Stats, Reality and Repentance

Nineveh repenting

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics

So quipped Mark Twain, and, in the main, he was right. Statistics can be made to say pretty much whatever one wants them to say, all while telling what may well be truth, of a sort, or what one may think to be the truth; or what one wants others to think to be the truth.

One person is in a room, and another enters: The population doubled in an instant. Two people, and two more enter, the population grew exponentially. In the seventies, it was reported that ten percent of the male population is homosexual, but they only tested inmates in an (obviously) all-male prison. Whether the Earth is warming up depends by and large with what baseline temperature one begins. And we may add to this what collection set of data, at what scale (decades? centuries? millennia?) What mathematical model is being used? And how does one tease out natural cycles and inherent variability – as the saying goes, the weather is always changing – from the anthropogenic causes? What of natural sinks, the Boreal forests and wide expanse and depth of the oceans, that act to maintain homeostasis?

In a way that is eerily analogous to the apocalyptic scenarios of global warming – climate change, to hedge their bets – this Covid crisis provides a heyday for statisticians, epidemiologists, actuarials, demographers and computer scientists across the globe. Take what they say with a pinch of quinine.

The details are beyond the scope of this brief reflection, and things can get quite complex and mathematical, but let not that scare you off, for common sense begins all endeavours, and we may mention two things that may be of help to the reader to see through the fog and haze of graphs and projections. We should beware that there is a deep psychological component to this crisis, with the hyper-focus on Covid cases, ignoring, as the media always has, the ongoing ‘pandemics’ of regular influenza, swine flu, Dengue fever, malaria, which kills untold thousands almost without cessation. Keep in mind that a ‘pandemic’ is a scientific term for any disease that has spread to more than one country or region, in contrast to more localized epidemics.

Expert language and fancy graphs are used to intimidate and overwhelm, along with graphic imagery – piles of coffins, people struggling in hospitals, waiting rooms filled to capacity – all mediated via that ubiquitous black box, the television or, now, the laptop, tablet or phone. At least with the three latter devices, one might find other, balancing, sources of information, but to those glued to their tellies, is almost the very definition of passive acquiescence.

Statistics may look at three epochs: What has happened, what is happening, and what will happen, and they decrease respectively in their certainty.

We can be rather sure what happened in the past, and we may massage the numbers to apply certain mathematical – that is, statistical – methods to this phenomena: How quickly did the Spanish flu spread? How widely? To whom, and to how many? And so on.

Even here, however, the picture is murky, for reality is infinitely complex, even in the past, records are sparse, anecdotal, somewhat biased – the flu is only called ‘Spanish’ since Spain reported most accurately on her cases. Even the numbers are uncertain, and fluctuate wildly depending on whom we trust. We will never know the full picture.

Certainty drops at least a degree of magnitude when we look at the present which, by definition, is always changing. For as soon as look at an instant in time, and capture it, it is already in the past – so see above. To apply mathematics – again, statistics – to the present is nearly impossible. It is best to call this the ‘near past’, or the ‘nearly present’, rather than the present, which, like a willow-the-wisp, can’t really be grasped. And the near past is far more uncertain than the far past, which has a more fixed reality, ironically, than that which may be staring us in the face.

Then what are we to say of the future? Only that God only knows, and fools at their peril predict with certainty what may yet be. Of course, we may make guesses, educated and otherwise, and plan accordingly, but, as the Scottish bard once sang, the best laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft agley.

The infinite complexity of reality, and especially the unpredictability of human, animal and even viral nature, in their physiology and behaviour, all the multifold factors, to say nothing of the providence of God, make projections of what may yet be, open, to put things mildly, to some level of skepticism, even doubt. The one thing that is certain, is that we’re all going to die, someday. And the manner of our death is likely to be in some way we would rather not, as C.S. Lewis reminded us in his timely talk on ‘Living in an Atomic Age’, and as Christ predicted of Peter.

And all this even before we get to the fact that reality itself is shrouded, in deceit, in deliberate lies told by those with some agenda – and the Chinese Communist Party, whatever else one says of them, most definitely have an agenda, whatever their role in this – as do any number of others who’d enjoy a bit more, shall we say, control. Big Brother is watching you – quite literally, and making a whole lot of predictions, projections, along with the prescriptions and proscriptions that follow therefrom, all for your safety and security.

Here is Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot, ordering people to be less light on their feet:

Stay at home. Only go out for essentials. You have to readjust your thinking. Be smart…Not only will our police be deployed to shut them down if you are not abiding by these orders we will be forced to shut down the parks and lakefront. The situation is deadly serious and we need you take it deadly seriously

Shut down parks and lakefront? Arresting people out for a bike ride? Locked indefinitely inside our homes, allowed out for a gulp of fresh air and a tour around the yard like prisoners at the SuperMax – if you are fortunate enough even to have a yard, and aren’t stuck in some sweltering, fetid apartment? Have these people never heard of the beneficial effects of sunshine and fresh air, which has ameliorated many a pestilence in history?

Insane and unsustainable, even if this were the Black Death redivivus, which it is not. All based on projections from algorithms, where what you put in, is what you get out, quite literally. And what, we all may ask, are they putting in?

