap between belief and the reality? 

Well, I think it’s human nature to see the world through personal experience. And in the past, when humans lived in very small societies that worked, you know, basically if you were in a small group of hunter gatherers, you knew everybody in your world. You knew everyone. So you had the facts at your fingertips because you knew everything that was going on with everybody. Today, we still see the world that way. We listen to what our family members tell us. We talk to our neighbors. We consider carefully what our friends think. But those experiences are no longer necessarily or even usually representative of what’s going on in society as a whole, because that’s just a small slice of of American life. When you use an anecdote and try to say that it is the way things are. That’s what I call an Aunt Jainism. It’s like that’s what my Aunt Jane says. And therefore, that’s the way it is. That’s what my Aunt Jane does. And therefore, that’s the way Americans do it. And a lot of people think about American society through the eyes of Aunt Jane. And what I’m trying to do in my book and in my blog and in everything I do is to tell people the way American society really works. 

And so we pick up a lot of this anecdotal evidence from friends and family. And where else do we get these myths from? 

Well, a lot of it is actually from them. The media, the media picks up stories. They’re trying to fill whitespace. They have 24 hour news cycles. They need to come up with some kind of content to keep people coming back to their advertisers, basically. And so they will pick up anything that, you know, any press releases, any little blip that occurs out there. And they will talk about it as though that is what’s happening. And I think that if you understand the trends and you know the trends are you can see how how frequently these are. 

And Jane, isms that appear in the media. 

And you’ve said that these facts are trivialized. By the media that they’re often reduced to generalizations and slogans and finger pointing. So amidst all of this misinformation. Where can people go to find the facts about statistics and demography as a rule? 

Demography gets its information from two places. One is census’s. And the other is surveys. And the census is a complete count of a population in a certain area. And a survey is a representative sampling of a population in an area with both. You get a as accurate a portrait is you’re gonna get of whatever your whatever topic you’re looking at. And of course, the census is done by the federal government. And the best surveys are also done by the federal government. The Census Bureau does surveys the National Center for Health Statistics, the Federal Reserve Board. 

There’s dozens of government agencies that do surveys continually and universities and businesses, also field surveys. And some of these are excellent resources for understanding our society. But the problem that businesses run into when they do surveys is that the cost is fairly high. And a lot of times a business might be able to come up with the money to do a survey once, but they can’t replicate it over time because they don’t want to have that continuing cost. So the government is the source of surveys that can be taken over and over again and there. And that’s where you see the trends. When you have a survey that, you know, has been taking place every year, say, for decades, like the current population survey, which the Census Bureau takes, and we can the average person get access to these, are they made public? Yes. All of the government’s data sources are public as long as confidentiality is maintained. You know, my book lists 40 pages of forces. So there is just there’s so much out there. And the government on the government’s Web sites, you can access this information fairly easily. 

And it’s always free. That’s the other thing. The government’s survey data are free. So you don’t have to pay for a lot of times with the private surveys, you will have to pay for the costs of the report. So you can download the government surveys from their Web sites. You can find out about high school dropouts, interracial marriage, household incomes, just about anything that you want to find out about. Now, as I said, the Census Bureau is the premiere producer of demographic data. So I would recommend if if people want to follow demographic trends to become familiar with the Census Bureau’s Web site, which is w w w dot census dot gov for the other government agencies. There’s another Web site that the government has that lists every statistical agency. And that website is w w w dot fed stats dot gov ftd d s t dot gov. So those two places are good, good starting points for doing, you know, finding out the facts for yourself. 

And as for these being facts, are the facts or are they factoids or are they just clues or hints? I’m just wondering how representative and reliable these statistics are. 

They they’re not you know, they’re not perfect. They don’t provide a perfect picture of society. There’s all sorts of survey biases and and problems with the way questions are asked or the way samples are drawn. But they’re the best information that anyone can get. So that’s as good as it gets. 

Is the federal government surveys and in your book, you say that several themes emerge about society and that demography tells us about the processes which are at work in American society. So what are these themes that have emerged? 

