Friday, November 15, 2013

Reason First, then Draw Conclusions

Sometimes people just start parodying themselves. Under the headline, "Liquidate the Catholic Church" an author at Gawker says:

Last year, The Economist calculated that the Catholic church in America alone had a $170 billion annual operating budget. Globally, the figure is much larger. When you add up the value of the church's worldwide holdings—land, buildings, and treasures—it's reasonable to imagine a huge, huge number.

Is the Catholic church using its wealth in the best way possible? That is, is it using its resources in the way that most effectively embodies the Christian ideals that the church purportedly stand for? Leaving aside some of the church's odious political positions, is it even spreading the good kind of Christian Love For They Neighbor as Thyself very well? The Economist's estimates found only about $5 billion in annual charity spending out of that $170 billion total— less than 3%. Even if the actual charitable spending were triple that amount, it would still mean that the American Catholic church spends less than 10% of its budget on direct good works.

Setting aside the point that was noted when the Economist article originally came out, that the Catholic Church in America doesn't have an annual operating budget but many different annual operating budgets, since it is not a single institution but literally hundreds of them, if the author had actually read the article rather than just referring to it, he would have seem immediately that nearly $150 billion of that 'operating budget' is the combined operating budgets of hospitals and schools that are officially recognized as Catholic.

So when the author absurdly goes on to say,

And if you sold off all of the Catholic church's holdings, you could do even more for the world's poorest people.

he is seriously trying to claim that if you sold off all Catholic charitable
organizations in America, and all of the American hospitals it officially recognizes as Catholic, and all of the American schools it officially recognizes as Catholic, it would somehow magically be doing more for the world's poorest people. Of course, Catholic institutions in America aren't the only Catholic institutions in the world; many of the world's poorest people are being actively helped by their own more local Catholic institutions, which not uncommonly receive extensive donations, the fund-raising for which is furthered by parishes and the like, whose operating budgets are counted by the Economist numbers but whose consciousness-raising work is not.

I also suspect that the author, drawing conclusions without actually establishing the character of his premises first, might not fully grasp the implications of eliminating twelve percent of America's hospitals (serving fifteen percent of patients); it might be a useful idea before liquidating the nation's largest non-profit hospital system in order to give the money away to determine first whether it might not be a somewhat imprudent means of raising funds, and whether it might end up being more harmful in the long run.

I don't expect Gawker to be any shining beacon of intellectual thought. But I think it exemplifies nicely a common problem. If you're in my profession, which is college teaching, you notice a curious paradox: students have vastly more research material directly available to them than their predecessors, but end up not using it, with the result that, having vastly more research opportunity, they do poorer research. The reason, of course, is that the habits of reasoning aren't there. Before you can draw conclusions, you have to know how to reason about it; and it is the reasoning, not the conclusions, that determine what information you need and what you can do with it. All the points above were practically at the author's fingertips -- the point about hospitals and schools is in the very article to which he linked, and how many of the nation's hospitals or schools are Catholic is the sort of question that would obviously occur to someone who read it -- if they reasoned about it all. Numbers like dollar figures don't equal understanding; they are things that have to be understood properly themselves before they are of any use at all.

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