Statistics and lies in the flight from Christ
One can only groan over statistical headlines which give no context for judging the severity of the numbers they present. Certainly this calls to mind the old expression that “there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” The entire past year will be remembered (by cooler heads) for its pandemic of out-of-context statistics—long after COVID itself disappears. Even our own Catholic World News service falls prey to the problem of statistics, on rare occasions, as with Tuesday’s headline “28 Notre Dame professors join call for Vatican investigation of USCCB over ‘pro-Trump politics’”. The unwary reader may fear the sky is falling, but the number 28 represents just 2% of the entire instructional staff.
So misdirection is not always intended (and in this case, after all, the number should have been zero). But a comrade in debunking statistical slipperiness emailed me today with a link to a story from 1929 which claimed that Antarctica was melting and that much of the earth, including each major coastal city, was doomed to drown in the immediate future. Since this was an alleged statistical projection, it was even worse than a statistic, and far worse than a “damned lie”.
Similarly, in the case of COVID, we keep hearing (to take one example) that over 500,000 people have died from this disease in the United States. That sounds very bad indeed, until we realize it is just .15% of the total population (note the decimal point); and it is well-known that when COVID is present, a person who might have died primarily from another existing condition is counted among the COVID casualties. A more informative report would say something like this: “During the past year, fifteen out of every 10,000 people were infected by the COVID virus when they died.”
When speaking of life and death, of course, we are wise to remember that if someone we love has died, statistics don’t matter. But they do matter when it comes to perceiving reality so as to set reasonable community priorities. Given the immense population of the world, COVID statistics should not be oversold; indeed, every statistic should come complete with its interpretive context. Otherwise, understanding flees the scene.
Let us consider how this point fits in with certain misguided human tendencies. One characteristic of the human person is that, to feel “right” about himself, he generally needs to be identified with what his (would be) peers consider worthy causes. Occasionally he will also be sincerely and even sacrificially committed to these causes, but for the purposes of social acceptance and the good feelings that arise from it, the most important thing is lip service. (Note that, for all its pitfalls, this is yet another characteristic which reveals a spiritual nature, in contrast to all other corporeal living things.)
Sadly, we humans learned very quickly that the abuse of numbers tends to elevate some causes over others by making preferred causes seem more urgent than they really are, usually to stoke particular fears. In my observations over more than 50 years, I have noticed a particular tendency of those who are fleeing from God to use statistics concerning conditions in this world to draw attention primarily to material causes, for either reducing physical suffering or increasing sensual pleasure, so that they can be considered morally excellent without respecting the Spirit of God or the Gospel.
Sometimes, in fact, these material causes warp into ideologies. When we look at the incidence of poverty in the world, for example, we can certainly find good reasons to be both just and charitable. But we must beware of giving such reasons a secular spin by assuming that we can develop a material human scheme to eradicate poverty altogether. Even Our Lord acknowledged that we would always have the poor with us, and there is nothing in world history to suggest that He was woefully lacking in predictive power. For almost any issue, in fact, we will find that those who are in flight from God will espouse some ideology which, if only everyone can be forced to adhere to it, will permanently eliminate Problem X (sometimes by taking the direct course of simply eliminating People X). In contrast, Christianity tells us to change inwardly so that we will be more aware of our own selfishness, more generous with those in need, and more likely to form thriving human communities.
Note that the Christian approach does not depend on statistics—or on embracing a series of disconnected causes without paying serious attention to their spiritual roots. Each person will doubtless have special causes that mean more to him or her than do other causes, among them efforts to solve real material problems. But there is no permanent temptation in the Christian scheme of things to disconnect material problems from the personal spiritual and moral deficiencies which contribute to them, let alone to propose specious ideological and even totalitarian solutions in order to escape the consequences of the natural law, within which alone is it possible to foster a common good.
