Meaningless Statistics

Once again the Minnesota Department of Transportation is putting the word out that drunk drivers cause 1 in 4 traffic deaths. I begin with this example of a meaningless statistic, not because it is especially egregious, but because it exemplifies what makes statistics meaningless.

Of course, it is not entirely meaningless. We all have a gut feeling that drunk drivers do not drive 1 out of 4 miles driven in America. We strongly suspect that the vast majority of our fellow travelers are not drunk even at 1:00 AM. So it doesn’t take much thought to realize that 1 out of 4 traffic deaths is out of all proportion to the number of miles drunk drivers actually drive. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that drunk drivers drive 1 out of every 140 miles driven on America’s highways. So drivers doing only 1/140th of the driving are responsible for 1/4th of the fatalities. That’s 35 times the expected number.

But most people seeing the signs have no idea what the context is. They do not know what fraction of miles driven are driven drunk. Statistically speaking there is no difference between “Drunk drivers cause 1 in 4 traffic deaths” and “Sober drivers cause 3 in 4 traffic deaths.” Yet the latter statement seems to make a case for drinking before driving! The lack of context is what empties the statistic of its meaning.

In the same way, there is an oft-quoted statistic that women earn $0.77 for every $1.00 men earn that also suffers from lack of context. (Apparently in 2015 the pay gap went down $0.02. Women now earn $0.79 on average for every $1.00 men earn.) The pay gap is an aggregate of all the income women earn compared to all the income men earn. It is commonly used as evidence of continuing sexism in corporate America. But as evidence it fails because there are so many other factors involved. Missing from the statistic are a lot of facts. For example, men work more hours than women. Women also tend to be over-represented in care-giving and hospitality occupations, which do not pay as well as more male-dominated occupations. This may be due to cultural sexism, but it’s hard to see what actions businesses or governments could take to close whatever portion of the gap is due to this kind of income difference. The truth is most companies in America already have policies prohibiting gender discrimination.

Statistics always present an aggregate view of data. That is what makes statistics valuable. However, aggregating data always also loses some information. The reports on which popularized statistics are based are usually careful to include methodology and context and indicate other possible interpretations of the data. But when the statistic shows up in Facebook meme or a highway sign, all that context is lost. The power of statistics is in simplifying complex data into a few numbers. We understand by simplifying. We should not, however, mistake our understanding for a grasp of the truth.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

David and Bathsheba

I had intended to move on to the ninth commandment, but since writing about the tenth, I’ve been thinking a lot about the story of David and Bathsheba. It’s a perfect story for illustrating the prohibition on coveting your neighbor’s wife. If you haven’t read the story or need a refresher, you can find it at 2 Samuel 11–12. It’s the sort of salacious story you expect to find in the tabloids.

David, strolling on the roof of his palace one evening, sees a woman bathing on her own roof nearby. He sends to find out who she is and learns that she is the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of the thirty warriors of unquestionable loyalty who acted as David’s personal guard. David sends for her and has sex with her. His coveting leads to adultery, an attempted cover-up, and then murder—killing not only Uriah, but others who were with him on the field of battle.

The story includes almost nothing about Bathsheba. She appears only as the object of David’s desire. It could be argued that this is because she is a woman and not worthy of consideration as a active agent in the story. Yet there are other stories in 1 and 2 Samuel of strong, wise women such as the story of Abigail, another of David’s wives who exhibits great initiative in saving herself and her family from David’s wrath. You can read about her in 1 Samuel 25. Even Bathsheba shows herself capable of taking matters into her own hands when the need arises. So the story does not ignore her agency because she is a woman.

Rather, the reason for the story’s silence on Bathsheba is because of the power differential between her and David. David is her king. She dare not refuse him. Even to remonstrate with him would be to take her life in her hands. So the question of Bathsheba’s culpability is moot. Whether she desired David or not, the power was all on his side, and so no blame attaches to her. Like the woman raped in the country, she is regarded as innocent because she could not resist or cry out. David uses his privilege as king to take Bathsheba, regardless of her desire. That’s rape even if he did not use physical force. By breaking the tenth commandment, David also became guilty of much more—of despising the word of the Lord and showing utter contempt for him.

Posted in ten commandments | Leave a comment

10. No Coveting

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.” -Exodus 20:17

“Covet” isn’t a word you hear every day. In fact, it’s one of those religious words that tends to have currency only in religious contexts. The dictionary defines “covet” as wrongful or inordinate desire. It comes from the Latin word for greed. The underlying Hebrew for the word means desire. It is the same word used of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis 3:6 (“desirable to make one wise”). To covet, then, is to desire, to want.

The commandment does not forbid desire in general. That would be to make following it impossible. It forbids a specific desire. “Don’t desire your neighbor’s stuff.” What is it about wanting what your neighbor has that is so reprehensible that it made God’s Top Ten List?

Sin always begins with desire, and desire begins with contemplating what is good or beautiful or pleasing. How does something good lead to evil? The serpent told Eve that the fruit she ate would make her like God, knowing good and evil. God later affirms that what the serpent had said was true.

“The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.…” Genesis 3:22

Becoming like God. Didn’t Jesus teach us to aspire to be like God? He said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). So what Eve desired was not evil in and of itself. What made it evil was that she distrusted God. The serpent implied that God had forbidden the fruit because he was holding out on them. That distrust was the thin edge of a wedge that split us all from our Creator. Sin is not trusting God.

We are all God’s children, and like children everywhere, we expect our Father to treat us all the same. The bible tells us that God has no favorites and can’t be bribed. Wanting my neighbor’s stuff is an implied criticism of God’s fairness. Like a petulant child I complain that my neighbor got more than I did. His house is bigger. His wife is more charming. His servants are more obedient. His cow gives more milk. He has a nicer car. His lawn is greener. He gets all the breaks, and I’m stuck in this dead-end job. It’s not fair, God! Then God replies—and if we’re lucky we can hear him—”Oh, I thought you were going to trust me from now on. If there’s something you want, just ask.”

How different God’s message is from the messages we hear all around us! Wanting my neighbor’s stuff is the engine of capitalism. It drives our economy. Watch the commercials on TV. Look at the ads. Aren’t they all telling you that other people have better things than you have? Look how happy they are with their stuff! I want to be happy too. I want what he’s got. I want what she’s having.

Footnote. There are disturbing things about this commandment, things I have so far ignored so I could get at the spirit of the law. One of the most disturbing is the way it classes women and slaves as personal property alongside houses, oxen, donkeys, and other possessions. Does this mean God regards women as the property of men or that slavery is okay with God? No. The commandment addresses people in their own cultural milieu, so it uses examples they understand. The law is replete with statutes designed to protect the rights of women and slaves because of the oppressive society in which they lived.

Posted in ten commandments, theology | Leave a comment