Well, one of the big points that I make in my book is that we are in the midst of a an enormous transformation in our society. And this transformation started long before the Great Recession. It started back in the 1980s. That’s where you can first see it in the demographic statistics. And that transformation is computers and the Internet. This has changed the computers and the Internet. The importance of them are equivalent to what the printing press did to society in the 15th century. It transformed the way information was communicated to people in, you know, either people in your own community or outside the community. So what we have is the Internet. Your first computers came and then the Internet came to join those computers together. So our society has been transformed by this instantaneous communication and information. This is especially impacted the United States because before computers and the Internet, the United States has been relatively isolated country. You have the Atlantic Ocean on the one side, you have the Pacific Ocean on the other side. So we’re we are separated by this body of water from all the other countries. And that’s that has been a lot of what’s created the United States as a. The way it is, but with with the Internet, you no longer have that isolation businesses, the obstacles to doing business, the obstacles of time and distance have disappeared. So the United States all of a sudden you have this country with the highest standard of living. But now are our companies and can go anywhere they want for workers. And that is leveling the standards of living all around the world. And when you’re leveling the highest standard of living in the world, that means that our standard of living is coming down. So that’s what we’re experiencing is the Great Recession is just a part of that part of what’s happened within the Great Recession is that you had this housing bubble and the financial markets, deregulation, financial markets, which created all this easy money and subprime lending and so on. The reason that this could happen is because of the Internet. It allowed for national banks, international banking at the speed of light. And basically what’s going on is or the Internet is changing things faster than we can come to terms with regulating it or creating laws to protect ourselves from the damaging effects of it. And part of the problem is that our politicians are old men. The median age of Congress is 57. So half of of Congress is older than 57. Half the Senate is older than I think it’s 63. So you have these older men making decisions about and writing laws and determining regulations for something that they have very little understanding of. So I think that’s the Great Recession is in part caused by this inability to come to grips with. Well, it was caused by in part by the Internet and then the inability to come to grips with the changes that need to be made in order to control the sometimes destructive effects of the Internet. 

And despite the recession, the U.S. is still the richest country. If I’m not sore, incorrect, yes, it’s one of the most religious. So I’d like to talk about a few statistics about religion as raised in the book. And one of these is that the percentage of Americans who believe in God, without a doubt is 63, 63 percent, while only two percent of the population is atheists. Although you’ve said the number of nonbelievers is apparently larger than this, is that correct? 

Yes. When it comes to religion, the United States is off the charts. And I’ve said this in my book. If you take a piece of graph paper and you plot on the one axis economic development and on the other axis religiosity, typically you find that the more developed the country, the less religious the population. Accept it for the United States. United. The United States is an outlier. And so not only are we the most developed country in the world, but we’re also one of the most religious countries in the world. Now, there, you know, people have looked it and tried to figure out why that why that is the case. And there are a number of different theories about why Americans are so religious. One of them is that perhaps the religious people left Europe because of religious persecution. So the people with the more religious, let’s say, DNA came to the United States for religious freedom in their name. And that’s us today. And that’s why we are so religious. Another theory is that the Constitution, which separated church and state, allowed all these religions to flourish. And because there’s so much religious diversity in the United States and no state religion that created more religiosity. Another theory is that slavery itself created a religious fervor because it was a justification for the oppression of the slaves. And some people have said that South Africa was also a very religious country. And it was, you know, because they were trying to, you know, because of apartheid was their justification for apartheid. And I think I think probably the best explanation for our religiosity is peer pressure, that people when you have a certain critical mass of people who believe something, you’re going to be more likely to believe it just to be part of a club and belong. And I think that that we have a critical mass of religious people in, you know, in the United States so that it creates this peer pressure to belong to the church and say you’re one of the one of the group and you can see this peer pressure in the way politicians behave, flouting their Christianity. You mean it’s not even imaginable that somebody who said he was an atheist couldn’t become elected president of the United States? So they say 63 percent of people say they believe in God, without a doubt, but only two percent are willing to say to an interviewer that they’re atheists. And I think this is important that the fact that they’re not willing to tell an interviewer that they don’t believe in God, you know, that that 37 percent of Americans who have doubts about God. Only two percent are willing to say they’re atheists. And that’s because of the peer pressure and the pressure in an interview situation where you don’t want to say, oh, no, I don’t believe. 

