Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Briefly Noting...

The Electoral Calculus of Nones
The Washington Times (...later linked by The Drudge Report) picked up my recent post on the importance of None/Others in the 2012 election. Comments to the story indicate some confusion with the math. The data analysis for that post used state-level polling data measuring the size of religious groups and their voting histories and preferences over the last decade. To simplify I'll just work with the national numbers to show how simple the calculus is ( some seem to doubt that 22% of voters can decide an election).

If President Obama wins 72% of the votes of those with no religious affiliation and those with non-Christian religious affiliations (22% of voters in 2010; note this is also the adult population percentage for these groups) he will likely have won a total of 15.8% of the national popular vote. If also he wins 44% of the Christian vote (Catholics, Protestants, and other Christians equaling 78% of voters in 2010) he will likely have won an additional 34.3% of the total popular vote. Add those totals together and you get 50.1%.

This is an over-simplification but even the more complex state-level and historical models and simulations also point to that 44% total of the Christian vote as the lowest level of support the President can receive to still have a chance to win. This is made possible by the strong electoral support he and other Democrats get among those without a religious affiliation and those with a non-Christian affiliation in national elections over the last decade. It just happens that this portion of the electorate has now grown to a point where losing Christian voters no longer means losing the election for Democrats.

Growth in the Catholic Population of Ireland
As predicted here last year, Ireland’s census, released Thursday, shows that Catholicism continues to grow in that country. Despite a campaign by Atheists for people to refrain from checking the Roman Catholic box, the census registered 179,889 more Catholics in 2011 than in 2006 (growth of 4.9%). Eighty-four percent of Ireland’s population self-identifies as Catholic. However, as shown below, Catholicism is not growing as quickly as the overall Irish population.

The number of Irish identifying as “Lapsed Roman Catholic” in the census grew from 540 individuals in 2006 to 1,279 in 2011. The number of non-Catholic Christians in Ireland increased by 46,350  to a total of 281,256 in 2011 (now 6.1% of the population).

Atheists grew from 929 individuals in 2006 to 3,905 in 2011. Agnostics increased from 1,515 to 3,521. Much more notable is the rise in Ireland’s Nones. Those identifying as having no religious affiliation increased from 186,318 in 2006 to 269,811 in 2011 (44.8% growth). Nones now represent 5.9% of Ireland’s population. One in four Nones (25%) were born elsewhere in Europe and 7% immigrated from outside of Europe. Thus, more than two-thirds of Ireland’s Nones (67%) are “homegrown.”

There is a gender gap in Ireland’s non-religious population. In the total population there is a 50/50 split between men and women. But among Atheists, Agnostics, and Nones, men outnumber women 58% to 42% (46,491 more men than women).

Failing History: The President’s “Flat Earth” Jokes

Twice in recent weeks President Obama rather unfortunately described critics of his energy policies as “flat-earthers.” Here is an example:

If some of these folks were around when Columbus set sail they must have been founding members of the Flat Earth Society—they would not have believed that the world was round.

The line usually gets a good laugh and a lot of play on television news. But if one’s aim is to imply that people are being stupid it does not help to use an ignorant understanding of history, science, and as it turns out Catholicism to make your point (… and I’m not the only one surprised by this).

The notion that most people during the time of Columbus thought the earth was flat is one of the most stubbornly false legends of history. Not only incorrect, the roots of this notion are grounded in anti-Catholicism. As scientist and historian James Hannam writes “The myth that people in the Middle Ages thought the earth is flat appears to date from the 17th century as part of the campaign by Protestants.” In America, Washington Irving played an important role in perpetuating the flat earth notion by using it to spice up his widely read Columbus bio-drama. It has been a staple of bad history text books ever since.

Historian Lesley Cormack describes in Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion, how the Columbus story was used as an anti-Catholic insult: “a belief in the flat earth was equated with willful ignorance, while an understanding of the spherical earth was seen as a measure of modernity” (p. 29). Yet the reality is, as Cormack explains, very few people believed that the world was flat during the Middle Ages or even earlier. You can go all the way back to St. Augustine (354-430) and find belief in a spherical earth. She concludes that “there is virtually no historical evidence to support the myth of a medieval flat earth” (p. 34). 

I don’t think President Obama was intentionally repeating a staple of old-fashioned anti-Catholicism for that effect (it would be an odd choice as the Church has generally supported the cause of understanding and dealing with climate change). Instead I think it was akin to a common misconception in the media about science and specifically about the (mis)use of polls of scientists presented as evidence of scientific fact. Many use these polls to try to marginalize critics of green energy and theories of anthropomorphic climate change as out of touch oddballs.

As a pollster and a scientist I can tell you it matters little if 85%, 90%, or 95% of scientists state that they believe human activity is the primary cause of global warming. From the point of view of history the only thing that will matter is how well current climate change models explain and predict the future. Good data and evidence always win out in the end. 

In the early 20th century I am sure most physicists polled would have agreed entirely with the Newtonian model of physics. But there were a small percentage of physicists imagining and discovering something different. One of these men was working in a patent office and was named Albert Einstein. He would have been one of the “doubters” or “deniers” of the classical model of physics in his time. Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions long ago revealed that scientific knowledge does not advance through consensus building as it is often popularly imagined (or as it is presented in media polls of scientists). Our knowledge can take some unexpected and strange twists (e.g., Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, String Theory) and it is often the 5% of “doubters” in the “current models” who end up revealing a more accurate and refined representation of reality (there is considerable group think in science that often irrationally converges on models—stubbornly ignoring counter evidence and attacking those who put this forward... yes, there are a lot of politics in science).

In the discussion of climate change there are specific facts largely beyond doubt (i.e. what some call “incontrovertible evidence”). It is clear to most that warming has occurred in recent decades. I don't know of evidence that would lead one to believe otherwise. But we simply do not have sufficient evidence yet to say that these changes are primarily a result of human activity (even with a feasible model and theory, a correlation between two trends, emissions and temperatures, are insufficient for what one could call incontrovertible evidence of causality) or that the warming has continued to increase as expected in more recent years. Global temperatures do not appear to have kept pace with increases in emissions and atmospheric concentrations. There are also other possible models and explanations with supporting evidence that indicate sources of warming may be related to other natural causes and events. But even if these did not exist it would still be absolutely legitimate to scientifically doubt whether carbon emissions are the primary source of observed climate changes. When it is not legitimate to do so, we either have “incontrovertible evidence” (e.g., for the flat earth this consisted of geometric measurements proving a spherical earth... confirmed much later by circumnavigation and even much later by photographs of the planet from space!) or we are no longer having a scientific discussion (... and there are Nobel Prize winning scientists who have some doubts about human activity-based models of warming). 

A Devils Advocate is useful not only for the cases of saints but also science. The “doubters” fulfill a very important role as skeptics in the process (as long as this is honest and informed skepticism unmotivated by ulterior political purposes or payment from an oil company!). It is part of a good scientific process. The joking rhetoric that is being used in the presidents energy speeches is damaging. Its not only bad history, its bad science.

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