Those other kind of lies

Before we jump headfirst into this post, let's pause for a moment and pay tribute to that famous saying popularized by Mark Twain:

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.

OK, does everyone feel better now? I know I do.

Speaking of statistics, Fox News reports on a Gallup Poll concerning potential support for Mormon presidential candidates:

Much has been made about whether evangelical Christians could support a Mormon presidential candidate like Mitt Romney in the GOP primary. But a recent Gallup poll shows Democrats are far more likely than Republicans to oppose a Mormon for president.

The survey suggests a candidate like Romney would have at least as tough a time overcoming voter anxiety in a general election as he would in the race for his party's nomination. And, analysts say, the numbers underscore the lingering trouble Mormons are having gaining national and bipartisan acceptance as a product of their concentration in just a handful of states.

Here's a key chunk of the first version of the Fox story that I read:

According to Census data, America has more Mormons than either Jews, Muslims or evangelical Christians. They have congregations across the country, even though they're concentrated in Utah and other western states. While it follows that most of the 15 Mormons in Congress are from those states, their tight concentration could be making it harder to appeal to voters beyond the Rockies -- particularly Democrats.

The poll showed that 27 percent of Democrats would not be willing to vote for a presidential candidate of their party who happened to be Mormon. Among Republicans, that number was 18 percent.

See any problems with that initial attribution? My first thought was that I didn't realize the Census Bureau collected that kind of data on religious affiliation. Apparently, they don't, as Census reports I Googled attribute that kind of information to other sources. I am no expert on this subject, so there is every possibility I'm missing something. Please feel free to educate me. But I notice that the latest version of the Fox report has edited the attribution to "data from the American Religious Identification Survey."

Still, in such a blanket statement as more Mormons than either Jews, Muslims or evangelical Christians, does anything else strike you? For anyone who grew up watching "Sesame Street," which one of these things is not like the other?

A Mormon is a Mormon. A Jew is a Jew. A Muslim is a Muslim. But who is an evangelical Christian? According to the American Religious Identification Survey, there were 3.2 million adult Mormons, 2.7 million adult Jews, 1.3 million adult Muslims and 2.2 million adult Evangelical/Born Again Christians in 2008. Someone give Fox News a math prize!

Except ...

There's a note by the evangelical stat with this warning:

Because of the subjective nature of replies to open-ended questions, these categories are the most unstable as they do not refer to clearly identifiable denominations as much as underlying feelings about religion.

Oh, there are a few other stats on the same report: 36.1 million Baptist adults, 16.8 million Christians with no denomination, 5.4 million Pentecostal/Charismatic adults, etc. Just for the sake of playing devil's advocate, any chance any of those folks might also consider themselves evangelicals? As opposed to Fox's 2.2 million figure on evangelicals, other sources put the number as high as 100 million. But hey, let's not quibble over such a small difference ...

According to the 2011 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches by the National Council of Churches, Mormons rank fourth in size behind the Roman Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Convention and the United Methodist Church with 6.1 million members. Now, as I understand it, those stats are mainly self-reported by denominations and up for questioning, but (psssssssst, Fox) such a figure might give a more concrete idea of the Mormon population in America.

Fox spends the rest of the story mainly trying to analyze why Democrats might be more adverse to Mormons than Republicans. Reasons explored range from concern about Mormons being socially conservative to "intolerance." But Fox totally ignores a key possible explanation given by Gallup itself:

The largest differences in opposition to voting for a Mormon for president are by educational level, with adults who have not attended college more resistant than those with some college experience or college graduates. This educational pattern is seen in attitudes about voting for someone from almost all of the specific religious or demographic groups tested in the poll.

Could it be that significantly more self-identified Republicans have four-year degrees than Democrats, thus explaining the difference in the poll? Sorry, I hate to ask because I really don't want to ruin Fox's perfectly compelling storyline.

Anyway, what was it that Mark Twain said?

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