A smug atheist reading of [Richard] Florida’s number-crunching would be that people who go to church a lot are less likely than people who don’t to move up the economic ladder. But a more accurate reading, I think, would be that people who who go to church a lot are more likely to move up. It’s the people who bend your ear about how much they love Jesus who are less likely to move up (and who are also less likely to attend church regularly). The irony is that it’s these zealots who want to claim an exclusive right to call themselves Christian.
—Timothy Noah, from his post "Religion and Mobility" on The New Republic site.
You might want to read Richard Florida’s piece on The Atlantic Cities first and then follow it up with Noah’s reaction. Both are well worth reading and may lead you down all types of paths depending on your experiences and where you live, or have lived.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
The Fundamental Tension between Stories and Statistics
by Shubha Bala, associate producer
My favorite dog-earred, page-stained book growing up was The Phantom Tollbooth. I must have read over 40 times about Milo’s quest through the Kingdom of Wisdom to reconcile the rulers of Dictionopolis, the lover of words, and Digitopolis, the lover of numbers. The conclusion of this book, and of John Allen Paulos’ recent post in The New York Times, is that both language and math should reign equally.
Paulos, a mathematician and professor, argues that while narratives and statistics play important roles, people approach them both with different mindsets:
"Despite the naturalness of these notions, however, there is a tension between stories and statistics, and one under-appreciated contrast between them is simply the mindset with which we approach them. In listening to stories we tend to suspend disbelief in order to be entertained, whereas in evaluating statistics we generally have an opposite inclination to suspend belief in order not to be beguiled."
He goes on to demonstrate this tension by citing examples of statistical errors that are completely natural in storytelling, like the conjunction fallacy.
Journalism, to me, seems to be the attempt to reconcile that tension by finding common space between the data and the narratives. Do you think there is an inherent difference in how we mentally approach statistics and stories? Or is it a tension which can be bridged?
Image above: The dodecahedron, from the children’s book “The Phantom Tollbooth,” has 12 faces each showing a different emotion. (illustration by Jules Feiffer)