Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Andrew Greeley: Controversy Needs Careful Measurement

Copyright, The New York Times Company

The Rev. Andrew M. Greeley, who died on Thursday, was a creative and dedicated social scientist who taught economists and others that scholars help resolve controversies by making careful measurements.

Father Greeley was a Roman Catholic priest, well known outside of academic circles for his outspoken views on Church matters (the late Cardinal John Patrick Cody of Chicago refused to assign Father Greeley to a parish) and his best-selling mysteries and romance novels. But he also earned a doctorate in sociology at the University of Chicago in 1962 and was a senior study director at the National Opinion Research Center at Chicago.

Father Greeley actively participated in academic discourse at both of those institutions for the rest of his life. His participation included sharing wisdom and ideas with young social scientists arriving at the University of Chicago, as he did with me when I arrived in the early 1990s.

In his dissertation work, Father Greeley tried to help answer controversial questions by gathering better data. One anecdote from his graduate student days – a time when Americans were actively debating whether it would be appropriate to have a Catholic, John F. Kennedy, as president of the United States – succinctly illustrates Father Greeley’s approach.

He was interested in assertions that Catholics were not segregated from Protestants, especially in Midwestern cities like Chicago. As evidence against segregation, Father Greeley told me, many people pointed to Chicago institutions that included significant numbers of both Catholics and Protestants. The Beverly Country Club on the southwest side of the city was one of those institutions, and in fact had roughly equal numbers of Catholic and Protestant members.

Father Greeley wondered whether the club was nonetheless highly segregated on the inside, but, working long before the days of surveillance cameras and eye-recognition software, was faced with the challenge of measuring internal segregation. He approached the caddy master at the club, who kept records on which club members played golf and at what “tee time.” Up to four members could play golf together, and in doing so they would have a common tee time. Father Greeley was permitted to examine the tee sheets and found that Catholics and Protestants rarely shared a tee time: Catholics and Protestants might have been at the same club, but they were not golfing together.

(If you are wondering how tee sheets would indicate religion, Catholics in the Beverly neighborhood were primarily Irish and had distinctly Irish surnames. Moreover, Father Greeley was the assistant pastor at a Catholic parish in that neighborhood and knew many of the families).

Father Greeley’s passion to inform controversies with new and better data suited him well for his positions at the National Opinion Research Center, where in the early 1970s he helped initiate the General Social Survey, which continues today and is widely used in economics and other social-science research. For example, the survey results he examined helped overturn the belief that Catholics were less educated than the average American. He also helped fund expansions in the General Social Survey, and its international counterpart the International Social Survey Programme, to include additional topics and additional nations.

He and I talked about the welfare state, especially its differences between the United States and Western Europe. One point of view, still held today, is that Western Europeans are more compassionate toward their less fortunate neighbors. After all, the United States had traditionally devoted less of its national income to social programs than did France, Sweden and other nations. But Father Greeley noted that results from international surveys of volunteering and giving showed that Americans spent more money and time in volunteer work than Western Europeans did, so perhaps American compassion takes a different form.

Survey results are criticized when they go against the conventional wisdom. Father Greeley acknowledged that surveys have flaws but explained that conventional wisdom often has those flaws in spades.

Everybody takes surveys,” he wrote. “Whoever makes a statement about human behavior has engaged in a survey of some sort,” adding:

The difference between the survey takers and the rest of generalizing humankind is that the former (usually) observe large numbers of people in a representative sample that reflects the total population and are precise about their methods of data collection and analysis. Precisely because the professional survey taker is honest about his methods, he becomes an easy target for loudmouth critics who appeal to ‘what everyone knows’ and ‘common sense.’

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