Charles Seife’s Proofiness: How You’re Being Fooled by the Numbers is nothing short of fascinating.
For some reason, most people are addicted to the stupefying combination of numbers and credibility. “If you want to get people to believe something really, really stupid, just stick a number on it,” Seife intones. Silly absurdities suddenly become plausible to gullible people; even the not so gullible. Misinformation lurks in everything from product labels to polls.
Consider the 2004 study done by zoologists, geographers, and public health experts. They analyzed the performance of Olympic athletes in the 100 meter dash and discovered a striking pattern. Male and female sprinters were gaining speed over the years. Female sprinters were gaining slightly more percentage speed than men. When graphed, several interesting conclusions emerge: women will surpass men in speed around the year 2156. But it gets better! By the year 2224, women will be running the 100 meter dash in 7 seconds (32 miles per hour). By 2600 they will break the sound barrier and not too long after that, relatively speaking, they would break the speed of light, travel back in time, and win races before they even begin! “Absurd” you say! Indeed! Such is the legerdemain of numbers.
One of the leading sources of “proofiness” in society today is polls. Seife describes a poll as “a factory of authoritative sounding nonsense.” Polls are a journalistic invention, perhaps going back as far as 1824. Why are journalists infatuated with polls? They help create news. Journalists have to write about something, right? When there is no news event, create a “pseudo-event” and declare it newsworthy. Pseudo-events make for good fake news.
Polls are imperfect measuring sticks that can be easily manipulated according to the purpose of the pollster. Everything from the “margin of error” to “randomness” to “how questions are worded,” not to mention other factors, skew poll results. Whether the question contains the term “pro-life” or “anti-abortion”; whether the words “collateral damage” or “dead civilians” are used; whether a sitting President’s first and last name or the honorific “President” followed by the last name are used; can totally reverse poll results. Seife concludes that the news media regularly act with reckless disregard for the truth. Facts are often manipulated to foster someone’s version of the “truth.”
Should preachers become pollsters and poll their congregations to find out what topics need to be preached? No. We already have a “more sure word of prophecy” than any poll—it’s called the Bible. The Word of God contains no “margin of error” with respect to its conclusions. Whatever it says you can bet your life is accurate to the tee. Preach it—all of it!
The facts of the Bible are, for the most part, perspicuous. Nevertheless, the spadework of exegesis undergirded by sound hermeneutical principles is a necessary precursor to healthy text-driven preaching. Failure in this area might lead the preacher to inadvertently “skew” the teachings of Scripture and present the wrong message to the congregation. As with polls, our methodology in sermon preparation must be sound or we might just tell some unsuspecting congregation somewhere the theological equivalent of Olympic sprinters someday breaking the sound barrier!
Preachers must be devoted to “rightly dividing the Word of truth.” After all, we want our preaching to be “text-driven” and not agenda driven. Preachers must make sure their facts tell the truth and not misconstrue it! Tilting too much to either side of the more or less will land our preaching in “Propaganda Swamp.”
And don’t forget—there is a 92 percent chance I am right!
Better still—there is 100 percent chance God’s word will not return void!