As with far too much of science, there is a widening gap between the ‘modelers’ who sit at computers making predictions – often wild ones – and the actual field researchers, who actually go forth into the wild and see what is really going on. And part of this ‘gap’ is that their figures often do not match. But the money goes to the modelers, and one need not wonder why, for such is more suited to those in power enforcing policies upon us all.

Consensus and modelling is only science by analogy, if science at all. Science should be about the nature of things, about truth, which Thomas defined as adequatio rei et intellectus, a conformity between the mind and reality.

Part of our holding onto truth is maintaining a sense of balance, as I wrote the other day, defending and living out, as best we might, our civil liberties and rights, for one thing, so that in the panic we don’t devolve into a police state. We should beware that the various oligarchs, eager to circumvent constitutions, don’t seize the chance to exercise dictatorial powers, and shape the world in accordance with their own deviant minds. How many even good-minded people would be eager to comply, and give everything away, all in the interests of security and compassion? Quantity of life over quality of life, is a motto fit only for those who see a safe slavery as better than freedom with some risk. But life is all about balancing some sort of risk, ’tis it not?

Conspiratorial? Perhaps. But, then, the Church has always believed in a ‘conspiracy’ against her. If the princes of this world could ‘breathe together against the Lord and His Anointed’ when David wrote those words under divine inspiration in the tenth century B.C., how much more true are they in the twenty first?

Here are some sample questions with which I will the reader for now:

How many actually have, and will get, the virus?

How many will actually die of the virus, and not just ‘with’ the virus? The percentage who die is the percentage of those sick enough to be admitted to hospital – or already in hospital – and not of all those with or perhaps with or who perhaps have had the virus, whose number is unknown. Or do we count the 150,000 people who die everyday across the world, presuming that some of them – none of them, of course, tested – died of this virus? Who’s to know?

How many will it kill before it runs its course? And how many more, if more, will this be than a regular nasty flu?

After all, tens of thousands die of flu, car and motorcycle crashes and obesity, to say nothing of all the other diseases, organisms, viruses and bacteria listed above, but we don’t shut down the entirety of society, and the Church, to stop the apparent carnage.

How transmissible is the virus? How many have had it, and/or are already immune? Again, at present, unknown, although some have made guesses.

How accurate, and how honest, are the tests? Where were the test kits made, in China? Might they have an interest in a certain bias to the tests? Or are at least some of the kits just crap, like most stuff out of the Communist regime?

And, on a more theological level, is this virus a punishment that we must just endure in some way? The Pope implied as much in his Urbi et Orbi address last week, but his exhortations are mixed in with an environmental anxiety – nature’s rebellion and ‘hissy fit’ – that, to my mind, obscures the deeper, spiritual significance, that this is really about our own souls.

Where are the calls to repentance from our own bishops and pastors? Their apostolic spirit and parrhesia? After all, the Bible, along with our own history, are replete with precedents, and I, for one, have not heard much on this from our hierarchy – please do correct me if I am wrong. Is the Church really a non-essential business, shuttered and closed down at the first sign of danger? Is there not some middle ground, ensuring people’s ‘safety’, while continuing the Church’s sanctifying work, even in a minimal way? Do we not need our pastors and the sacraments they administer, not least as so many of the elderly and vulnerable, to face illness and death?

Here is Pope Benedict XVI in his 2009 meditation on Saint Jean Vianney, inaugurating the Year for Priests:

I still treasure the memory of the first parish priest at whose side I exercised my ministry as a young priest: he left me an example of unreserved devotion to his pastoral duties, even to meeting his own death in the act of bringing viaticum to a gravely ill person.

Viaticum has been expressly forbidden in my own diocese, and likely in many others, with the reason that it would be ‘impossible to administer’. I read somewhere that word isn’t in God’s vocabulary.

And on the note of Ninevehtan repentance, is it a coincidence that New York is being hardest hit, not long after legalizing abortion all the way through pregnancy, for all nine months? It will be a long time – I would argue never, but see above for predictions of the future – before the victims of this virus reach the number of unborn murdered each year in the U.S. – close to a million. Now the mayor is threatening to ‘permanently close down’ any churches that disobey draconian isolation orders.

And our dear old Canada, steeped ourselves in the blood of the unborn, and this hits just after resident greybeard Trudeau opened the floodgates wide to euthanasia – whose victims are already approaching ten thousand. And those are only the reported ones. Now, he’s all worried about the lives of the elderly and vulnerable?

Perhaps, just a thought, he’s anxious about his own hide, as are all the fellow greybeards and greyhairs who voted for him, that they too might become statistics. As the saying goes, viruses respect no boundaries, geographical, political or otherwise.

There are wheels within wheels in all of this, and questions abound, for which no one knows the answers. We must keep our wits about us, as Thomas More said in his own fractious time, so that we be given eyes to see and ears to hear through the fog, obfuscation and noise, to the truth behind the lies and damned lies.

And remember, the final Code in the Canon states Salus animarum suprema lex.

The salvation of souls, including our own, is the highest law.