A blog about (ir)religion, ritual and so on …

Move Over Science, I have an Agenda

Do you ever come across a piece of writing that makes you so angry you feel compelled to discover what other intellectual crimes the author is guilty of? Yesterday I had this experience after following the breadcrumbs on a tweet in my twitter feed:

Click. Blink. Scroll. Blink. Scroll. WHAT!?! Apparently the Chronicle of Higher Education decided that its readers would benefit from an uninformed rant by Naomi Schaefer Riley equating all of black-studies with a “blame the white man” mentality. And what are Riley’s qualifications exactly when it comes to the state of “black-studies?” I’ll let you know when I find them.

In any event I had the unwholesome urge to see what else Riley has written in the last few years, and that’s when I stumbled upon this two year old piece from the Washington Post: “Interfaith marriages are rising fast, but they’re failing fast too.” Was I going to find the same voice from the Chronicle in this older story? I honestly wasn’t sure.  After all how could someone tie  the failure rate of interfaith marriages into a reactionary racial agenda?

Her language is revealing. It’s as if our society’s institutional rules about nondiscrimination in hiring an employee or admitting someone to college have morphed into rules for screening romantic partners.

Ten years ago, the journalist Philip Weiss wrote in the New York Observer that Jewish objections to interfaith marriage are “racist.” And today, some young people go to great lengths to make sure that they don’t appear to earn that label.

Apparently where there is a will there is a way. Of course as infuriating as that sounds, other aspects of the story are equally bad. As she states herself, the point of her entire essay is summed up by the adage that “the family that prays together, stays together.” And indeed studies have shown a correlation between religiously homogamous marriage and lower divorce rates. But Riley seems to have missed another venerable adage, one that doesn’t come from the marketing efforts of Christian institutions, but from the sciences, that “correlation does not imply causation.” Studies also show that the positive effects of shared religion on the endurance of a marriage are mostly tied to active participation by both spouses in the same religious communities outside of the home. In fact the very study Riley refers to, by Christopher Ellison, points out that shared beliefs alone aren’t correlated with enduring marriages.

In other words there is much more to the story than Riley lets on, and there is no evidence that religious adherence or segregation based on religious adherence actually create a good conjugal mojo. But to be fair to Riley she’s not the first, nor will she be the last to thumb her nose at the difference between causation and correlation when trying to tame the social sciences to an agenda. In fact it’s one of the two requirements if you want your political screed to feign empirical support. The other is to use lots of anecdotes, and it’s a double bonus when you can imply causation through those anecdotes. Let’s say someone were to figure out a way to anecdotally tie the nation’s increasing divorce rate to the rise of multiculturalism and anti-discrimination policies. That … would be a double bonus.

UPDATE: Since I posted this I’ve found this excellent response to Riley’s anti-black studies piece, along with a petition for people to voice their concerns.

UPDATE II: Looks like we could have all been spared this recent nonsense had someone at the Chronicle listened to legal philosopher Brian Leiter last year – “What is Naomi Schaefer Riley Doing with a Blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education, part 2?”

UPDATE III: Also update worthy is Jeff Sharlet’s review of Riley’s apparent hack job of a book called, God on the Quad. She wasn’t into doing actual research then either.

UPDATE IV: On 05/07/12 the Chronicle decided to let Riley go because of all the negative feedback.

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3 thoughts on “Move Over Science, I have an Agenda

  1. Your entire post is great but I LOVE the first sentence. Why do we enjoy torturing ourselves?

  2. Thanks Matt. Maybe it’s because knowing that the source of such nonsense is irredeemably tainted provides us with some sort of solace.

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