July 24, 2016

Unbelievable Odds

Miracles aren't "improbable"; they're either fraudulent or divine. Reports of miracles tend to be dubious, so doubting supernatural reports is entirely understandable. What I do not understand, however, is blaming that doubt on "probability". That's a category mistake, and an insult to mathematicians.

To call something improbable, one should refer to an unlikely but natural phenomenon.

To illustrate, here's a news story just released last week in Colorado. Back in January, when a deputy fired on an armed robbery suspect, the officer's bullet flew right up the other gun's barrel, unaccountably jamming it. The incredible odds of this happening - of one fired bullet entering into another gun's muzzle at precisely the right angle and then lodging itself safely at the far end of the barrel, effectively jamming the chamber - the odds of that were suggested to be one in a billion.

Photo Credit: Associated Press

That's not a professional statistician's estimate, but let's run with it anyway. Statistically, odds of 1-1,000,000,000 would mean if you tried this one billion times then it might happen once. But that same math tells us - no matter how many bullets have been flying around in America recently - that the odds of this bullet doing what it did were still a billion to one. Despite that, evidently, the absurdly improbable is exactly what happened, at least just this once.

In sharing this today, my purpose is NOT to defend the likelihood of the improbable. That would be silly. By definition, the improbable is improbable! Yes, you should naturally be skeptical about this story. Yes, you should want to follow that link above, or (after link rot sets in) Google the phrase "One of Marquez's bullets struck the suspect's pistol" in order to scan a few of the (currently) 821+ pages that have already quoted from the AP's news wire. This kind of story is extremely unlikely to be true, but this particular story is inexplicably true. The odds are literally unbelievable, except for the evidence. However, if we lacked access to that evidence, and on that basis concluded that this story was false, we would be sadly wrong.

And this brings me to my point.

In future years, if the evidence disappears, there will still remain one last clue to suggest the veracity of this amazing report, and that is the fact that somebody was willing to actually report it. Yes, there are plenty of liars in this world, but liars good enough to avoid getting caught do not often stake their claims to these kinds of plausibility stretching reports. However, the extremely improbable occurrence is extremely remarkable. We should try to keep that in mind when investigating written reports of incredible things that may or may not have occurred, especially when reading ancient historical texts. What is highly unlikely to happen is highly likely to generate memorable storytelling, assuming it somehow does happen.

Note 1: As for God causing miracles, that should and must be left up to faith. Either believe the claim or find some other way to explain it. What I most strongly recommend is that you do NOT simply dismiss it. As I said, miracles aren't "improbable"; they're either fraudulent or divine. It's ideally advisable that we should dismiss neither God nor fraud.

Note 2: A related but separate issue is how to assess historical reconstructions which may themselves seem unlikely. One key question is how strongly the reconstruction relates to some data requiring explanation, and whether the "improbable" explanation is demonstrably more or less improbable than any alternative explanations. But like I said, that's a different blog post.

Today's central point is that we should think twice before dismissing "improbable" reports. 

To be proper historians, we should normally say things like, "If Augustus did order a census in Herod's kingdom, then . . . or perhaps. . .  but if there was not such a census then we need some other way to explain why Luke says..." and so on. What we should not do is say, "Well that seems extremely unlikely, so let's dismiss it."

Doing history absolutely requires judgment and skepticism.

But it lives and dies with imagination...

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