August 25, 2011

The problem with projections

And now to the root of my baptism bubble. It's all about (it usually is) statistics (including the lies and the damned lies).

The beginnings in my case trace back to the late 1970s, when sociologists began paying serious attention to the Mormon church's membership growth. These studies culminated most famously in Rodney Stark's 1984 calculation of a 64 million to 267 million growth in membership over the next century.

Even if the church didn't directly, apologists didn't shrink from pointing to these studies and crowing about "independent" confirmation of inevitability of Mormon sectarian hegemony, and trumpeting the Mormonism's "fastest growing religion" status (an error that continues to this day).

There's one big problem with these rosy projections: the numbers Stark and others were using came from the church itself. The "official" membership numbers the church publishes don't count butts in pews. It's a number derived from membership records. It's a derivative.

Remember what happened the last time we treated derivatives like real things?

Every person a membership record has ever been generated for is included.(1) Because there are more "inactive Mormons" not attending church than "active" members, the database administrators have a problem: when to retire an entry. Answer: when you hit 110, you're officially dead.

In other words, Mormons who never attend church are, according to the church's membership database, the healthiest people on the planet.

Add to this "children of record." Although you don't "officially" become a Mormon until you are baptized, records are generated for children under eight. These records can be canceled at the local level, but that supposes somebody being around to remember (or care) to actually do so.

When my father was a membership clerk, he played private detective and went around tracking down these lost souls. That kind of fastidiousness is extremely rare.

Many COB (Church Office Building) watchers are aware of this, and try to invent other statistical proxies for church membership, such as the number of stakes. But outside Utah, stake and ward sizes are anything but a constant, the result being another loosely-derived derivative.

It is a very human problem. All bureaucracies behave like bureaucracies, and all bureaucrats behave like bureaucrats, whether church or state, whether the Boy Scouts or the Communist Party. Once you hint at measuring success using numbers, the Bernie Madoffs come out of the woodwork.

But that's unfair. The ones causing the most damage aren't the Mr. Potters in It's a Wonderful Life chortling as they screw over the little guy, but those convinced they're doing God's work (while screwing over the little guy).

The irony here is that the church knows exactly how many butts there are in the pews on any given Sunday. The ward clerk does a head count (one butt per head). By now, though, the disparity between reality and fantasy has grown so large there's no easy way to paper over the differences.

This "butt number" is one of the best-kept secrets in the world. The CIA could learn a thing or two.

I can imagine that Bernie Madoff never set out to run the biggest Ponzi scheme in history. But when it became apparent that he wasn't as smart as he thought he was, he didn't want to disappoint people or appear foolish, not unlike the bozos at Long Term Capital Management, who should have known better.

Madoff was once chairman of the NASDAQ stock exchange. The board of LTCM was graced by two Nobel laureates. This isn't about being smart enough, it's about knowing when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em, when to walk away, and when to run. Yep, a Kenny Rogers ballad may be all the wisdom we need.

Alas, even on a good day, very few of us are as smart as a country-western ballad. So the bean counters in the COB don extra-big blinders and gallop onwards, looking forward to the day when the entire world has converted to Mormonism but nobody shows up to church.

1. If you have your records "removed," are you counted or not? Dunno. But the record is never actually removed, especially if you're an excommunicated polygamist whack job. The church doesn't want you hopping to another ward and sneaking in through the back door. You can check out of this church anytime you want, but you can never leave.

Related posts

The evolution
Blowing bubbles
The truth is worse
The weirdest two years

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# posted by Anonymous Dan
8/27/2011 11:56 AM   
No one gets fired for projecting the continuation of the trend. This axiom appears to be true even for hurricanes.