Don't we Americans love studies, surveys and polls? Some are particularly vulnerable to reports that claim to bring statistical precision to messy topics like religion and spirituality. Perhaps that explains why both Parade magazine and CBS's "Sunday Morning" did stories last Sunday that were based on a questionable online spirituality poll conducted by InsightExpress, a marketing research firm that focuses on "online, mobile and other media" and typically specializes in cranking out client-friendly revelations like: "Consumers accepting of mobile advertising."
I looked in vain on the web sites of Parade, CBS News and InsightExpress for information about how the poll was conducted or how the numbers were crunched. The most I could find wasn't much at all:
The PARADE Spirituality Poll was conducted by Insight Express among a national online panel of adults ages 18 and over. Surveys were completed by 1,051 respondents from May 8-12, 2009.
I was invited to become a member of the "online panel" myself! Isn't that nice?
Parade reported that Americans are spiritual (but not religious) and don't go to worship services very much. Gee. That's a truly shocking conclusion coming from an online poll that, for all we know, was based completely on responses by people who never get out of their pajamas or leave their houses.
Even stranger: the Parade and "Sunday Morning" stories took opposing approaches to the poll's alleged data.
Parade's article by Christine Wicker ("How Spiritual Are We?") downplayed TV-style esoteric spirituality:
Americans were even more opinionated when asked about the kind of esoteric spiritual ideas that fill many TV shows and movies. Two-thirds of respondents said they've never met with mediums or psychics, had a psychic experience, or even watched a psychic or medium on TV.
But "Sunday Morning's" segment, "A Matter of Faith," took the opposite approach, focusing on the "one in five" Americans who commune with the dead. The segment gave viewers a guided tour of American esoterica, including the Swedenborgian Church, Theosophy, Ouija boards, and interviews with the author of a book called Occult America. The segment also featured Jon Edward, TV's top psychic medium, who announced that "organized religion has failed people."
Correspondent Martha Teichner actually said that contemporary American spirituality looks a lot like the movie Ghostbusters!
I've got a survey question for you. How many Americans think media coverage of religion is so important that outlets should stop dignifying questionable religion surveys and then using them as springboards for goofy stories?