Monday, September 9, 2013

David Barton’s grasp of statistics is just as bad as his grasp of history.

So Barton gives a smug little speech in which he references a passage is Proverbs 1:7 that says “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” Of course he uses this to claim that our educational system is failing because we removed compulsive prayer. You can watch the whole video below.

If you watch this you will notice that one of his key points is that the U.S. literacy rates have fallen from 1st in the world to 68th. It turns out this is a problematic claim on multiple levels. One it seems to be a bald face lie or at least a demonstration that he is unable to do a Google search. The reason I say this is that every set of world literacy figures I can find places the United States in the 20’s, quite a bit higher than the number he offers. Figures placed in numbered order here, and here.

The second problem is that, even if he was correct, he confuses correlation with causation. There are plenty of other possible causes for the U.S. to have changes in it’s world literacy placement. For one, it isn’t like these other countries are just sitting around existing to make us look good. Many other countries have been working on improving their literacy rates; so our position could have fallen without our literacy rates dropping at all.

The main question he should be asking if he were actually concerned with whether or not his claims are true is if there is any evidence that a lack of prayer is schools actually causes literacy to decline. This isn’t a hard question to answer. We only need to go back to tables I previously linked to and see if there is any correlation between the religiosity of a country and literacy. It turns out there is, however unfortunately for Barton, it is a negative correlation. The countries with the highest literacy rates, countries like Finland and Greenland, are by and large not filled with religious people. Further the countries at the bottom of the list, countries like Somalia and Afghanistan, are typically very religious. In any case all of the first half of these lists are above 90% and it turns out that the United States, as a highly religious culture with high literacy, is actually one of the few exceptions. It turns out there is no evidence to suggest that prayer or “fear of god” has a positive effect on literacy. However, there is quite a bit of evidence that Barton does not care if the claims he makes are actually true.

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