One of my walking buddies at work is a statistician who does data analysis for our company. Of statistics, I guess. I always enjoy talking to him; I like the way his mind works. I’ve long been interested in epistemology, the question of how we know—how we justify our knowledge, especially as Christians. COVID-19 has raised the issue again in very personal and insistent ways. I had this conversation with my buddy, and I asked if he’d mind if I posted it on my blog.
Marshall, I could use the help of a statistician who is used to the epistemological questions attendant on the gathering of large amounts of data, far larger than any one person could possibly get a handle on inductively: what, if anything, are we morally obligated to believe about the COVID-19 pandemic? I recently discovered that numbers of my acquaintances back East think it’s a “hoax pandemic” (that’s a direct quote), and that wearing of masks shows one is a dupe. They openly distrust government and, therefore, government sources of information. But it seems to me that the government is the only entity powerful enough to collect COVID-19 data on the broad scale necessary, and we’d have to have really good reasons not to trust them if we were to call it a hoax. These acquaintances don’t seem to want to entertain the idea that, right or wrong, a given state governor may actually be trying to save lives.
Yeah, when this all started I told my wife that I was more scared of this thing turning political (though tribal is probably a better word) than the scariness of some of the initial numbers. It seems like it has done so. I’m definitely connected to people who are approaching the “hoax” camp. I am also not one to just believe all the narratives coming from the “other side.” I feel myself bouncing back and forth depending on who I talk to in many cases. In my experience, the best statisticians I’ve worked with operate in this space.
My statistician brain definitely gets frustrated with these big swings: “It’s the worst thing ever, buy all the TP!”; “It doesn’t exist because…some of the models were wrong or….some news sources were exaggerating!” The data sources have always been inaccurate and flawed to me. It’s almost like in the beginning everyone thinks all the data they hear about is perfectly true, so if something turns out wrong or some figure changes their mind it’s seen as some sort of trick that got played on them, and the whole lot is thrown out. It’s the shame of “being duped” or the pride of “you can’t dupe me” that leads down the road to conspiracy land, where you are always “in the know.” (It actually has me thinking of the early Gnostics—I wonder if anyone has made that connection before?)
I think I have a better understanding of how hard it is to tell the truth using data, especially when data is flowing quickly and the risk is high. The default is that you are (maybe not purposefully) lying with those initial stats. I tend to listen to people, who, from the beginning, acknowledge the uncertainty and live in the humility of “this is what we think we know to the best of our knowledge, but our the data are flawed, and it will change as we improve our understanding—we are trying our best.” It’s hard to get a good tweet to go viral with that though (although some manage to do so!).
But at this point, we are all tired of data that doesn’t fit with the opinions we already hold. It’s just too exhausting to make a decision about how to live without a truth to cling to—so we start leaning on our value systems. We aren’t playing the same “data game” anymore, which makes me mostly disappointed because I think there is some moral obligation to care for each other, and data, with all its flaws, can help us do that better. There is my answer…what was the question again?
That’s excellent. I’m right with you. I have to acknowledge that I, too, have gotten weary of any data that doesn’t fit my opinions—I’m weary of ALL data about COVID-19; it’s just too much. But I can say that I have carefully and humbly (I hope!) maintained all along that there are massive limitations on my ability to “know” about the spread and threat of the coronavirus. I’m not qualified to assess the competing claims of apparent experts. I simply have to trust and obey my God-given authorities while keeping my eyes open as much as possible, which isn’t very much because of the aforesaid limitations!
I’m also used to being a distrusted expert, and I feel some instinctive loyalty to the expert tribe. I’m not an expert on many things, but I really know some things about the King James Version—about English lexicography and Bible translation. I know, I just know, when I’m up against a person who simply doesn’t know what they’re talking about in those areas. And I’ve had plenty such people tell me that I’m the idiot. =) I actually love, I really do, going up against someone in debate/discussion who proves my equal or superior, and who really listens. It’s a gift. But it’s a rare one. And I smell the same kind of, yes, Gnosticism (and no, you’re not the first to name this!) out there among COVID-19 deniers.
Part of me wants to give everybody a break: this is a confusing and unprecedented and scary time. Job loss and church closure and wedding postponements and no NBA and a 24-hour news cycle with nothing else to talk about… It’s all bewildering. So I do give people a break.
But I also remember Proverbs 18:13: Whoever answers a matter before he hears it, it’s a folly and shame to him. And I have repeatedly found myself reading the social media post of someone who already distrusted the government and now believes this pandemic is a big hoax, and I’ve thought, Knowledge is justified belief. What warrant do they even think they have for their belief? No one can possibly count all the COVID cases for himself or herself; we have to trust someone to tell us what’s going on or not going on. But I see those who believe it’s a hoax posting anything that fits their narrative, no matter the source. (Have you seen this from Alastair Roberts?)
My other concern is that Trump and COVID-19 have revealed hitherto invisible (to me) dividing lines among people I love, especially fellow Christians. I can see why people go paedobaptist rather than credo; I get it. But I don’t like being completely unable to understand what people see in Trump, and I don’t like entering a period in which we were all supposed to be in something together only to discover that I’m just not together with people I love and trust. I also don’t like being unable to explain why we’re divided. What was it in my heart that made me impervious to the sway Trump has on others? What was it in their hearts that made them susceptible to conspiracy theories about COVID-19? And I always end with: What are my own blind spots that make others wonder about my own sanity?! I feel like I’ll be exploring these questions till I die. I’ve got to be patient with people but resolute in my own conscience.
Very well said. “Giving everybody a break” definitely resonates with me—especially because I need it from others as well.
I recently heard in a sermon how the word for “original sin” in German is best translated as “inherited sin,” which struck a chord for me. I think the root of all our division is wrapped up in this. We are incapable of generating the grace needed in theory and in practice to get along. It is almost as if we need to be rescued, or “saved” from ourselves. 😉