Lying with Statistics: the Sharpshooter & Post-hoc Fallacies

targetI’m not an expert at archery, but there’s a way I can guarantee I get a bull’s eye every time. It’s simple. I shoot the arrow at a large target, one I can’t possibly miss. Then, I walk up and draw a bull’s eye around the arrow.

We laugh at how ridiculous this is, but this sort of error occurs every day in peer reviewed studies published in prestigious journals. Called the Sharpshooter Fallacy, it’s all too common, so it’s important that we be able to recognize it.

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About Galileo

Galileo_facing_the_Roman_InquisitionWe all know the story. Galileo, the Italian astronomer, insisted that the planets revolved around the sun. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, insisted that the earth was in the center, and all else revolved around us. Galileo was smart, the church was ignorant (to put it nicely), and he was brought before the Inquisition. They convicted him of heresy and forced him to recant. But now we know better—even the Catholics have agreed that Galileo was correct. The conclusion? This all provides yet one more example that scientists are smarter than Christians.

Except… that story is just that—a story. It isn’t exactly true, and leaves out a lot of very important facts.

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When Not to Pray

phonegodI don’t have to pray about that!

Have you ever heard someone explain that they didn’t need to ask God about a particular situation? Perhaps you’ve been that person—so confident that you already know God’s will that you don’t need to confirm it? There seems to be an agreement in the church that some things are so obvious, we don’t need to check in with God about them.

I suppose you could make a case for instances where God’s will is clearly stated in the Bible. We probably don’t need to ask Him whether or not we should murder that annoying neighbor, for example. Nor do we need to pray about if we should cheat on our spouse.

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A Bias for Action

GoldenGardensPark-WA_LAH_2774

“God can’t steer a ship that isn’t moving.”
or
“God can’t steer a parked car”

You are likely familiar with one or both of these phrases—they’re two of those Christian truisms that we hear repeated over and over—while no one thinks to ask whether or not they are actually true. The idea is that we should ask God what to do in any given situation, then start doing something while we wait for His answer. After all, God can’t….

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Polls, Damned Polls, and Statistics

Statistics have always been used to obscure the truth. There’s the famous quote by British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, and popularized by Mark Twain: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Sadly, nothing has changed. In fact, it’s gotten worse.

The problem is that statistics isn’t a popular subject, and many people happily avoid taking any classes that cover the topic. (It was affectionately known as “Sadistics” when I was in college.) We’re easily led astray by official-sounding numbers, especially if the conclusion is one we already agree with. While we (thankfully) don’t need to worry about Chebychev’s Rules, Probability Distribution Functions, or Stem and Leaf Diagrams, we should know how statistics work, and how they can be used to fool us. There are numerous ways in which statistics can be misleading. I ran into one of them while reading the news this week.

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Is God Your Co-pilot?

God is my copilot

Remember these bumper stickers? I haven’t seen one in a while, and that’s a good thing. Perhaps we’ve come to realize that we need to let God be in charge, instead of relegating Him to co-pilot status. We know that God needs to be in the pilot’s seat. Yet, how often we forget!

It isn’t just us. The problem started way back in the Garden of Eden. Look at Genesis 3:1-7. Everything up to this point was good. Adam and Eve had meaningful, productive work, a lovely place to live, and all their needs were being met by God. Of course, it didn’t stay that way.

Satan slithered into view, and challenged Eve with, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” Notice that he’s suggesting something that God did not say. In fact, it’s far from the truth. God had provided the fruit for food.

Eve is quick to correct him: “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” However, she doesn’t get her facts quite right either. I’ve always wondered—God gave that commandment to Adam before Eve was around (Genesis 2:16-17), so she got her information secondhand. Who added that bit about touching?

In any case, Satan first calls God a liar, then appeals to Eve’s desire for autonomy: “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

How enticing! Once we are like God, we can go our own way, make our own decisions, plot our own course. We won’t need Him anymore. Satan plants the seeds of distrust—God is lying. He is withholding something desirable, something good. He doesn’t have your best interests at heart.

We all know what happened next—instead of trusting God’s love and wisdom, Eve depends on her own analysis. The fruit is safe to eat. It looks good. It’s tasty. As a result, Adam and Eve ate the fruit that God had commanded them not to eat, and we’ve been trying to rely on ourselves, usurping God’s authority, ever since.

Over the years I’ve asked a number of non-Christians why they don’t accept God’s offer of relationship. The answers have varied, but there’s a theme, one that a friend from my high school years expressed best—“I believe in God, but I don’t want Him telling me what to do. I can make my own decisions.” Nothing has changed since the garden.

Even those of us who claim to be believers struggle with this desire to be in charge. We want God to be in our life. We may agree with this alternate bumper sticker…

god is my copilot switch seats

… but when it gets down to the wire, we want God to bless our plans, while we stay in control.

This was brought home to us recently. Pete was asked to look over some plans for the expansion of a well-known ministry. There were plenty of spreadsheets, lots of technical details, and alternate plans for every contingency. It all looked pretty impressive, and their goals were laudable.

But as Pete read, he was surprised and disappointed by what was missing—any mention of dependence on the Holy Spirit. This was a ministry, but their documented processes were no different from those of any secular corporation. Where was their reliance on God?

When asked about the lack of spiritual input, they explained that leaving it all in God’s hands just seemed too fuzzy. Instead of relying on God’s direction, their board wanted everything nailed down, with predetermined procedures and measurable outcomes. In their desire for control, the Holy Spirit was excluded.

Praying for God to reveal His will, then waiting on His answer, feels so… unpredictable. We want to know where we’re going, how we’ll get there, when we’ll arrive, and how we’ll pay for it all. Jesus simply says, “Follow Me.” We want all the facts before we make a decision. God says, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1; italics mine.)

God is asking us to go far beyond trusting what we can see, to trusting Him. He’s inviting us to come onboard without asking about  possible turbulence, the duration of the flight, or planned stopovers (although we do know our final destination). Just hand him our baggage, fasten our seatbelts, and see where He will take us. He guarantees it will be the journey of a lifetime.