And you’ve also said that 57 percent of Americans think it’s necessary to believe in God to be moral and to have good values, and that people believe that faith is a prerequisite for morality. So if there’s this peer pressure to appear religious, should we question these statistics? 

Yes, I think that the statistics should be questioned to a point, as I said, because of the peer pressure to behave in a certain way and be seen in a certain certain way. 

It’s important to note that information about religion in the United States does not come from the federal government. The Census Bureau is prohibited from requiring its survey respondents to reveal their religious beliefs. And this is not true in other countries, say in Canada. The census asks about religion. And so the Canadians have wonderful statistics on the religions and the demographics of the various religions and how they’re changing over time. 

And the United States does not have any government statistics on on religion. So we get these this information about the religiosity of Americans from private organizations and academic organizations. One of them is Gallup. The Gallup organization has been asking questions about religion for 70 years. The General Social Survey, which is the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center survey, the general sort of social survey has been taking, has been asking about religion since the early 70s. And there’s a third important survey called the American Religious Identification Survey, which has been looking at religious identification in in America from the first one was in 2001. So those are the three main sources of information about religion and Darney of those sources prejudiced in any way? 

I don’t think that they are overtly prejudiced or overtly trying to skew the statistics in one way or another. But what happens is that that the respondents in I think there are certain things that people will lie about in surveys. And, for example, they’ll lie about one of the big things. They lie about his drinking. If you believe the survey results on drinking, you would think Americans were teetotalers because nobody drinks, or if they do, they only drink like a half a glass of wine a day or or a beer a week, something like that. But if you look at the volume of alcohol that’s consumed in the United States, there’s, you know, millions of gallons of alcohol being consumed. So drinking is one of the things people lie about. Another thing they lie about is their parenting behavior. The Census Bureau has has a survey that asks people about their family life. And one of the questions is, do you ever get angry at your children? And the majority of parents say, no, no, I never get angry at my kids. Which. 

You know, anybody who’s had kids knows that that is is just a lie. But they’re they’re more afraid. They’re they’re afraid to tell the survey interviewer that they get angry at their kids because who knows? You know, if the government’s asking if they get angry at their kids, maybe the social workers will be coming in next. And so they lie about that. Religion is another topic that Americans lie about because they want to hedge their bets. First of all, you don’t want to admit to the survey interviewer that you don’t believe in God. And you also don’t want to admit that you don’t go to church or you didn’t go to church last Sunday. So this is, again, something where. The statistics should be taken with a grain of salt. Now, when the Gallup organization asked people, did you go to church, you know, in the past week, about 40 percent of people say, yes, I went to church. But other surveys have found that that actually it’s about 20 percent. So it’s about half that. Who actually showed up in church? 

I remember reading that in the book that some scholars basically say it’s only about 20 percent who attend church, although the percentage of Americans who think that the U.S. is a Christian nation is 67 percent. 

Yes, that is the. Club. It’s a Christian club in the United States. And, you know, people want to belong to the club. I think psychological studies have shown that the average person will listen to an authority figure, even if the authority figure tells them to, you know, deliver an electric shock to an experimental subject. The you know, about 60 some percentage of people will do that. 

So there, you know, the average person will listen to the authority figure, will go along with whatever the authorities appear to be telling them to do. And that’s what you’re seeing in these religious statistics, is that portion of the population that just goes along and wants to belong to the club and believes that their club is is the right club. 

And there was some other statistics that I found fascinating, such as 60 percent of people claimed to pray at least once a day. 

Right. Again, you have that at 60, not 60 percent. Who’s going. Who are going along and want to appear to be, you know, agreeing with the with the power structure. And in the United States, the church is one of the you know, in Christianity is is part of the power structure. 

I did like this statistic that’s only 10 per cent don’t believe in heaven. But five percent believe in heaven. But know that they’re going to hell. That sounded like a joke. 

Yes. Well, it sounds like a joke, but they were real statistics from a general social survey asking about their beliefs and heaven and hell. And what people thought they would where they thought they would be going. 

