Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Pew Pew Pew

It’s interesting to see how the results of a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey on general knowledge of world religions is being spun in the media and by those now swamping the Pew Foundation’s websites trying to take the poll.

I’m one of them. I tried several times today to take the poll, only to encounter multiple “Server is Busy” errors. I’ve seen some of the questions – what figure is most connected with the exodus of Hebrews from Egypt, what religion was Mother Teresa, what is Ramadan, when does the Jewish holy day begin – and they seem pretty basic. I got a 15 out of 15 on the quiz, though I admit I guessed on a few.

But I’m a Mormon – a member of one of the groups (including Jews, atheists and agnostics) who performed the best on the poll, per Pew.

More importantly, I also have a lot of education – and the level of education, Pew says, is the best indicator of success in answering their questions right. This should even be less surprising than the basic nature of the poll’s questions. (They do say, however, that even adjusting for levels of education, Jews and Mormons still performed better on the poll than did members of other faiths.)

Other interesting findings:
  • Mormons performed the best out of any group in answering questions about Christianity. Interesting considering many mainline Christians don’t consider Mormons to be Christian at all.
  • Jews, agnostics and atheists performed the best in answering questions about other religions.
The spin is interesting. Most new outlets are crowing that agnostics and atheists performed the best on the test, getting 20.9 of 32 answers correct. That’s statistically insignificant when you consider that Jews got 20.5 answers right and Mormons 20.3 answers right, but it’s more fun to say, hey, those guys who don’t believe anything at all ore aren’t sure what they believe know more about this stuff than anyone else.

Only the Huffington Post is reporting precise numbers, of the sites I’ve read. CNN performs the most poorly, burying Mormon and Jewish performance in their story while highlighting the stellar performance of agnostics and atheists and the poor performance of mainstream US religions. The favored headlines go along the lines of “US Flunks Religious Test.” That may be true for some, but not for all. Of course, given tight space for headlines, it’s a given that something basic like this is going to be written. Oddly, though, all of this I’ve seen is on the web, where space isn’t as constrained. Still, journalism goes for the short ‘n’ snappy, if not completely accurate, headline.

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