LDS Church Growth, Member Activity, and Convert Retention: Review and Analysis

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Chapter: III-10: Conflict of Interest

Reputable scholarly journals require authors to report any potential conflicts of interest, as well as the source of funding for any study. Studies funded by authors with a vested interest in a product are deemed to be less reliable than research conducted by independent researchers with no vested interest. Indeed, research by authors with such vested interest typically shows greater benefits and fewer risks to the product, procedure, or medication than that borne out by independent studies. This does not mean that all research with potential conflict of interest is invalid. No new medicines would ever reach the public without pilot studies funded by pharmaceutical companies. Yet such conflicts of interest should be minimized whenever possible, and findings from researchers with real or perceived conflicts of interest often need to be validated by independent research before they can be widely accepted. Although conflict of interest does not always prove bias, and researchers without apparent conflicts are also not immune to bias, it is certainly much more difficult for researchers with a conflict of interest to maintain impartiality in methodology, data collection, and analysis than independent researchers. Nor must bias be conscious to be real: even subtle or unconscious bias may compromise research, which is why the best quality research studies involve blinding of subjects and researchers alike.

It is difficult to escape conflict of interest in the study of religion. Each denomination is most interested in studying itself, yet this same vested interest makes it difficult to achieve impartiality and methodological rigor. Both proponents and critics of a faith are subject to charges of conflict of interest, whereas disinterested and presumably neutral parties rarely possess the depth of knowledge to ask the right questions and interpret the data accurately. The very nature of the miraculous claims which lie at the heart of any religious faith leads proponents to insist that those who do not accept their beliefs can never fully understand them, while skeptics claim that believers are too blinded by their creeds to evaluate themselves impartially. An independent researcher like myself may not have the same conflict of interest of a missionary department employee, or of an official who must correlate public statements with public affairs handlers, yet there is no doubt as an adherent of the faith that my belief in the veracity of "Mormonism" impacts my work.

Whatever one's belief regarding core religious tenets, there is no reason for large sociologic trends and descriptive data to become a source of controversy. Although one may not be able to incontrovertibly prove what transpired on the day of Joseph Smith's first vision, or what has become of the Golden Plates, it ought not to be a source of great controversy to note how many individuals identified the LDS Church as their faith of preference on the Chilean Census, or to cite weekly Sacrament meeting attendance rates in West Africa as a percentage of area membership. Individuals might interpret the data in slightly different ways, yet all sides ought to be able to acknowledge core findings. It is unfortunate that LDS church growth has continued to be a partisan topic which receives even-handed treatment in few venues, with church media excluding good quality research and national census data from official publications merely because of the glaring discrepancies between official church membership statistics and self-identified religious affiliation, while critics pile on charges of dishonesty which more often arise from their own erroneous assumptions than from any factual error. This course seems to have been more successfully navigated by the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Seventh-Day Adventists, who release and candidly discuss indicators of member participation that are widely viewed as meaningful and valid by adherents and critics alike.[1]

Some conclusions of research that have been released, such as the claims in a 2005 General Conference talk that research demonstrated "that almost all less-active members interviewed believe that God exists, that Jesus is the Christ, that Joseph Smith was a prophet, and that the Church is true,"[2] are so diametrically contradictory to the entire corpus of independent sociologic research that grave questions of methodological validity and analytical rigor hang over the whole institutional research apparatus. Such findings smack of the same kind of conflict of interest seen in medical studies funded by pharmaceutical companies that often report far greater efficacy and lower risks to their product than that borne out by independent research. I am aware of no independent study or census which has found self-identified religious preference for the LDS Church anywhere close to the number of members claimed on official reports. Because internal church research faces inherent conflicts of interest and lacks transparency, its findings should be viewed as tentative unless independent corroboration can be found.

[1] Stark, Rodney and Laurence R. Iannaccone, "Why the Jehovah's Witnesses Grow So Rapidly: A Theoretical Application," Journal of Contemporary Religion, May 1997: 140.
[2] Whetten, Robert J. "Strengthen Thy Brethren." LDS General Conference. April 2005.