And another statistic, this comes from the new strategics Web site that 55 percent of Americans definitely believe in religious miracles. 

Yeah. You know, I think some of this is people are afraid to say, no, I don’t believe in that because the bolt of lightning will come out of the sky right. As they say it, and and strike them dead. So I think people are actually afraid to say, no, I don’t believe in God. No, I don’t believe in miracles. 

I would agree. I agree with that. Pascal’s Wager. And I’m wondering how many actually claimed to have experienced miracles. That would be an interesting statistic. I think you also say that religion and science clash and that 54 percent of people think, quote, We believe too often in science and not enough in faith. 

Yes, they. There is a clash between religion and science. And it’s a it’s it’s in the United States. It’s you know, it’s pretty much the population is split pretty much down the middle with, you know, the people who are pro science and the people who are pro faith. 

Well, I think one of the most important statistics that shows that split is the statistic about evolution that the number of Americans who believe in evolution is forty nine point six percent. 

Well, that’s that’s right. And I am happy to say that since that the general social survey collected that statistics and since that was collected, the number in the latest survey, the number has increased slightly to fifty point nine percent now who believe in evolution. So just slightly over 50 percent now believe in evolution. So apparently we are evolving, huh? 

And does age or education affect this figure at all? 

Yes, they do. And that is one of the reasons why the number is creeping up a bit. If you look at the belief in evolution by age, the 18 to 44 year olds are younger, young, adult, younger adults, 56 percent believe in evolution. So it’s still not a lot. But it is. Over half of younger adults believe in evolution. Older adults, it’s it’s less than 50 percent. Also with education, college graduates, 63 percent of college graduates believe in evolution. Now, that still leaves a lot of college graduates who do not believe in evolution, but it is above 50 percent, four for them as well. 

And do we have any idea of how these figures compare to other Western countries? 

Some of the international surveys I’ve seen show that it’s it’s well below Western Europe. 

It’s well below. Fewer Americans are a smaller proportion of Americans believe in evolution than Western Europeans. But Western Europeans don’t have that strong religious belief that Americans have. And other studies, I think the Gallup organization asked people whether their minister talked about evolution in church. And most of the people who don’t believe in evolution say yes. The minister talked about evolution in church. So they’re hearing, you know, in church that evolution is not true. And and that really affects their beliefs. 

And overall, the statistics about religion seem to serve as a current snapshot. Do they also show with a belief is going to increase or decrease? 

Well, you know, my opinion is that I don’t think belief is headed anywhere. I don’t think there’s necessarily an arrow of progress where human society becomes increasingly fact based. In every in every society, there’s there’s been a tension between science and faith. And and it’s not just in society, but that tension is in each each person as well. On the one side, you have the need to believe what we see with our own eyes. And you you know, you need to believe what your neighbors tell you. If you constantly told your family members that they didn’t know what they were talking about or that you needed to check with them on a Web site before you agreed with them, you wouldn’t. You’d have a hard time getting along. So there’s this tension in each of us, and it’s expressed in society as a whole, this conflict between faith and science. 

And so, in general, can we only really observe and spot the trends or can we predict the trends as well? 

Well, the beauty of demographics is that you not only can see the trends, but they do offer a way to predict them, a way to predict trends. And their predictive power works primarily through generational replacement. So as younger generations replace older ones, we can predict all sorts of of things simply by extrapolating the characteristics of and the attitudes of younger generations into the future. So we know that our society, American society, is going to become much more diverse because younger generations are already diverse. And we know that attitudes about certain issues are going to change because the attitudes of younger people are different. So we may see a growing acceptance of evolution, for example, although even among younger people, it’s only 56 percent who believe. 

But still, you’re going to see a slight movement towards greater belief in evolution in the next few decades. Another hot button issue that we’re going to see changes in is gay marriage. Only 39 percent of Americans support gay marriage. But if you look at the age breakdown of those beliefs, you find it, it’s the older people who oppose gay marriage. Only 23 percent believe or supportive of gay marriage. But among younger people, 51 percent, that’s in the millennial, what I call the millennial generation, which is roughly Americans, 18 to 30. 51 percent support gay marriage. So so it’s just a matter of time as these younger generations grow up and replace the older generations, that these attitudes are going to change. 

