Seeing God’s Work through Statistics

I see God’s work in the strangest places.  I see Him in the obvious things: my children’s faces when they smile, a beautiful sunrise on my commute to work, a big thunderstorm, and (since I live on the Gulf Coast) in the hurricanes that come through our region.  But I also see God’s work in some of the more obscure areas of my life…. like statistics.  In my job, I use probabilities quite a bit.  I’m often faced with problems where I have a decision to make between two options, each having different financial consequences.  I use probabilities to assist me in determining which option is the best to choose, based on available information.  Now, please understand, I strongly dislike math…

You: <Raises Hand>

Me: You have a question?

You: But how can you dislike math, but like statistics?  Isn’t that math?

Math has a finite answer.  You are either right, or you’re not.  Imagine back in school when you were given a single algebra problem on a test and it took an entire page of loose leaf paper (remember when that was a thing?) to answer the problem.  You spend hours working on it; sacrificing sweat and tears to provide the teacher the requested answer in hopes of a passing grade.  Then, after anxiously waiting for the graded test, the teacher returns said test with a big red “X” on the problem because somewhere along the way you forgot to carry a 1 or you misread your decimal.  That is why I dislike math, but I might be slightly biased (or scarred, not sure which).

My love for statistics started in undergrad, when I was taking the required statistics course for my major.  The teacher’s assistant made a statement I would never forget, “In statistics you can be 99% confident in your answer, and the answer can still be wrong.  You aren’t wrong, because you weren’t 100% confident.  Therefore, you got the wrong answer, but you are still right.”  I’d cite this sage individual, but I cannot remember his name (not sure if that’s ironic or just really unfortunate).  That’s it, I was sold.  Statistics is the greatest thing ever!

You: <Waving Your Hand in the Air>

Me: Yes?

You: What does this have to do with God?

Probabilities are used everywhere.  The odds of your favorite sports team winning a game, the predicted outcomes of presidential campaigns, and how widespread the flu will be this year are all common examples of probabilities.  In fact, media utilizes statistics significantly in news stories.  An easy way to think of it is like this: If you see a story in the news where a statistic is on the screen and the news anchor is referring to something in the future, it’s a probability.  You won’t ever see a probability that’s 100% (unless it is actively pouring down rain and the weatherman likes to play Captain Obvious).  But no human can predict the future, so even the most confident statistician can be incorrect in their prediction.   This is where God comes in.  Time and time again we make predictions of what is going to happen next with a high degree of certainty, and we are wrong.  What does that tell me?

God is the only entity that knows the future, just as he knows the past and the present.  Any attempt on our part to predict the future will never be able to account for the uncertainty that is our Creator.  We cannot predict His influence and, therefore, we will never be 100% confident of any predictions of the future.  Examples of God guiding the world around us can be observed in the unexpected results of an event. 

For example, why can’t economists predict financial crises?  With the sophisticated computer models, previous financial downturns to study, and seemingly infinite data to assess, it would be easy to think that they would have cracked the code for predicting the future of financial markets.  But they can’t.  Why?  Because there are always factors that cannot be predicted; what individuals may call bad luck or inherent randomness.  These factors can never be accounted for and, as a result, economic models will never be 100% accurate in predicting future economic downturns.  We can chalk it up to blind luck, but I prefer to think that this is where we can see God’s hand, helping his plan along, quietly showing us he is out there and hoping that we will listen.

Not yet convinced you can see God’s work in statistics?  Then I’ll share my favorite statistic with you.  If you took a look at the gender of the entire planet, you would find that the number of men and women in the world is roughly equal.  In 2010, the last available data, 50.4% of the world’s population were men and 49.6% were women.  Consider further that men have a higher risk of mortality than women, both in childhood and in adulthood.  Therefore, we can infer that, at some point, the percentage split evens out.

Now stop for a moment and consider all the genetic variables that go into a baby’s gender.  Remember that each child’s conception is an independent event from the other.  Do you really think that it’s merely coincidence that the gender of the planet would be so evenly split?  Even so far as to account for the mortality rate of one gender versus another?

The common counter argument against God’s presence in humanities’ gender statistics is the coin-flipping example.   When you flip a coin, there is a 50% chance of it landing on heads.  This statistic is derived from the fact that there are two sides of a coin, and therefore a ½ chance of a given side.  If you flip the coin 100 times, you may not get heads 50 of those times, but with a large enough sample size (say 10 million), you would eventually reach an outcome of heads 50% of the time.  The argument is that since there are only two possible genders, with a large enough sample size (say the size of the human population), you would eventually reach a 50% split between the two.

I don’t believe this is an accurate argument for four reasons:

  1. This example will only work because there are no external variables impacting the coin toss. There are outside factors that can influence the gender of the baby, such as maternal diet and paternal health.
  2. This argument doesn’t seem to account for the fact that there are slightly more men than women, but that men have a higher mortality rate. Wouldn’t those two things be independent?  Yet together, they drive the statistic back to 50%.
  3. Some families, even large ones, tend to have more of one gender than another. Sure, with enough children one could argue the family would balance, but families don’t usually have enough children to balance the probability.  Since very few families have enough children to balance the probability, and all families are independent from each other, wouldn’t we see a shift in the probability one way or another?
  4. If there are two possible outcomes (male and female) and they are independent of each other, then there should be a 50% probability to each. There are many examples in the animal world where this assumption doesn’t hold true.  Some species of buffalos in Africa have mostly males when it rains and females when it is dry and many reptiles have gender biased based on their environment.  If the assumption is two genders yields a 50% probability, should that assumption hold true across all creatures on Earth?

Reflecting back on why I love statistics so much, maybe it’s because I could see something outside humanity’s control in the probabilities’ uncertainty.  We cannot predict the future, even with the best information.  This means that there is still room in this world to be surprised.  Statistics allows us to catch fleeting glances of God’s divine intervention with humanity, and sense His continued presence in shaping our world.

Within a mathematical world of correct and incorrect, statistics is the place where miracles can happen; a place in our world where the order and logic that God built into our planet is still accurate, but where He still has room to work.  In the end, that gives me a lot of peace… and faith.  Faith that humanity won’t ever be able to calculate or logic God out of our lives… because we can never be completely certain in our probabilities… and there will always be a chance for a different outcome that what we predict.

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