Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Transparent Process? Questioning the Survey

I spent a year or so working for the influential Dr. Dean Hoge at the Catholic University of America's Life Cycle Institute. We were working on a major project for 5 Protestant denominations on why pastors leave local church ministry. (The project became this book; they thanked me in it somewhere.) I learned a lot, but not being a credentialed sociologist, my contributions would always be at the level of Research Assistant, and I was lucky to get that. It was fun. I learned a lot about ecclesiology, which has always been an interest. But there was no way that I would have been allowed to implement a survey, or analyze the data, or evaluate and publish its results. Everything I did was tightly scrutinized. The project was directed by a professor of sociology, considered an expert, with many published books indicating his research qualifications, and co-directed by a graduate student who was in the writing phase of her doctorate in sociology. The rest of us just did what we were told.

So imagine my surprise when a study purporting to be major is undertaken by students in the Liturgy Department of the College of St. Benedict/ St. John's University, with a Social Psychologist from the CSB/SJU faculty as their Professional Consultant, and the hardly-disinterested Rev. Anthony Ruff, OSB, as their advisor.

Here are the credentials of the Project Manager, according to the PrayTell website:
Chase M. Becker is a Nebraska native and current editorial assistant for Pray Tell. Chase holds a B.A. in Philosophy from Saint Gregory the Great Seminary in Seward, Nebraska and is currently pursuing an M.A. in Liturgical Studies from Saint John's School of Theology•Seminary in Collegeville, Minnesota. Chase currently serves as a Liturgical Designer and Consultant and has earned awards in historic preservation from Heritage Nebraska and Preservation North Dakota.

The sympathetic-leaning PrayTell commentariat have already weighed in on the likelihood of sampling errors, particularly considering the enormous amount of self-selection that occurred. Self-selecting dioceses participated. Self-selecting clergy from these dioceses participated. And as Jeffrey mentions below, we are given very little of the data.

Before we take this survey with any seriousness, why don't we stop and ask for a little transparency.
What did the surveys look like? Did they indicate Collegeville as their source or destination, thus influencing participation? Which dioceses were involved and why? Were there any outside scientists involved in the process? Was any outside social scientist consulted for independent evaluation of the procedures?

What degree of professionally credible skill was involved in producing this survey? How involved was the in-house scientific consultant? Did she design the survey? Did she evaluate the results or train the liturgy students to a high level of analytical skill before they processed the results? What corrections were made to the raw data?