Posted by: HAT | April 24, 2015

Risk Assessment

graphic representation of signal detection theory showing areas under curves representing type I and type II error

A colorful illustration of Type I and Type II error in the context of signal detection theory

Hi, Gang!

Thinking a little more about an opinion that I feel I encounter pretty often, that taking a very strict approach to the interpretation of scripture constitutes a kind of “playing it safe.”

That is, I get the impression sometimes of an implicit argument that goes like this: if a person wants to be more certain that they are doing what God wants them and people to do, the “safe bet” is to accept the premise that the Bible is inerrant, that every word is a precise representation of something God said in those precise words to someone, meant to say – precisely in the way we understand it, and intends for us to put into practice precisely and completely. Accepting the Bible “as written,” so to speak, is a way of going with the odds. So, for instance, the “safe bet” is to accept that 1 Timothy 2:11 means that women need to accept the fact that God told them not to preach, despite whatever gifts they might seem to have been given [presumably, also by God] for that activity. Or that Romans 1:26-27 necessitates a complete rejection of marriage equality for gays and lesbians, because homosexuality itself is a consequential sign of having turned away from God [even for gays and lesbians who are active church members]. Or that Matthew 19:9 is an instruction from Jesus for women to stay married to their violent husbands, because divorce and remarriage is adultery, hence forbidden by moral law.

I get this impression, and I am often drawn along with it.

But then, I think about it a little longer. And then I remember: A long time ago, in what seems like a former life, I studied statistics. One way of thinking about statistics is as a way of approaching the problem of decision making in a condition of uncertainty. We don’t know things. [“What is lacking cannot be counted.”] We are surrounded by relationships that are difficult to discern, because there is variation in everything, so even relationships that are very solid, like the relationship between pressure and the volume of a gas, yield fluctuating measurements according to the instruments at our disposal. This is much more true for complicated multivariate relationships that are socially and culturally mediated and that can only be measured with pretty gross instruments, like Likert-type scales. [“Would you say you: 1) strongly disagree, 2) disagree somewhat, 3) neither agree nor disagree …” – you know.]

Applying statistical tests to the data we do have is basically a way of estimating our chances of being wrong about what we think is going on. If those chances seem very low, we gain confidence in our inferences and models.

For every statistical test, there are two types of error, type I error and type II error. Type I error is rejecting the null hypothesis [“these are not the droids you’re looking for”] when it is true. Type II error is failing to reject it [they were, as a matter of fact, the very droids they were looking for] when it is false. Hypothesis testers are always between a rock and hard place when it comes to these types of errors, because they are inversely related: as one goes down, the other goes up. The best we can do is balance them out. Error always remains possible.

Which always gets me to thinking: who knows enough about reality to know that the Biblical inerrantist position is the “safe bet”? That seems to me to depend on the probability that God does not communicate with people in new and different ways as their historical and cultural circumstances change, and that God does not reveal more about Godself and about the meaning of things God has communicated in the past as people continue in relationship with God. [If God were a boyfriend, and acted like this, God’s girlfriend would probably start to wonder if there was a future in the relationship. Just saying.]

My point is: it’s not obviously the safe bet. It’s one of the bets.

It seems to me that if a person accepts the premise that God wants things, and that one of the things God wants is for people to know God more and more fully, and that one of the things God wants for people to know is that God is on the side of human flourishing, and that the fruit of that flourishing is peace, joy, and love, a person might be forgiven for thinking that something other than the inerrantist position seems like a safer bet. Given the data available to us.

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