And in looking at some of this information in the book, things like the main causes of death and life expectancy, it seems that these changing, constantly changing and that social change is inevitable. And I’m wondering, what are some of the facts that we take away from social statistics? 

Well, humans are like ants in an ant hill. When you’re an ant, it’s really hard to see the patterns of aunt life that are going along, going around all around you. So demographic analysis allows us to step back from the ant hill and observe it from afar and see the patterns. And the ant hill, that ant hill is constantly changing. 

But the change follows certain patterns. So there’s both change and stability at the same time. So when you step back and look at the demographic change, you can see what is going to happen. And those changes aren’t necessarily going to be positive or things that you like. But you can tell that you can you can see some of the broader things that are going to happen. Now, technology always throws a wrench in the works there because that’s not part of demographic analysis. And and in part, that’s what’s happened with the Internet. And all the transformation that’s going on right now is that that came along and threw a huge wrench in in all the works. But but still, you can see that even the Internet itself, the acceptance of the Internet and the fluency with the Internet that the younger generations have, eventually that’s going to spread throughout the population. You’re going to we’re going to get politicians elected who speak digital. 

And once those politicians are in there, they can begin to create policies and so on. That will actually help us deal with all the change that the Internet has created. So. The demographics tell us they can tell us a lot. And you can prepare for a future that’s 10 or 20 years away before it’s on top of you. 

If you pay attention and just one final question. I’d like to ask my interviewees for a bit of wisdom from their area of expertize. So I’m wondering, Cheryl, what would be your soundbite about skepticism and statistics from point of inquiry listeners? 

Well, when you hear a story or you read a statistic or a headline or watch a news report, I think there’s three questions you should always ask. Who says how much and how long. And the first one. Ask yourself who says you need to determine who produced the information and what is their agenda? Because much of what you see in here in the media is recycled press releases from businesses and politicians and lobbyists. And all those sources have agendas. And you need to be aware of what the agenda is before you consider or take seriously what what the statistic is. And that’s what’s so valuable about the government data isn’t the government. 

It’s been taking the same surveys for decades. It has professional statisticians running the operations. The questions have been out there for a long time. And they’re really although many people would claim there is an agenda, there is not it doesn’t have a a political agenda, you know, on the census. There’s no agenda there. And in the current population survey, it’s it’s free of of a lot of the politics that are in many of the other things that you’ll see. The second thing to ask yourself, how much is this a tiny little blip or is this a bigger shift that’s occurring? A lot of times there’ll be a little blip and won’t make a lot of headlines. But it really is not an important it’s not anything that that is of any importance. 

These, you know, especially today with the need to fill these these news 24/7. They were the newswriters will search for just about anything to talk about and make a big deal out of it when it may not be a big deal at all. And the third thing is how long how long has this been going on? 

Is this just some noise, a one time event, a temporary temporary deviation, or is it really a trend? There’s a lot of noise and demographic statistics. Something will bump up and then bump down. For example, the latest life expectancy data show our life expectancy fell slightly in 2008. And you know, this this created a lot of headlines. Is this something serious that we need to be concerned about? It could be this could be something that is a result of the recession and people having less money and less health insurance coverage, etc. or it could be just a one time event. 

So who says how much and how long? And if you ask yourself those three questions, you will be less likely to be misled. 

I think that’s all excellent advice. Thank you. And to me, people some people think it’s a bit of a stereotype that demography is dull. But to me, it seems to be a fascinating glimpse into science, into society and reality. 

Well, it’s like it’s it allows you to be a gossip and still maintain your self-respect. 

Cheryl, thank you so much. It was a pleasure to speak with you. 

Thank you. Thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry. You can find out more about Sherrell on her blog, Demographic Trends with Attitude at Demo Memo, dot blogspot, dot com and find her latest book. Bet you didn’t know from the point of inquiry home page. To participate in the online conversation about this show, please join our discussion forum at point of inquiry dot org. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry. Dot org. 

Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York. And our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Mike Whalen. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Karen Stollznow. 

Karen Stollznow