Politics and Faith-Based Research; Misleading Study Designs Can Skew Results

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 31, 2003 | Go to article overview

Politics and Faith-Based Research; Misleading Study Designs Can Skew Results


Byline: Karen Woods, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Press releases don't usually make for the most gripping reading. But recently one came across my desk with this intriguing tagline: "Report Conflicts with Bush Policies on Faith-Based Initiatives." The release was issued by the Charitable Choice Research Project, part of the Center for Urban Policy and the Environment at Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis. Apparently, here was evidence that faith-based initiatives are generally no more effective than secular social service programming, and are sometimes less effective. If true, this certainly was news.

So, wanting more, I got the full report, entitled "Charitable Choice: First Results from Three States." And one of the first things I read was a disclaimer. The executive summary notes: "It would be a mistake to draw broad conclusions about Charitable Choice laws from this limited research project. Nevertheless, the findings to date raise issues that should be addressed in future efforts at implementation, and point to areas requiring further research." Then, in the introduction, we're told again, "it should be emphasized that this is an interim report."

Strange. This limited and measured language never made it into the press release or, as far as I could tell, into the numerous media reports it generated. Neither, curiously, did the actual title of the report. So, what's going on? As anyone who is remotely familiar with the discipline knows, social science research is an intensely political field of study. What we have here is an example of a limited, preliminary study pushed well beyond the conclusions it could support. Were politics behind it all?

Although claiming to be the first academic study comparing the efficacy of faith-based and secular providers of social services, the Charitable Choice study is certainly not the lone work on this important topic.

The Pew Foundation funded a large, ongoing research effort via the Roundtable on Religion and Social Welfare Policy, an initiative of the Rockefeller Institute at the State University of New York. The Hudson Institute has been asking tough efficacy questions since Charitable Choice emerged in the welfare reform legislation of 1996. The Heritage Foundation, using an expert trainer, has been working with directors of faith-based organizations since 2001 to facilitate program evaluation and set a standard to satisfy any potential supporter.

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