A little more than a month ago, a paper about atheists and distrust garnered some attention and outrage in nonreligious circles, not necessarily because of what the study said but how it was interpreted—bloggers and irresponsible reporters claimed this study demonstrated that atheists were less trusted than rapists. I suspected almost immediately that this claim would be echoed without any real understanding of it, like the nonsense notion that atheists are the most reviled, most hated, or least trusted minority in the United States. I don’t know what it is about statistical research in the social sciences that makes otherwise intelligent people repeat sensational claims again and again, but it’s extremely frustrating.
But on to the actual study. The Friendly Atheist writes:
Somehow, we’re less trusted than even rapists. That’s disheartening, but it really says more about how religious people think than anything about atheists.
And he’s partway right: if we were less trusted than rapists that would be really disheartening and controversial, but thankfully, as I wrote last month, it’s not at all true.
But since I’m still working my way through the finer nuances of blogging and writing more generally, I’ve learned that I can occasionally suck terribly at explaining things. Reading through some comments on the article, it looks like people aren’t quite following what I meant to say. There are also a lot of common objections I’ve read, particularly with how I addressed the issue of a ceiling effect. So I think with those in mind, the study deserves another pass. Continue reading