Thought For The Day - Rhidian Brook

Earlier this week I was discussing climate change with a good friend. At one point I threw a statistic at him to back up a particular argument. I thought it was a trustworthy statistic - until my friend asked me where I'd got it. The fact is, I couldn't recall. I'd just read it somewhere. A few days later he sent me some data - complete with sources and graphs - that utterly refuted my argument.

But even as I looked at these potentially opinion-changing stats, I found myself resisting the evidence. Not because I didn't understand or trust the sources, but because they didn't fit my preconceived idea of what was true. I might previously have claimed to be just interested in the facts and free of any agenda, but the gravitational pull of deeper, irrational forces was warping my perspective, biasing any objectivity I thought I had.

Perhaps we should always be wary of the person who uses statistics to try and win an argument. To quote Auden: "Out of the air a voice without a face / Proved by statistics that some cause was just."

Some big - often contingent - decisions get made based on statistics: wars are waged, budgets are set - all the more reason then to be sure of their accuracy. The problem is even then statistics can mislead. A female driver between 20-65 will have had fewer accidents than a male of the same age; does this mean women are better drivers than men? More seriously, the UK engaged in more armed conflicts than any other country between 1946 and 2005, with a total of 22 - 23 if we include Libya. But do we conclude that we are a nation of warmongers or a country that values peace?

Even when we have all the data to hand, something else - beyond reason - is required for us to build an understanding from the knowledge we have. Watching The Wonders of the Universe series, I have to engage my brain as Professor Brian Cox explains how space time bends; but as soon as he says "there are over a trillion, trillion galaxies out there in infinite space" I have to do something else: I have to engage my imagination - my spirit - to get some perspective on the data.

Scripture points out that "knowledge puffs up but love builds up". It suggests that knowledge is not the full picture. It can make us arrogant, deaf to other people's opinions; where love can lead to a greater awareness, a greater wonder and a better understanding. While arguing facts about climate change with my friend I have to remember what matters. My friend.

It's fascinating that in God's famous answer to Job that begins "Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation?" He includes a stunning amount of data about the earth and seas, planets and stars - even galaxies. At one level it reads like someone comprehensively winning the argument with the ultimate statistical proof. But at another, it's a reminder to Job - and to all of us - that all the knowledge in the world is worthless without a right perspective.

Release date: 10 Apr 2011

3 minutes

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