Wednesday, May 18, 2005

What Einstein Told His Cook 2 by Robert Wolke

I didn't love this book--I think I've read so many kitchen chemistry books that it all seems redundant. But how disappointed can you be with a book that ends with a recipe for grilled chocolate sandwiches?

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Potentially Sane Mother's Guide to Raising Young Children by Tamara Fackrell

I thought the premise here was great: instead of yet another parenting book written by someone with menopausal amnesia, this one was written when the author's children were 6, 4, 2, and a baby. She seemed like a woman right up my ally: not only did she take on a book project, but she has a law degree and works one day per week at a law school.

Unfortunately, the book was not very useful. Short, disconnected, seemingly random thoughts on parenting fill its pages and the format forced her to be redundant. It's the same tired advice you've heard before and all the old chesnuts (i.e., men want sex and food, women don't even know what they want.) Not recommended.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism by Wright and Prince

Book Cover

Yes, I'm reviewing two books on David O. McKay. My original intention was to review them together (and explore the larger issue of writing faith-promoting as opposed to warts-and-all history), but I decided that wouldn't be fair. It didn't seem fair because David O. McKay: Beloved Prophet is a credible entry in the well-established subgenre of LDS biography. It does exactly what it is supposed to do. But David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism is a category killer.

David O. McKay: Beloved Prophet by Mary Jane Woodger

Book Cover

I have mixed feelings about the very presence of Woodger's David O. McKay: Beloved Prophet. On the one hand, as someone who wants to read biographies of all of the prophets of this dispensation, I'm always happy to see a new addition to the fold. While there are other biographies of President McKay, the pickings are pretty slim--and expensive

Friday, May 06, 2005

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

It wasn't until after I received this book that I realized that its author also wrote Isaac's Storm, which is one of my all-time favorite books. The Devil in the White City proves that Larson isn't a one-hit wonder. He weaves together the cringe-worthy story of the delays that almost ruined the 1893 World's Fair with the macabre tale of H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who operated a hotel near the fair. As Holmes introduces psychopathology to the American landscape, the fair introduces the Ferris Wheel, zipper, alternating current, and the Pledge of Allegiance (and probably inspired Walt Disney, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Baum's Oz). This is a vivid picture of the train wreck of technology and freedom that shaped the twentieth century. Highly recommended.

Monday, May 02, 2005

A Statistical Profile of Mormons: Health, Wealth, and Social Life

Anyone and everyone interested in Mormon Studies should read this book.

Where else are you going to find out that:

–LDS are three times more likely to be widowed than the non-LDS population
–LDS women pray more often than LDS men (in fact, LDS men are slightly less likely to pray than non-LDS women)
–32% of LDS pregnancies were “unwanted” or wanted “later”
–37% of LDS who attend Church weekly have had premarital sex by age 20
–LDS men are far more likely than the national average to think that the division of household chores and childcare is unfair to their wives
–on average, married LDS couples have sex (link is to poll data) five times per month (which mirrors the national average)
–7.2% of LDS youth ran away from home in the last two years
–LDS who attend Church rarely or never are more likely to smoke cigarettes, use marijuana, and be depressed than the national average
–at least among the youth, LDS are more likely than the national average to eat fruits and vegetables and exercise
–11% of LDS (national average: 22%) think marijuana should be legal?

In fact, I think you could at random select just about any sentence from this book and generate a lengthy discussion about the data and its implications. (Anyone desperate for material for her or his blog would be well-advised to consider such an approach.) A few facts I found particularly interesting:

(1) LDS women are 8% less likely than the national average to be working full time. They are actually 3% more likely than the national average to work part time. (Another study cited in the book found them 10% less likely to work full time and 2% more likely to work part time.) In other words, all of that emphasis on mothers in the home has resulted in a behavior change affecting less than 1 in 10 women. I find this surprising. (Another interesting employment stat: 71% of LDS adolescents work for pay, compared to 59% of the national average. Between working, seminary, and mutual, one wonders precisely when 37% of them find time to have illicit sex!)

(2) “Contrary to other churches, the highest rate of adult attendance in the LDS Church is by the never-married.”

(3) “Roughly 40 percent of adults in the United States report attending church or synagogue ‘within the last seven days,’ The percentage was about 40 in the 1940s, rose 8-10 percent in the 1950s, but declined to around 40 percent by 1970. It has not varied significantly for the last 30 years.”

(4) LDS women do not differ from the national average in either average age at birth of first child or percent who used birth control before conception.

(5) LDS teen girls living on the east and west coasts have higher rates of sexual activity than LDS boys in those places. However, in Utah County, the rates are the same.

(6) Perhaps the single most disturbing thing I found in this book is this: LDS family relationships are quantitatively ‘better’ than the national average, but not qualitatively better. In other words, LDS are more likely to be born into a two-parent family, more likely to marry and remarry, etc., but no more likely to describe their family relationships in positive ways than the national average. They feel no closer to father or mother, no more satisfied with communication with mother or father, no more likely to think father cares about them, etc., than the national average.

(7) “Among Mormons, the more educated and younger women show strongest support for family roles.”

(8) LDS women are “significantly higher” in depression than nonmember women.

(9) It will come as no surprise to anyone that LDS rate very conservatively on virtually all political issues. The two exceptions: the Saints show more racial tolerance and more support for civil liberties than the national average.

