Thursday, December 2, 2010

For the 9 Millionth Time, Correlation =/= Causation

Just the title of this threw up a few dozen red flags for me: Poll: Very Religious Americans Have Better Emotional Health.

First of all, it's a poll, not a study. Polls depend upon honesty, and if there's one thing people tend not to be honest about, it's mental illness. (Due to the intense shaming our society foists upon those with mental illness.) A study, on the other hand, would have questionnaires designed to catch people hiding or denying mental illness*. A poll is just a question, and if you know anything about fundamentalists, you know how they feel about mental illness. Fundamentalists view mental illness, even common illnesses like post partum depression, as a moral, and even worse, a spiritual failing. Therefore, the "very religious" are the least likely to admit to having depression.

So I find this to be a bit suspect:

Gallup's new report on Tuesday shows that 15.6 percent of American adults who say religion is an important part of daily life and who attend a church, synagogue or mosque at least every week or almost every week have been diagnosed with depression in their lifetime.

Meanwhile, 18.7 nonreligious Americans have been diagnosed. Among "moderately religious" adults, 20.4 percent reported having been diagnosed with depression.

Huh. If religion is the causative factor behind "better emotional health", then why are the nonreligious better off than the "moderately religious"?

Gallup noted in its report that the finding does not necessarily imply that the act of becoming religious will reduce or eliminate depression since Americans were asked whether they were diagnosed at any point in their life.

Still, the research group documents a significant relationship between high religiosity and lower levels of negative emotional wellbeing.

Do they document it with this poll? Because that's seriously suspect if so.

Though Gallup reported that it is possible that Americans who exhibit lower emotional negativity may just be more likely to choose to be religious, the research firm suggested, "The best explanation for the observed relationship between religion and more positive states of emotional health may be the most straightforward – that being religious in fact produces a salutary effect on one's mental health."

Really? That's the best explanation? How about the fact that being actively religious requires a great deal of socializing and going places and doing things- all activities that are difficult if not impossible for those with depression? That's ignoring the self reporting aspect of a poll, and we already have a different "most straightforward" explanation for the results. Heck, include the self reporting problems, and we have two different "most straightforward" explanations for the results- neither of which is dealt with here. Wait, I'm ignoring the general misunderstandings about depression in our culture, in which a bad day is mistaken for depression, so people self reporting depression in this poll may have simply been talking about an extended bad mood. I didn't even really think about this and I came up with three "most straightforward" explanations for the results.

Drawing possible reasons for the worse emotional health among the moderately religious Americans, the report stated, "The greater religious ambivalence found in this ... group could be a leading and lagging factor in their more negative emotional health, as these Americans may be less prone to commit to one belief system fully because of their higher rates of depression, stress, and worry."

So . . . it's religion if the results are good, it's the people themselves if the results are bad. Okay then.

Science: ur doin it rong.

*If you've never seen such a questionnaire, the same question will be asked repeatedly, but worded differently. If you are telling the truth, you'll answer the same way each time, but if you are lying, it's more difficult to parse repeatedly.


  1. Or maybe people that have dumped all of their being into a delusion are far less likely to recognize when they're actually suffering from a mental disorder.

  2. My assumption about this is much simpler:

    Very religious people don't get diagnosed with depression as often because they don't go to mental health professionals when they're down. They go to church and get it prayed away.

    This is like making a big deal out of a study that shows Christian Scientists don't get diagnosed with cancer as much as non-religious people. Or like a study that shows deaf people don't get diagnosed with hearing loss after loud concerts. Or a poll that indicates people who stay inside all day are less prone to sun burn than people who tan regularly.

    Although it could also be that this whole thing is a bizarre scientific study of confirmation bias...


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