Dec 16, 2014

XL-Files: Pray with me, statistically

Xiao-Li Meng writes:

Perhaps because of my adventure a year ago officiating Yves and Victoria’s happy wedding (see December 2013 XL-Flies), I was invited back to the same church a year later to speak, for five minutes, at one of its Morning Prayers. Repeating my reaction to the Ig Nobel invitation (Oct/Nov 2013 XL-Files), I said yes without blinking and without knowing what’s actually involved.

“Oh Lord, what does a statistician know about prayer?”

Almost surely nothing, of course. But as a statistician, I need to practice what I preach (no pun intended): fully embracing the unknown, and uncertainty, as sources of excitement, not merely sources of income. Indeed and not surprisingly, uncertainty, and its identical twin, information, ultimately carried my morning prayer. In case you don’t believe me, the audio record is here (my part starts at position 7:15). The text is given below, for those who prefer reading, instead of listening to, preaching in Chinglish!

——————-

Let me begin by quoting Philip Yancey, from his book, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? “Prayer is not a means of removing the unknown and unpredictable elements in life, but rather a way of including the unknown and unpredictable in the outworking of the grace of God in our lives.” [source]

No one could remove the unknown and unpredictable. Almost all of us hate uncertainty and love information, at least most of the time. But fewer of us have realized that information and uncertainty are two sides of the same coin: that is, variation. A world without uncertainty by definition is a world without variation, where the concept of information, or knowing things, becomes meaningless. If I sent you today to Logan airport to pick up a new student, no matter how detailed the description of her I provide you, the information is completely useless if everyone at the airport has an identical appearance. Now imagine how boring (and scary) that scene is!

So as long as you appreciate information and predictability, you will also have to be excited by uncertainty and unpredictability, even if you are not a statistician. And I do mean excited, much as you were as a child, seeing a giant unopened gift box, or as a retiree, fighting that weighty unseen creature on an expensive fishing line. Yes, that giant gift box could turn out to be empty, or worse, full of trash (instead of cash). Yes, that heavy creature could be a shark amusing itself with the sea bass you waited hours for, and now you have to cut the line unless you want to cut short your life. But before that happens, you can still enjoy it—or rather, have faith—that the Unknown waiting for you is God’s next gift, perhaps in disguise.

Yes, it’s cruel when a giant gift box turns out to be a giant trash can. But could that just be God’s way of giving you an early lesson about not being seduced by packaging without checking content? Yes, it’s frustrating when hours of waiting and your best fishing line both become an animal’s sport. But again perhaps it is God’s way of reminding you that it’s still not too late to set yourself free from that insatiable desire that has dragged you down all your life?

Of course, these may all just be rhetorical questions to you. And they could well be, if you are among the lucky few who have drawn the right lottery numbers from God’s hat. Or should I say the unlucky ones? Winning the lottery or being struck by lightning are both events with extremely small probabilities, events any statistically sound mind should not expect. Yet we label the former as being lucky, signifying our desire, and the latter as unlucky, expressing our fear. But these are just two sides, lucky and unlucky, of another coin: extremely rare events.

There is a yet another, and closely related, coin. You may have heard the saying that “There isn’t enough room in your mind for both worry and faith. You must decide which one will live there.” The very fact that you need to make a choice between the two suggests that they are two sides of the same coin – both are about anticipating events filled with uncertainty. The difference is merely another example of the link between unlucky and lucky: worry fears the worst outcome, and faith helps us to work towards the best.

Let me conclude by suggesting that you always carry with you the three statistical coins I gave you this morning. Any time you feel uncertain, unlucky, or worried, just flip one or two, or perhaps all three, of them. It can make you feel more informed and lucky, and most importantly, it might help you to strengthen your faith.

Amen.

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