Math is hard

piberational fullpic 1My educational background is in economics, not journalism or religion. Which means I had to sit through approximately eleventy billion hours of math and statistics coursework in college. I think reporters and editors could use a dose of math themselves -- if only to avoid their ever present confusion about percentages. Take this Associated Press story about Utah's religious demography:

Mormon population in Utah shrinks as state economy diversifies

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The Mormon population of Utah continues to get smaller.

An Associated Press analysis of Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints membership records used by state planning officials to develop population estimates shows that Mormons now make up 60.4 percent of the state's population. That's down from 60.7 percent last year.

The percentage has declined every year for nearly two decades and if the trend continues Mormons will make up less than half of Utah's population by 2030.

"The LDS population will still increase, but as a share of the total, that should continue to decline over time," said University of Utah demographer Pam Perlich. "What would cause that to reverse would be an economic collapse and the same people who moved here for jobs leave for jobs. ... But there's a slim-to-none chance that would ever happen."

In Salt Lake County, the state's most populous county and home to church headquarters, Mormons are barely holding onto their majority, making up 50.6 percent of the population.

If you skip the headline and the lede (which is what the vast majority of the reading population doesn't do), the story is accurate. But there is a difference between an absolute increase in population size, which LDS members certainly had, and a decrease relative to the total population (which also occurred).

Reader Chip, who submitted the story, asks:

Do journalists avoid math even more than religion in the studies?

My experience covering federal budgets and battles over same convinced me that math is a completely foreign language to the vast majority of the media. I mean, if something went from three percent to five percent, it would be described as a change of two percent. Any meaningful dissection of numbers, via regression analysis, was completely beyond the scope of imagination. And the few editors who understood math spent weeks running from desk to desk like junior high school math teachers helping their students with word problems. And yet journalism schools are dropping their simple statistics requirements.

As the story above demonstrates, failure to get math can cause significant problems with religion reporting and lead to flawed assumptions.

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