1. No Proof Required: Numbers don’t lie—people do

No Proof Required: Numbers don’t lie—people do

“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it”—Goebbels

By: | Published: September 5, 2015 1:56 AM

In my article (Census, Christians, and conversions, August 29, The Financial Express), I made three major points regarding the recently released Census data on religion. First, that unlike some wild interpretations of data by the Hindu fundamentalists, population growth (hereafter PG) among the Muslims was converging to the Hindu rate. Second, that the larger pace of Muslim PG was largely a function of their relative income status and had precious little to do with religion, i.e., the Muslim fertility rate was higher than the Hindus because Muslims were poorer, and had higher fertility, than the Hindus. Third, that given the known determinants of PG, the only explanation for the constancy in the share of Christian population between 1991 and 2011 (2.32% and 2.30% respectively) is large-scale conversions to Christianity. One simple method of estimating the annual rate of conversions was to assume that the Christian PG should be similar to that of the Sikhs—the difference between this estimate and actual Christian PG was an estimate of the annual conversion rate.

A tragic consequence of the omniscience of social media is that writers seem to care more about the support they would get on Twitter than be concerned about the veracity, or logic, of the arguments. In his article “Bend it like Bhalla”, (The Indian Express, September 1) Tony Joseph seems to have fallen into this familiar narcissistic trap—“let facts (numbers) be damned, because I am not really concerned with the truth, and more concerned with Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame”. He accuses me of manipulating the data (and worse!) to obtain the conclusions I “desire”. Since he only comments on Christian conversions, and not my comments on Muslim PG, I am assuming that Joseph is in full agreement with my “bending” data to obtain the politically correct conclusion regarding the Muslims—or else, does he think that Muslim PG is as worrisome as alleged by the Hindu fundamentalists? Joseph needs to come clean on this bending reality.

The critical, almost definitional, explanation of “natural” PG is fertility. Population can increase due to (i) higher births (ii) lower deaths (iii) net immigration and (iv) conversions. Most religions have a broadly similar death rate, and a very low (relative to the population) net immigration rate. Hence, only two factors—fertility and conversions—explain a large proportion of PG differences. But Joseph is unable to face the all-too-well-known reality of Christian conversions. This “blinder” makes him score several successive ducks in his analysis. A partial list follows.

Duck 1: “It takes skills of a high order to create and raise a red flag over a population percentage that is stable”. What Joseph is referring to is the fact that between 1991 and 2011 the fraction of the Christian population stayed almost as constant as the Northern star—it was 2.32 % in 1991 and 2.3% in 2011. Note that a constant population share implies a strict equality between community PG and national PG. What is curious is that the Christian population share between 1971 and 1991 declined by 0.29 percentage points. So what caused the share to stay constant between 1991 and 2011—or alternatively, what caused the Christian PG to accelerate from 1.39% (1971/1991) to 1.93% a year (1991/2011)?

Per capita income, education of women, and fertility rates all suggest that the growth rate should be declining. Perhaps the Christian death rate (relative to the average Indian) has declined by enormous proportions? Very unlikely, and no evidence to support this strange inference. Perhaps a lot of foreign Christians are now resident Indians? Not possible. Which leaves conversions as the only explanation.

Even if the erroneous assumption is made that the Christian PG between 1991 and 2011 is the same as the PG in the earlier two-decade period, one obtains a rate of 1.4% per annum. One additional fact—the rate of growth of the Hindu population declined from 1.97% (1971 to 1991) to 1.81% (1991 to 2011). So, there is little reason to assume that the Christian PG should not decline by at least the same magnitude. If one assumes that, then the expected Christian PG 1991 to 2011 is 1.39 minus 0.16, or 1.23 % a year—not far from my assumption of 1.22%!

Duck 2: “It is a well-known and academically accepted fact that skewed sex ratios like this [as among Sikhs] have a significant impact on PG”. This is the most glaring example of appealing to the Twitterati, and I challenge both Joseph (and The Indian Express) to show me one study that shows that, all other things being equal, a skewed sex ratio significantly affects PG. Just one study, and it need not even be published.

The effect of fertility levels and adult sex ratio was analysed for 15 major states of India, for the period 1981-2011. This revealed, as expected, that fertility levels are strongly related to PG—and that there is a zilch relationship between sex ratio and PG after controlling for fertility.

Duck 3: If the previous Duck 2 test is not convincing for Joseph, let us conceptually test the assumed relationship between sex ratio and PG. Assume the initial population is 100 for all communities. Reflecting the adult sex ratio (15-39 years) of 1991, one obtains 49 male Christians and 51 female Christians; for Sikhs, the sex composition is 51 males and 49 females (sex ratio of 1030 for Christians and 955 for Sikhs). The excess Sikh males do not marry; excess Christian women do marry and produce Christian kids. Hence, one has 51 Christian women producing kids compared to 49 Sikh women. Each woman produces the same number of kids, and there are no deaths. This simple accounting exercise yields 147 Christians in 2011, compared to 145 Sikhs, i.e., the average annual Christian PG rate is higher by 0.06% a year.

So, the much touted, (academically vetted?) Supreme Court lawyer/AAP leader (Phoolka) endorsed sex ratio explanation of a lower Sikh PG doesn’t amount, in the immortal phrase from Casablanca, to a “hill of beans”.

Duck 4: Perhaps the most glaring egregious example of numbers not lying, but people doing so, is Joseph’s reference to the “rock steady” constant share of the Jain population at 0.4% 1991 and 2011. The actual numbers for the two end years: 0.41% in 1991 and 0.37% in 2011; rounding up one obtains a constant 0.4 share! Population (log) growth rate of Jains during this period: 1.47% per year; national average PG 1.97% per year. To repeat, a constant share implies a strict equality in growth rates. Is 1.47 equal to 1.97? Only lying numbers, nee individuals, will give you that result.

Golden Duck [One when a batsman is out first ball!]: Joseph goes through convoluted logic in trying to score runs, and the contortions cost him his wicket in the first ball itself. He takes the growth of the Hindu population in the US [8.3% a year] and concludes that according to present trends, Hindus will constitute 52.6 % of the US population in 60 years. The Hindu growth rate in the US is high because of immigration, not fertility, and definitely not conversions. And why does Joseph want to wait 60 years to “prove” his damned lie? Just assume that the US allows a third of the Indian Hindu population tomorrow, and he can obtain a Hindu majority in one day (actually three months because of inadequate airplane capacity).

The author is contributing editor, The Financial Express, and senior India analyst, The Observatory Group, a New York-based policy advisory group

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