There will be no study tonight. I will resume on 01/21/21 instead. I will be posting a new interview in the “Who Was Paul?” series tomorrow and will link it here.
Immediately after the last election I wrote this. Please read it before you read this.
I want to reiterate it today. I have meant it sincerely following every election in which I have been a voter, and I registered to vote at the first opportunity.
Speaking with respect is not agreement. It is a way to maximize the range of dialog. I believe deeply in the value of dialog, even with people who I may believe have not earned respect. Those in the military learn how to show respect to someone they may not respect because of that person’s rank and position. That could be a valuable lesson.
Especially with people who have not earned respect.
Back in 2016, I was interviewing my mom about her experiences as a nurse. At the time she was 98 years old. She lived to one month short of her 100th birthday.
She had the opportunity to watch as many of the vaccines we use today were introduced. There were many moments of passion, but one of the strongest was when she discussed vaccines.
“Can these people imagine what it was like before these vaccines were introduced?” she asked. “I can’t imagine that anyone would like to go back to what we had before.”
I have a simple point here. Experts make mistakes. Indeed they do. Medical opinions can be wrong. Just so!
But those mistakes and missteps are nothing like the arrogant ignorance of the non-experts.
I get to observe this with people who are ignorant on subjects in which I have some expertise. Jody says she avoids meeting my eyes when a preacher is using Greek or Hebrew in a sermon, because she knows how frequently I will have a fixed expression on my face, trying to avoid revealing what I’m thinking about what is said.
I have read and studied about vaccines, and I’m convinced my mother, and so many other experts, are right. But my conviction isn’t the issue. I’m so very not-an-expert. What I am doing is relying on those people who are.
When I get the vaccine (2nd dose as applicable), and the appropriate time has passed so that I can reasonably expect immunity, I will continue to wear my mask and social distance until we have a level of vaccination that I can expect the persons I come in contact with will not be threatened. Again, I will do this because the best expert opinions say it is likely possible to spread the virus. I see this not as an infringement on my rights, but as my Christian duty.
I could, of course, be wrong. But experience and mountains of data suggest that the best option is to follow the consensus opinion of those with the appropriate expertise.
And on a humorous note, no, I do not include Facebook posts that start out “I am a doctor” or even “I am an epidemiologist.” I have no way to verify that the person making that claim is actually what they claim. But more critically, that single opinion is not the consensus of the experts.
In their aim to express their anger at many things, sometimes even justified anger, people often rail at the MSM fact-checkers. Just using the MSM tag is an epithet indicating a lack of trust. On social media, especially Facebook, this anger goes against the efforts the company is making to correct false information.
As an aside, fact-checking done by the media is not the same thing as government censorship. The refusal of a media company to espouse or even publish your view is not the same thing as government censorship. In fact, challenging the truthfulness of things said by government agencies or political figures is a service done by the media for us. It is a service even if, after careful review, we decide that the media agency doing the fact-checking was wrong themselves. If you don’t like the platform, go somewhere else.
I have found that fact-checking organizations are a great resource, not because of their ratings, but because of the research they do. Most of them provide references for the information they used in checking that data.
Take, for example, a meme that has been posted repeatedly on Facebook claiming that there are just 133,000,000 registered voters in the United States, and thus that there were more votes, by millions, cast in the 2020 election than registered voters. I haven’t taken time to find out where one might have gotten that 133,000,000 figure. For all I know, someone made it up. But using the World Population Review site, and the page Number of Registered Voters by State 2020, and then putting the state by state data in a spreadsheet and adding it up, I find that the number of registered voters is 213,799,467, a number that makes the meme look rather silly. It also has the advantage of agreeing generally with the total population and the estimated number of eligible voters. The eligible voter population will be less than the population, of course, and in turn, not all eligible voters register.
You may think that took me too much time, though it really took very little, and before I’d take my stand on a set of values, I’d do even more research, but that little bit of work makes it pretty clear that the meme is not even in the range for consideration. It’s garbage.
I have repeatedly found this level of information in fact-checking posts, along with the information necessary to back-track and verify the work of the fact-checkers. When I disagree with fact-checkers, it is much more common that I disagree with their rating of a statement or with their analysis of their data. The greatest value is in the data they provide.
Bluntly, if you can’t take the time to check that far, you really should quit posting memes.
We live in a world of information. I think the MSM earned our distrust. They were often not careful enough with their facts and their presentation. Unfortunately, we then turned to “balanced” presentations, and from that to whatever news source caught our fancy. Reality is rarely a balance between opposing positions. Sometimes one of the extremes are correct.
In addition, many turned to “news” organizations with even less fact-checking than the so-called MSM. You have no business, no matter what your political views are, in claiming “TRUTH” when all you did was glean information from a few unaccountable web sites that happen to agree with your position. If you do that, you’re part of the problem.
