Six years ago Arthur Brooks published Who Really Cares (which has gone through several subtitles, from America’s Charity Divide to Who Gives, Who Doesn’t, and Why It Matters to The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism). This book is still triumphantly cited by many conservatives and libertarians as proving various dubious things, but especially two in particular: that atheists are less charitable than religious believers, and that privatizing all social welfare would improve social welfare.
But this book is largely a sham. It cooks the numbers and uses devious logical tricks to make it seem as though its conclusions are true, when in fact they demonstrably are not (or at best are demonstrably undemonstrated). A good skeptic doesn’t just believe what she reads; she checks the facts and the logic to make sure she’s not being snowed. Sadly, libertarians (usually men) who cite this book at me (as happened last year in a private communication) are bad skeptics. Because they don’t treat this book skeptically. At all. It just corroborates their ideology, so obviously it can’t be incorrect about anything, and one shouldn’t even think to check if it is.
This struck me the moment that exchange happened: a notable man claimed to me that data in Who Really Cares proves that “the working poor” give “three times more” to charity than anyone “on public assistance” at the same income level, and therefore public welfare makes people less charitable. Of course, right away I was suspicious, since it seems absurd to think someone who can only survive by receiving charity should be expected to give anything to charity. (Can you imagine badmouthing a disabled homeless person dependent on your soup kitchen and group home for not giving anything to charity…that lousy miser!)
But more importantly to today’s lesson, I was immediately suspicious of the statistic. [Read more…]