That Study You Just Read Might Be False (Against the Sufficiency of Data)

Both studies and people can lie, but only one of them can admit it.

No demographic has been the subject of recent studies and surveys more than Millennials (those born approx. 1980-2000). Ironically, there's also no demographic that hates those studies and surveys more than Millennials. And not just the ones about them--my generation is resistant to this kind of evidence, in general.

For example, the recent Pew study on America's changing religious landscape indicated that Millennials are increasingly driving the growth of "nones" or the religiously unaffiliated. That data is one thing, but the plethora of interpretations is quite another.

As I said in my last post, I take issue with the assumption that nones are the faithless products of nominal Christians. This is the narrative currently permeating evangelical circles and it's saturated with even more studies and statistics. So modern-thinking, older folks are convinced that arguing with this interpretation would be like arguing with truth itself. But if you noticed anything about my interpretation, it's that it contained absolutely no data.

What I did is what the modern thinker would call conjecture; I drew my conclusions from stories. The picture I painted was a composite of various faces I know personally. No facts or figures, no informal Facebook surveys, just the experiences of real people in the form of prose.

I did this because, like my peers, I'm a postmodern thinker and I don't value data. All studies can fall prey to leading questions or dishonest answers. They're limited by sample range and size and dependent on the methods of collection and interpretation. It's ironic that evidence such as this is considered objective when it's subject to so many variables. But the priority of statistical evidence over anecdotal is based on the belief that accuracy in knowledge comes through quantity, not trust.

That's the most common objection to anecdotal evidence: "Well, that's just one person's perspective." For evidence to be as accurate as possible, we need to curate as much as possible and weigh the averages. After all, if only one person in a room likes the color blue, it would be inaccurate to say that everyone did if everyone else actually likes red. But this doesn't account for those who might be lying about their favorite color or those who really like blue lying about the results or even those who skew the data by limiting the options to blue and an unpopular color like yellow.

Many will readily affirm this potential for error but will still contend that reasonable results can be achieved with enough data. However, if it's possible that more data can decrease error, then it's equally possible that more data can increase error. Just like one person's perspective could wildly misrepresent a group, any given study shares the same possibility (if not more, due to the increased number of variables).

The only antidote to this level of skepticism is trust. Scientists and statisticians ultimately trust themselves--their methods and their ability to comprehend and explain the results. Likewise, we all trust those we keep close to us because we know them. So when Pew's study was released and evangelicals started raining doom and data, I was immediately skeptical because the data didn't corroborate with the stories I'd heard. It's the difference between trusting people I know and trusting an organization of people I don't know who surveyed thousands more I don't know.

That's why you're seeing more and more Millennials speaking up for their demographic, like this one:
I'm going to do something different here. I'm not going to cite Barna. I'm not going to quote Rachel Held Evans. I'm not going to link to any articles or blog posts. I'm just going to tell you what's true for me, and what I've seen to be true of others like me.
We're tired of studies and surveys speaking for us, so we're giving others the opportunity to get to know us rather than digitize us into their next pet project. Don't tell us that we're not leaving the church in great numbers because I've seen too many of my friends do so. Don't tell us that we're leaving due to outdated social norms because I know lots of people who don't care about those. Don't tell us that we'll come back if the church was more hip because none of my friends will. Stop telling us what we think and listen.

If you do, you'll find that we're a lot more interesting and complicated than data because data can never express who we are like relationships can. Furthermore, without relationship, our data would only lead us to naturalism and nihilism because we would never know about the loving God waiting for us in eternity. That's how he's chosen to reveal himself. And if our faith isn't about facts, why should our life be?