Monday, August 5, 2013


Millennials are this and that and want this and that.

And they are so different from generation xyz.

I was 19 when Neil Postman delivered a talk about BS and the art of Crap-Detection to the National Convention for the Teachers of English (NCTE). Postman credited Ernest Hemingway for that wonderful concept, the crap detector.

So why am I writing about crap? 

Well, I have seen several online comments referencing posts by Rachel Held Evans  in the last couple of weeks (July 27, August 2). She writes about culture and religion from the perspective of a progressive millennial. No wonder she got push-back from conservative Christians (e.g., Trevin Wax). And support from Progressive Christians (e.g., Christopher Smith). She appears quite popular. After all, who doesn't care about religion, faith, justice, morality, sexual orientation, and other life-affecting topics?

I like that Rachel refers to research and included links to respected firms. On her own blog site she added additional sources. I also like that in her CNN blog Rachel referred to perception. I think it unfortunate that so many responded as if they did not notice her reference to research or perception. Perhaps the references were too subtle? Or not understood? Or ignored in favor of personal biases?

BS Meters. There’s another wonderful two letters in her post, BS. Rachel asserts that “millennials have highly sensitive BS meters.” Really?

Old Crap & New Crap. 
This is where I go back to Postman’s professorial provocation. The year was 1969. Do you remember watching the battle for civil rights on TV? Do you remember Kent State? Do you remember the BS coming out of Washington about Vietnam? Do you remember Watergate? I remember. But the problems are not unique to the USA. It’s human nature to crap all over everything.

 A lot of us learned PDQ that you can’t trust a lot of elected leaders or persons promoted to positions of authority to act in moral ways. And since then we’ve seen the foul side of human nature… Seen enough at least to tune-up our filtration systems. Oh, did I forget to mention the church? Have you ever heard of a church scandal? Omg!

 Sadly, it’s also human nature to respond quickly to available stimuli. Click like. Add a comment here and there. And move on. Fast thinking as Daniel Kahneman calls it. I do it too. Most of the time a quick response works. But not always.

Sometimes people might be swayed to believe something is true if a lot of people provide arguments that resonate with their own beliefs.Some arguments push us to a polar opposite position. Then we strongly  identify with our in-group and find strength to fight the demonic other. Sometimes we need to wash our filters. Reset our BS meters. Download the latest code. We need to examine the evidence. We need to detect truth.


Do you think like a Millennial? Take the Pew Survey and find out. Then come back for more.

Research groups have been tracking the beliefs and attitudes of millennials using telephone surveys. I think we can learn some things from a study of the data. But the devil is in the details.

So, do you think like a Millennial? How did you score? Post a comment.

What is a millennial? 
Age 18-29. Here’s the link to the report. At the bottom of the page you will also find a full report in pdf format.

What are the three difficulties in dealing with age-group differences cited by Pew Research (see the preface in their report on the survey page)?  I’ll share a list of survey difficulties further down this page.

How do Pew and Barna differ when defining their constructs of Evangelical or Progressive Christian? 
Barna has a list of features they use to identify an evangelical Christian. But different researchers use different criteria so using the word Evangelical or Progressive does not tell us much unless the researchers tells us how they defined the term in the survey. Add definitions to your BS Meter.

Why do survey researchers assume people give an honest opinion? And why do millennials and all consumers of survey news fail to demonstrate an active crap detector when using survey data as a basis for commenting on part of the culture? 
Have you ever known someone who presents themselves in a favorable way? Have you ever heard a friend talk about themselves and thought to yourself “that’s BS?”
  Add response bias to your BS Meter. 

[ps It works the negative way too. How much incentive is there for a person to be well when suing for millions? I’ve heard Christians joke about not praying for some folks to get well because the sick person does not want to lose tons of sympathy or insurance-based income. Hopefully that’s too cynical. Maybe their BS Meter is set too high?]

Why do survey researchers and writers categorize people as millennials or whatever? 
Good question. Humans seem to form categories based on perceived differences and then write about those differences as if they really existed. When you read what they write… “Millennials are…” It is as if the writers and the readers often fail to notice that the self-reported opinions:

  • Do not necessarily represent the opinions of all persons of that age group.
  • Do not always appear significantly different from those in other age groups.
  • Do not necessarily correspond to behavior.
  • Do not mean they won’t change in a short amount of time.
  • Do not mean they won’t change in response to a life event or an historical event.

So, add the above list of questions to your BS Meter.

What do we know about those who refuse to take a survey? 
     ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!  But they might be different folks. Right?
     Add the question, "How many refused to take the survey?" to your BS Meter.

Do surveys contain errors?
Yes. Researchers estimate the error rates but never know for sure. Many reporters omit error rates. Sometimes the percentages are too close to assume a real difference exists. Ignore results  that fail to report error rates. Add an error factor to your BS Meters.

What is the relationship between what people say and what people do?
Have you ever known someone to say one thing and do another? It’s so common that psychological scientists observe behavior and often obtain biological measures to overcome the problem of self-report so they can really understand human nature. Don’t get me wrong, Surveys have a place. More on this later. Are you drawing conclusions about what people are actually doing based on a survey—NO WAY should you believe that. Add the verbal report-behavior gap to your BS Meters
     Oh p.s. check out a famous religious person who noticed this difficulty Romans 7:15.

What about questions asking people why?
Have you ever wondered the real reason somebody did what they did? Why did they say such a harmful thing? Why did they work in the soup kitchen? Did you ever question motives? Did you ever think something was just for show? Just a photo op? Isn’t it a good idea to ask people why they don’t go to church? Maybe. Maybe not. People give many reasons for what they do. It doesn’t mean the reported reasons explain their behavior. Just pick up a Social Psychology textbook and enjoy a raft of studies illustrating how unaware people are about what influences their behavior. Add unawareness to your BS Meter.

Can we learn anything from surveys?
Sure, the carefully designed surveys administered to representative samples by large research firms can be helpful to:

  • Track opinions that might be linked to behavior
  • Form hypotheses about possible cause-effect relationships
  • Design experiments that will better establish cause-effect relationships
  • Design drafts of policies that might make a positive difference
  • Add to other research that helps predict actual behavior.


Nate Silver has become famous for his sophisticated data analysis in predicting the election of President Obama in 2012. It wasn’t a close call. He got it right. Many survey firms did not. How sophisticated are the analysts you read? In the 4 August 2013 post we learn about Silver’s methodology related to a recent study. Pretty sophisticated stuff. We also find a link to his glossary. Silver is a data rock star. 

People love a story.
Analysts love data.
     As one wag said,
 “In God we trust. All others bring data.”

Additional Sources
See the chapter on Crap Detecting in Teaching as a Subversive Activity by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner.
Postman’s speech to NCTE is a common find on the web. Here’s one link that may or may not persist.
Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow is a must read for any thinker.


  1. Myths about millennials