Spirituality In Higher Education 2004–2005

The Spirituality In Higher Education project has released a new report for the 2004–2005 school year.

Some highlights (and my thoughts):

80% of college students attended a religious service within the last year.
MY THOUGHT: if they’re not coming back to the church it’s not out of ignorance–they don’t like what they see.

50% of students are “seeking” “conflicted” or “doubting” when it comes to their faith.
MY THOUGHT: that’s half my audience–is my ministry structured accordingly?

26% of freshmen consider themselves born again.
MY THOUGHT: they don’t know what that phrase means 😉

There’s a very readable article, Religiosity Rising On Campus, that covers the same data as in the official report.

GQ Profiles The Jesus Freaks

I just read Upon This Rock, an absolutely phenomenal article by an ex‐Christian who goes to a Christian music festival and writes about it for GQ.

If you are a college or youth pastor you really need to read the article in its entirety. I mean it–all the way to the end.

(thanks to GetReligion for drawing my attention to this)

Religion In The Academy

Earl Creps just sent me a link to the article Revitalizing Religion In The Academy. Pretty boring unless you’re thinking about the role of religion in university settings (but interesting if you are).

Anyway, one stat leapt out at me: Campus Crusade for Christ reported a 73% increase in student attendance between the 95–96 school year and the 98–99 school year.

College Humor

There’s a fascinating article on the runaway hit CollegeHumor.com at the New Yorker: Funny Boys.

Two passages that struck me:

A key to college humor, the four have realized, is that students like to think they belong to a small in‐crowd that understands the joke, while the public at large remains clueless. Take the phrase More Cowbell, which is a slogan appearing on one of the most popular of the companys Busted Tees; it comes from an instruction given in a skit on Saturday Night Live. Not everyone saw that episode, so the people who did see it think it is that much cooler because nobody else knows, Josh said.

and

Josh, of CollegeHumor.com, is happy to point out that his site has surpassed The Onion in traffic, though I cant say we are better. There is a crucial difference in content between The Onion and CollegeHumor.com: while the success of the former depends on the wit of its writers, the appeal of the latter is closer to that of Americas Funniest Home Videos. CollegeHumor.com offers found humor of the sort pioneered by, among others, Steve Allen and David Letterman. Yet CollegeHumor.com isnt the expression of a governing comic sensibility determined to entertain an audience with, say, Stupid Pet Tricks; rather, the audience decides what is funny, and entertains itself. CollegeHumor.com doesnt just cater to the lowest common denominator; its cooked and served by the lowest common denominator, too.

Relevant Network — September 2004

I’ve receive yet another shipment from Relevant Network. I keep telling people it’s one of the best values I’ve ever seen in ministry.

Here’s what I got in this month’s kit (slightly delayed due to Florida hurricanes).

Books:

  1. Blue Like Jazz, by Donald Miller ( Dick Staub interview)
  2. Facedown, by Matt Redman
  3. The Relevant Church, edited by Jennifer Ashley (came with study guide)
  4. God’s Relentless Pursuit, by Phil Strout
  5. The Revolutionary Communicator, by Jedd Medefind and Erik Lokkesmoe

DVDs

  1. Highway Video Volume 9
  2. Igniter Video’s Together Team Hoyt

CDs

  1. Planetshakers: My King
  2. Watermark: The Purest Place
  3. Shawn McDonald: Simply Nothing
  4. Derek Webb: The House Show
  5. Jami Smith: Wash Over Me

Plus I got the usual five issues of Relevant Magazine and the Relevant Leader magazinelet.

Not too shabby.

The Wisdom of Crowds

On my flight to Baltimore about two months ago I read The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. I actually didn’t plan to buy the book–I just saw an autographed copy at Kepler’s and picked it up on impulse.

The first page of the introduction sucked me into wild intellectual romp from which I’m still recovering.

Since that flight I’ve recommended it to dozens of people and purchased it for two (to whom I owed a book). I’ve been meaning to write about it ever since, but I kept getting distracted. Plus I saw that two of the bloggers I read commented on it: Jordon Cooper and Todd Hunter (who commented not once, not twice, but thrice), so I knew the book was getting the buzz it deserved.

So what’s the big deal? What’s the idea that is still rocking my world? Simply this: given the right conditions, diverse groups of people collectively solve certain types of problems better than experts.

This isn’t a bolt from the blue: the basic idea has been kicking around for a long time, but the book is magnificent nonetheless. The anecdotes are precise and illuminating, the data is detailed, documented, and convincing, and the writing sparkles.

What Problems Do Groups Solve Better?
There are some problems you need experts to handle (problems of skill are the most important kind: landing a plane or operating on the brain are good examples), but there are several broad types of problems that groups tend to outperform experts on:

  1. Cognition Problems: questions with factual answers
    How many jelly beans are in a jar?
    Where is a sunken submarine?
  2. Coordination Problems: how do we all work together when it’s in our best interest to do so?
    How can we drive safely in heavy traffic?
    How should we deliver this product to market?
  3. Cooperation Problems: how do we work together when we have divergent goals and values?
    How can we control pollution while promoting industry?
    How can borrowers get money from lenders at the best rate for each?

Under What Conditions Do Groups Solve These Problems Better?

There are four key qualities that make a crowd smart. It needs to be diverse, so that people are bringing different pieces of information to the table. It needs to be decentralized, so that no one at the top is dictating the crowd’s answer. It needs a way of summarizing people’s opinions into one collective verdict. And the people in the crowd need to be independent, so that they pay attention mostly to their own information, and not worrying about what everyone around them thinks.
from The Wisdom of Crowds Q &A, emphasis added

Note that these criteria (diversity, decentralization, aggregation, and independence) often tend to move us towards a solution that not everyone is happy with. In Surowiecki’s own words:

The wisdom of crowds isn’t about consensus. It really emerges from disagreement and even conflict. It’s what you might call the average opinion of the group, but it’s not an opinion that every one in the group can agree on. So that means you can’t find collective wisdom via compromise.
from The Wisdom of Crowds Q &A

What Can Go Wrong?
When any of the above criteria are not met, groups often perform abysmally worse than experts or even isolated idiots. Some specific challenges:

  1. Cascades (p 40f and throughout the book): people imitate each other without understanding and everybody jumps off a cliff because all their friends did. Think about the stock market in the late 90s.
  2. Groupthink (p 36): people don’t feel free to disagree and groups reach suboptimal decisions that almost everyone can see a problem with but no one is willing to comment on. This is one of the cardinal sins of the Assemblies of God, by the way.
  3. Polarization (p184‐190): people egg one another on until the entire group adopts a more radical view than any of the members would have advocated going in.

Summary Thoughts
Surowiecki’s real contribution, in my estimation, is detailing the criteria under which groups outperform experts and the conditions under which groups fail catastropically.

Also, his endnotes rocked–they’re as good as the footnotes in Gordon Fee’s commentary on 1st Corinthians. If you read this book and didn’t read the notes, go back and read them right now!

The most stimulating idea in the entire book for me was using of artificial markets to predict future events (pages 17, 79, 103, 220–221, especially 278–280, and 285). I have no idea how it applies to my context, but it was a fascinating concept.

Learn More
You can read an excerpt from the book, read an article by the author or hear him discuss the book on NPR.