While the book excels at factoids, it unfortunately ends up rather uneven both in quantity and quality of interpretation. For the most part, there is no analysis of the data. Perhaps it was the intent of the authors to stop with the presentation of data and leave analysis to those who would stand on the shoulders of giants. Fine. But that isn’t exactly what happened. They irregularly dip into the data to present theories and, unfortunately, those theories range from simplistic to downright weird. For example:

Data point: Mormons are slightly more educated than the US average.
Interpretation: The Church’s teachings on the perfectibility of humans leads the Saints to seek more education. They even quote D & C 130:18-19.

I suppose there might be some slight Mormon cultural bias towards education based on our belief that you get to keep your book learnin’ in the Resurrection. But I would imagine that equally plausible reasons that LDS are (slightly) more educated than the average could include:

–those less educated might feel less comfortable in Church activity, so there might be a conversion or selection bias
–male LDS expecting to be a sole family wage earner (or any Saint expecting tithing to remove a decent chunk of their disposable income) might seek more education, expecting higher-paying jobs
–the folk belief equating prosperity with righteousness might subconsciously encourage the Saints to help that prosperity along

There are probably many other plausible theories. And perhaps all of mine are wrong. My point is simply that I don’t think you can take their (unsubstantiated) theory as the last word. (Especially since they later note that LDS are underrepresented at both ends of the education spectrum: “Apparently, education is a good thing, but extensive education is not necessarily desirable.") Since it seems that this book is geared in large part toward nonmember researchers, I think their burden for reliable interpretation is even higher than it would have been if they were speaking to the choir. Again, for the most part, they do very little speculation about the data (although they do weigh in briefly on LDS female depression and at length on political issues).

Similarly, this struck me as a sentence that could only have been written by a Mormon: “Unexpectedly . . . those who drink alcohol tend to report somewhat better health than those who do not drink.” While the data is, of course, controversial, the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption are generally accepted. Only Mormons would find this news ‘unexpected.’

They only barely address the issue of what role social science should play in the kingdom. Perhaps beyond the scope of their project, but nonetheless answers to the following questions interest me:

(1) What, if anything, should the Church as an organization do with this kind of data? For example, if we could discover correlations between, say, tithe paying and proximity of a Temple, should we build more Temples so the number of tithe payers would increase? Or, if we found that FHE had no impact of the future activity rate of children, should we de-emphasize it?

(2) What, if anything, should individuals do with this data? (And then a follow-up: Should we make this data more available to individuals?) For example, I would have guessed that less than 10% of weekly-attending Saints would have had sex by the time that they were 20. But the number is almost four times that. Should I as a YW leader or seminary teacher teach differently? (Not, of course, to water down the Church’s teachings about chastity but perhaps to emphasize repentance and begin with the idea that a third of my audience has had sex.) Similarly, LDS youth were slightly more likely to use birth control during their first sexual experience than the national average (71.4% versus 69.6%), suggesting that they were not, in fact, engaged in a ‘crime of passion,’ but had planned the event. Should this affect how we teach youth?

(3) How should this data affect how we define ourselves as Latter-day Saints? I think we are used to defining ourselves by, primarily, our history and our beliefs and practices. Should that change? The next time a casual friend says, “Tell me about the Mormons,” should I lead off with, “Well, 42% of us . . ."?

(4) Does the data tell us anything about God? For example, one of the findings in this book is that, despite the impression one might reach from reading the anecdotes in the Random Sampler in the Ensign, Church members are not less likely to be crime victims than the general population. Does this suggest that there is nothing protective about the priesthood, endowed members, or even the guidance of the Spirit? More generally, can statistics teach us any theological truths? (And how do you think it would go over if someone in my Sunday School class told a story about being protected and I replied, “Well, actually, LDS are victimized as much as the national population, so what you describe is more likely to be a mere coincidence.")

(5) I would say that the one way that this type of data is used among the Saints already is to crow about the blessings that they receive: surely you have heard comments in Church classes to the effect that Saints live longer, etc., as a result of their observance of the Word of Wisdom. (But see above on health benefits of wine: “he who lives by the nutrition data . . .") I worry about this. To use a different example that I think could be similarly abused: there is a correlation between education level and Church attendance for the Saints (nationwide, church attendance does not vary significantly by education). (Translation: The smarter you are, the more Mormon you are.) But isn’t another way of looking at this data to wonder what we are doing to alienate the less educated? We’ve talked about this before: it is virtually impossible to be an active Saint without several changes of nice clothes, a phone, reliable transportation, and a work schedule that you know several weeks in advance. At least one of these factors will knock out of the running virtually every service worker in this country.

To sum, this might be the most interesting book ever written that contains both “p<.01" and "unstandardized regression coefficient." (Fortunately, the book is almost entirely understandable by those who have no clue what those mean.) There's lots of data to have fun with here.

Cross-posted to Times and Seasons.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

blink by Malcolm Gladwell

I need a neologism: a word to describe any book (usually, they seem to be in the social sciences) that tries to advance some theory (and it may or may not succeed) but in the process tells such fabulous stories that you end up not much caring about the theory.

Gladwell is such a storyteller. The anecdotes in this book are great, as were the ones in The Tipping Point. I don't care about his theories, he's just a fun read. Highly recommended.

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