People are going to lie. Governments lie. Politicians lie. If you want to have any sort of claim to truth, you need to check, double-check, check again, discern, and then express what you know, or at least have a reasonable claim to know. If that prevents you from posting large numbers of your favorite and most comforting memes, that’s all to the good.
If you only read headlines, or respond to fact-checking after reading only the rating, you’re part of the problem.
Several years ago our friend, Erin McClellan, found out that I like the song, “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.” Don’t push on the reasons. I just like it.
Since Erin has a well-developed sense of humor, she gave me a plastic hippo that Christmas. I was delighted. Jody and I are generally light on the decorations, but we like to have a manger scene in the house. That year, as I recall, it centered around a clay manger scene I had picked up for Jody in Costa Rica.
Jody immediately put my hippo in the manger scene.
Inevitably, questions arose. To switch to active voice, visitors asked questions. “Why is there a hippo in your manger scene?” Some commented: “I’m pretty sure there were no hippos there on the first Christmas.”
Jody also produced the answer: “Because here, everyone is welcome. Nobody is out of place.”
I’ve used that illustration in sermons multiple times, usually accompanied by the manger scene with a hippo.
We often miss some of the messages that come with God appearing in a stable. Yes, everyone is welcome, but it’s the proud and the powerful that are unlikely to come. It’s the onlookers who usually question the ones who are there.
And each year, Erin gives me another hippo.
This year Erin brought me a ceramic hippo, and when I saw it my face lit up. We don’t have the manger scene, because Mo. Mo is our young cat. We have added a new word to our vocabulary — to Mo! Things that are Moed are no longer useful for their intended purpose. Mo is thorough. He loves little figures in a manger scene and removes them.
But in my mind the hippo has stood in for the manger scene. I can imagine it all around him. And as for Mo, he belongs too.
God is there with the lamb, the ox, the goat, and all the out-of-place hippos in the world. And with the young, rambunctious cats.
“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” — Mark Twain
But I can paraphrase what supporters of gun rights say: Numbers don’t lie. People lie.
People use numbers to lie.
Sometimes it’s unconscious. I can say, “Most people believe X.” But that word “most” is imprecise, and sounds like I may not have studied the subject enough. So “Nine out of ten people believe X” sounds like I’ve studied the people and counted them.
I want to just post a few notes and recommend a couple of books.
- Many (notice that I haven’t counted them) misrepresentations involving statistics result from not noticing the margin of error when sampling is involved. Words like “surge” or “plummet” are used about polls in newspapers when the changes are within that margin of error. The context here is in understanding the precise nature of the numbers themselves. There’s a difference between “there are five books on my table” and “the average American will have five books on their bedside table.”
- Ask how the numbers were generated. If it was a survey, what was the question? In professional surveys, you can trace the numbers back to the survey. Reliable, ethical researchers show their work. For example, if you ask a number of people how many would kill their own mother for a million dollars, you don’t know how many actually would. You know how many say they would. The context here is the underlying basis for the numbers. It’s the difference between “I would guess that about 5 in 10 people do x”, or “I asked them”, or “I had a hidden camera on them and watched them.” All three methods generate numbers, but the meaning is different.
- Numbers don’t generate predictions on their own. They represent a state of affairs defined by the way they are collected and presented. The context of a numeric prediction can be complex. The prediction is only as valuable as the theory that generates it from the numbers, even if it is represented in numbers.
- Probability is a complex field. I enjoy reading about it. Numbers used to express probability are often difficult to follow and seem unintuitive. For those of us who are not mathematicians, a key point to notice is whether the person involved could actually have the necessary information. If you cannot model in detail an entire process, you don’t know the probability. Let me illustrate from Star Trek–the original series. Spock and Kirk are on Organia, and are unaware of the nature of the Organians. Kirk asks spock to rate their chances, and he gives a number including decimals. This number is irrelevant, because Spock doesn’t actually know what he would need to know.
- In number comparisons, the context of all numbers compared is important, as is their relationship. The data in a comparison is not so much in the numbers themselves but in the theory or theories used to connect them.
In my opinion, most (note how I say this) news articles and popular presentations that involved numbers misrepresent their meaning in some way. In most (note again!) that error is not that relevant to the readers. But in many unfortunate cases it is. If you count headlines, the misrepresentation is worse.
So when reading numbers, look for the source, check the context, understand the theory. The numbers may be correct, but the theory and presentation may make them deceptive.
Herewith a couple of books that are quite readable on this subject.
How to Lie with Statistics. This is an older book, but provides the basics in a readable format.
Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics. I found this more politically slanted, but the principles expressed are quite good, in my opinion. The bias I noted was in the examples. Note that I did not statistically check my impression of bias!
Statistics: A Spectator Sport. I haven’t read this book, but it’s on my reading list. The description notes that it uses examples largely from education. I suspect that could be valuable as it may be less controversial than using primarily political or media examples.
I wrote a short story as a lead-in to this study and posted it on The Jevlir Caravansary. It is titled About the Jump in Safety Violations. It illustrates what I’m trying to say about the law in this discussion.
