The infographic from the LDS Newsroom in my last post, “Mormonism 101 Inforgraphic,” raised a few questions and concerns. First, it helps to recognize that infographics of this kind are condensed little factoids aimed at raising awareness and perhaps entertaining, but complex details aren’t going to be conveyed well. It also helps to know that this particular batch of factoids is partly based on a recent outside study of Latter-day Saints which, like all studies, has inherent limitations that need to be understood. I discuss the study and the info graphic briefly on my Introduction to the Mormons (LDS Intro) page at JeffLindsay.com.
“Mormons in America: Certain in Their Beliefs, Uncertain of Their Place in Society” was published in January 2012 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. In the full report (a 2 MB PDF) we learn that the study was conducted via phone interviews in late 2011. I believe that means that participants naturally were those who were willing to identify themselves as Mormon to a stranger and who cared enough about religion (or about surveys) to endure the interview. This will skew the results toward active Mormons. The survey, for example, reports that 77% of Mormon say they attend church weekly. But most Mormons know that in their wards or branches, average weekly attendance is under 50% (say, 30-50%) of listed members. So take these factoids with a grain of salt! But the Pew study may be helpful in roughly comparing some traits across religions, if we understand the limitations of the study. For example, after carefully considering this study, you may conclude that active Mormons, unlike most other active Christians, stand out in being much more interested in talking about their religious activity in random surveys. Ah, the fruits of Mormon missionary zeal!
8 thoughts on “The Pew Forum Study on Mormons: Understanding the Limitations”
Jeff, it's all well and good to point out that, in the infographic published by the Church's PR shop, "complex details aren't going to be conveyed well," and that the study on which one of the factoids is based "has inherent limitations that need to be understood."
The bottom line is that the infographic conveys an overall impression that is not really true. The real problem here has to do with the question of why Mormon Newsroom used this particular factoid in the first place: not because it is true, but because it makes the Church look good.
And this is precisely the problem with a church running a public relations outfit. If there's any institution in the modern world that should reject the "PR ethic" and focus solely on truth rather than appearance, it is religion.
The 77% v. <50% point is interesting – but it may not be a result solely of self-selection bias. I know a number of members who would say and actually think they attend every week, but really do not. Just as I know members who consider themselves active but attedn sporadically.
Complaining about a lack of nuance or context in a factoid is like complaining about a short twitter post. I didn't see any problem with the factoid, even after the comments in the other post.
Eve Sun, for an atheist, you sure have a lot of ideas on how religions ought to be conducting their affairs.
Of course I "have a lot of ideas on how religions ought to be conducting their affairs." And why shouldn't I? Religion shapes the world I live in.
Regarding the 77% vs 50%, I don't see anything amiss. Many of those that don't attend meeting would probably not declare they are Mormon. I don't know how many times I've visited an inactive member only to hear them say they are not Mormon anymore.
You highlight an interesting point: how to define if a person is Mormon. I know I'm in the minority of Church members, but I believe self-identification is a more relevant measure than baptism. Being Mormon is more than a one-time event, even an event that can be as sacred as baptism.
I agree, self-identification is the only truly valid indicator of religious affiliation; an idea which is consistent with American values relating to freedom of religion: you are free at any time to choose the religion you associate with.