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Monday, March 22, 2010

Weekly Trivia Files #10: Misleading Statistics

It is always my habit to begin these short posts with a brief explanation of why I'm writing them.  After all, what do argument fallacies have to do with the Bible, or any Christian topic, anyway?  Well, personally, I believe it has everything to do with those things.

For too long, now, Christianity and even the Bible has been accused of being illogical.  Obviously, as with any belief system (even beliefs about politics or sports teams), there is an element of emotion and faith involved in belief.  However, nothing can be believed for long if it can't be logically analyzed and defended.  It's just part of human nature to reason and to analyze things.  Eventually questions will arise that need answering, and the answer ought to be satisfying.

Unfortunately, many Christians fail to give a complete or satisfying answer when asked to defend their faith.  Weak and illogical arguments just seem to prove to skeptics that what we believe is not true, and this denies them a real chance to truly know God and see His power in their lives.  Their decision to walk away is their own, but our failure and lack of study is something we Christians can change.

Alternatively, I've seen far too many Christians giving up on critical elements of their faith after they failed to recognize fallacies in the arguments they were hearing.  This happens partly because of a lack of Bible study (or forgetfulness about something they studied), and partly because they fail to recognize the weaknesses within those false arguments.  Seeing the weakness is one part of the solution; knowing how to counter it successfully is the other part.  And that takes lots of reading, study, and contemplation.

Misleading Statistics: When the Numbers Lie

It's wonderful when statistical data supports what you have to say, but it's dangerous territory when the numbers get too-far separated from their source, and end up as vague final percentages that seem to support the debater's conclusion.

Just Say "Side Efectz"
How many people or items were analyzed to get this percentage?  What has been left out because it creates a problem for the debater?  How was the data gathered and processed?  Someone using misleading statistics will often "fail" to answer these questions.

Example: Seven out of ten test subjects experienced a complete reversal of their condition when they used this drug.  (Were only ten people tested?  How were they chosen?  How long were they treated?  Did the effect last?  What happened to the other three (30%)? )

Example:  There is not enough of us to defeat the giants living in the land!  (Numbers 13: 26-33).  The statistical odds of winning are changed and exaggerated in this passage, getting worse as the story moved along.  There are many weaknesses left out of the spies' stories, like the element of surprise; the reputation that preceded Israel and might work in their favor; the real number of Anak's descendants (at first, there were only a few, then everyone was suddenly giant-sized); and most importantly, the size and power of the God who promised to fight for Israel.  Joshua and Caleb recognized the odds as they really were, but all the others fell for the misleading data.


Keith said...

Great thoughts. Christianity is always on the defensive in the scope of public opinion, but I often wonder how the world and it's ever changing culture gets a free pass. As I read your words this morning I was reminded of a passage in Acts 5.

"When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. Then he addressed them: "Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God."

I know by this same logic you could say that because Islam or other religions have stood the test of time they are also true. I think it just makes a good case that there are a lot of truths to these religions, much more truth then is found anywhere in American culture at least. Where is the proof that I should buy into a culture that changes what is "morally acceptable" every 5 minutes. Thank you so much for sharing. Enjoyed reading!

Rachel M. said...

I see what you mean, but I want to caution you on one thing you said.
If I'm understanding you correctly, you chose that Bible passage because Gamaliel was saying that statistically speaking, Christianity was destined to fail on its own without the Sanhedrin's opposition. If you look at his statistics on their own, this seems to be a logical conclusion. But, like you say (and I'm agreeing with that, by the way!), he is sort of minimizing the key difference between Thadeus' movement and Christianity--one was a human movement with human goals, and the other claimed to be led by God with heaven as a goal. Christianity shouldn't be included with the other statistical groups because of that key difference.
Be careful, though, with that last point you made. Just because many religions have lasted a long time, doesn't mean they are full of truths that gave them their longevity (are of God). Just because something lasts, doesn't make it "more right" than something else (a problem with Gamaliel's logic). Too many people make this mistake, and end up wasting time trying to find the similarities between major world religions, lumping Christianity together with Islam and Hinduism, finding their "common truths." Still, Christianity is fundamentally different from other religions (see "Must-Reads" in my sidebar, where I talked about that a little more). Also, the absence of proof to the contrary is not proof of a position (you might want to read the previous fallacy post, #9, Ad Ignorantium.) I worry that this might seem like jumping on you about something small, but I only mean well. I've seen how damaging this ecumenism logic can be (which is, by the way, the "latest thing" in American culture), since I almost succumbed to it in college.
Thank you again for your comments. I'm glad you like my posts! :)