I admit that some will find this argument vague because of a lack of concrete examples. But nearly ever widely-touted crisis over the past seventy-five years has been “sold” in significant part by the abuse of statistics and/or an ideological opposition to the natural law. This has been true, for example, of the alleged population bomb in the late 1960s; the threatened approaching ice age in the 1970s; the discussions of global warming in our own times; the quest for sexual “liberation”; the need to save individual pleasure from the influence of the family; the myriad excuses for the rapid expansion of central government; and on and on. By now, these characteristics are standard operating procedure.
Statistical abuse and ideological substitutions go hand-in-hand, and are essential to those who are hiding from God. Such mental tricks enable them to seize the moral high ground. Again, this desire reveals deep truths about the authentic spiritual core of human nature despite a widespread desire to deny those truths. But while such temptations are not built in to Christianity, they are built in to our fallen human nature. Therefore, Christians must beware of temptations to cast both personal responsibility and charity aside in order to win victories for various principles, or to make adherence to particular socio-political norms a substitute for genuine interior conversion—which is to say to ignore the twin necessities of virtue and holiness.
My chief point here is simply this: In our modern era, we will find ourselves inundated with a kaleidoscope of wildly exaggerated causes and crises which demand all our social energies to address, and which claim to justify a forceful bending of the social will—something that even a Revelation from Almighty God is never permitted to do. This circumstance must lead Christians, and especially Catholics, to think and pray more deeply about how and where God is calling them to act.
Of course, even those who have been well-instructed in the Good will differ as to how they divide their attention among the various causes on offer today. This is as it should be, based on each person’s understanding, interests, and opportunities. But even if we are sacrificially committed to causes that are genuinely wise and good, our particular commitments can provide a false justification for a deeper spiritual failure. This is especially true in political action. Politics itself can be a temptation for the simple reason that there is such a fine line in the human heart between the political desire to be on top and the political desire to do more good.
The author, root and consummation of all goodness is God Himself, revealed as far as humanly possible through Jesus Christ: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev 22:13). This raises important questions for each of us: Do we take secularism for granted? Do we fail to think in terms of Christian witness, preferring always to proclaim a “cause” and perhaps especially a political cause? Do we see politics and the power of the modern State as the most important ingredient in effecting change? Do we measure our holiness by our identification with particular positions and public stances? How high on our list is the priority of strengthening the faith of our fellow-Catholics in their various parishes and dioceses, or of giving a better and stronger witness to our Faith in the hope of converting more friends, neighbors, and coworkers?
An exercise of conscience
All I am suggesting here is a continuous examination of conscience based on the question of how we set our priorities, which are so often bound up with how we respond (whether pro or con) to lies, damn lies, and statistics. Numbers do tell us various stories, some far more accurate than others. To use statistics wisely, we must first understand from their context what parts of the story they really tell, and what parts they ignore or distort. As a second and even more important step, we need to recognize that the solution to alarming “statistics” is not a mathematical solution or even its political equivalent, an ideological solution. Neither throwing numbers around nor simply changing “systems” can ever solve human problems.
I am not talking about natural disasters, but about problems rooted in the human condition, including even our responses to natural disasters. Such problems are profoundly conditioned, on all sides, by the weaknesses which beset the human intellect and the human will. Therefore, authentically human solutions are always spiritual at their core. They begin with conversion and are rooted in sacrifice, sometimes even in martyrdom. If they are reflected in politics, it is because increasing numbers of people possess the same spiritual interiority in which true solutions must always be rooted.
True solutions are brought to light in prayer and extended in community. There is no other way. What matters most is how we interact “in Christ” within our families and within our real and virtual neighborhoods. True human solutions are rooted always in the transforming grace of God, without which there is no solution at all. And it seems to me that nothing better explains the lack of Christian influence in the world today.
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Posted by: jmbrehany2848 -
Mar. 05, 2021 7:34 AM ET USA
Well said, as always, Dr. Mirus! Another thing Our Lord said is also well worth keep keep in in mind in these troubled times: "In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” I recall the first time this was called to my attention, by Chris Manion, at a talk he gave at Christendom College.