PDF (4 Pages)
In my book When People Speak for God, I discuss testing messages that people claim are from God. There is a passage in Deuteronomy 18:21-22 that is commonly used in connection with this. In that passage the message is tested by whether the word from God comes to pass. There are some interesting questions this leaves, such as the fact that you don’t know the validity of the word before the predicted event.
But there’s another passage, often ignored, that I think is more critical. It comes from Deuteronomy 13.
Should a prophet or a pedlar of dreams appear among you and offer you a sign or a portent, 2 and call on you to go after other gods whom you have not known and to worship them, even if the sign or portent should come true 3 do not heed the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to discover whether you love him with all your heart and soul. 4 It is the Lord your God you must follow and him you must fear; you must keep his commandments and obey him, serve him and hold fast to him.Deuteronomy 13:1-4 (Revised English Bible)
Now there are those who may think this is about the election. It’s not. Depending on one’s attitude, it might apply, but I’m interested in those everyday questions that we have about whether something that is proclaimed as God’s will is actually from God
My less charismatic friends sometimes think they can avoid this question because they don’t believe in modern prophecy. I disagree. Whether one claims to hear directly from the Holy Spirit or one applies scripture to a particular situation, one is proclaiming something as God’s Word and the message should be tested.
In fact, we are much more likely, I believe, to be led astray by proclamation of scripture than by a claim of a direct word from God. The claim that something is “just what the Bible says” is both intimdating and properly open to question. More people are likely to believe “just what the Bible says” than are likely to accept the word of someone who claims to speak directly for God. But the interpretation of scripture can fall as far from God’s will as something pulled from thin air.
I suggest very strongly that those of us who teach from scripture, and make claims about the meaning of passages, should take responsibility for our interpretations and invite study and testing.
For me, Deuteronomy 13 is the most critical passage. What does it mean to call for someone to worship other gods? I like to use language that I have derived from Paul Tillich. (Note that I may be using some of his language in a slightly different way than he does.) He describes idolatry as making our ultimate concern something that is not ultimate. I think this goes along well with the message of the Torah on worship of God.
Worship is a process of placing our trust in and our dependence on the one worshiped. In the ancient near east, one might worship multiple gods, offering sacrifices to different ones at different times for different reasons. Israel was called to place all of their trust in all circumstances on God. Jesus proclaims something very similar in the Sermon on the Mount when he calls on us to not even take thought for tomorrow.
It’s easy to proclaim this for broad movements, such as we should not put our ultimate trust or ultimate concern in a political figure. Most of us don’t think we do. At least we don’t realize it, so we can point to people on the other side, whichever that is, and suggest they are the ones who are putting their ultimate trust in something other than God.
This isn’t necessarily about a particular candidate. We can easily make the political system itself our ultimate concern, and be limited to the things that the political system can accomplish.
Do you see the detour in the last two paragraphs? I’m talking about big, generic movments. I don’t think I said anything wrong. But I will not personally be primarily tempted by political activities in my life.
Let’s get personal.
Tomorrow I will go to my office and work. I believe I’m doing what God wants me to do. If I do, indeed believe that I am doing what God wants me to do, what is my proclamation going about my ultimate concern?
If I head forth under my own limited strength, placing my trust in myself to accomplish all of my goals, I am guilty of the wrong ultimate concern. My proclamation of God’s will in this instance fails the Deuteronomy 13 test. This doesn’t mean I don’t do my work. This is not about activity, but about trust. It’s about what is most important.
Whether I make plans for myself, for my family, for my business, or for my church, in all cases if I claim to follow God’s will, but call for trust in something else, I am guilty of this idolatry. This applies whether my trust is in a person, an organization (such as my conference or denomination), or a well-planned program.
I don’t know about you, but I often get this in reverse. When something is done and I receive congratulations on it, I say it’s all about God. But when tension is building as I do the task, I constantly forget that. I forget that whatever happens, I am in God’s hands. By my actions I can ask people to worship other gods, gods of arrogance and self-sufficiency.
Remember this: When we place our ultimate concern in something that is not ultimate, our potential is limited by the size and scope of the not-ultimate thing that we have made ultimate.
I recorded this on 10-21-30 because of the approach of Hurricane Zeta on the evening of the 28th.
I’m a bit behind posting these, but here are the files from the last Perspectives video. Note we will be continuing the discussion this coming week, as I only completed about half of what I had planned. The key theme text will be Jeremiah 31:31-34.
Remember that a good deal of the material I’m covering presently relies somewhat on Hebrews, which is not generally regarded as Pauline. I am one who does not believe Paul was the author. This may provide us with some material on which to base a discussion of the differences and similarities of the theology of Hebrews and of the uncontested Pauline letters.
(Note that I publish the book The Authorship of Hebrews: The Case for Paul by David Alan Black, which contends that Paul was the author. Though I think Dave makes the best possible case, in the end I am not convinced.)