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Beware of statisticians using sleight of hand – especially when it comes to religion

A new study claims faith schools hold countries back. The detail reveals a very different picture.

Academics are entitled to our opinions. But we are not entitled to use sleight of hand to give our views a spurious air of academic authority. Unfortunately, in my own field of statistics, this happens all the time – not least when it comes to religion.

Take, for instance, a recent widely-reported study by Professor Gijsbert Stoet, Professor of Psychology at Leeds Beckett University. Prof Stoet argued in the respected journal Intelligence that the government should stop funding faith schools, because, he says, they contribute to lower test scores in maths and science.

In the accompanying press release, he advocates “a stronger secular approach” to education, and calls for the government to reduce funding for faith schools.

This is a surprising conclusion, not least because most research is very positive about the effect religious schools (and Catholic education in particular) has both on educational outcomes as well as other measures of social welfare. For some reason, this research gets very little attention in Prof Stoet’s paper.

So how did he reach such unusual conclusions? As it turns out, he and his team collected data on test scores in maths and science in 76 countries. They compared the scores to levels of religious adherence in each country.

He found, first, that test scores are lower in countries with high levels of adherence; and second – based on a much smaller sample – that test scores are lower in countries which allocate more time to religion in schools.

Now, every first-year statistics undergraduate knows that that correlation does not necessarily imply causation. Correlation may be due to other factors which make both variables change together.

This study is especially vulnerable to the problem, since the countries vary widely, from Canada to Saudi Arabia, from the UK to Ghana. The differences in political structure, and the historical development of education policy, introduce a host of possible factors which make any conclusions about causation highly dubious.

The researchers acknowledge the problem, but their response is hardly reassuring. They introduce just one control (the UN Human Development Index) – which most researchers would feel is inadequate.

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