Friday, June 26, 2020

26 June 2020 | Vital Statistics

It’s claimed that there are three kinds of falsehoods: lies, damned lies and statistics (Charles Dilke 1843–1911). That’s a bit hard on statisticians, but it is true that people often need help in properly interpreting statistics. For instance, Poole Harbour is the largest natural harbour in the world and its average depth is just 48cm (19in). If you didn’t understand statistics, you might try to walk across the harbour… but you would need to be a good swimmer!

Some decades ago, when I read Theology & Sociology at University we were expected to take a course in statistics. There were six of us studying for the joint degree that year and, embarrassingly, I have to confess that 100% of us failed the exam, first time around. Thankfully, after some good remedial teaching we all managed to pass the resit! Since then, I'm pleased to report, I have come to appreciate the value of statistics and have a much better understanding of the underlying maths.

During the last three months we have got used to seeing graphs, summarising various kinds of statistics, at the start of the daily televised government coronavirus briefing. In a sense, we have all become ‘armchair epidemiologists’, scouring the statistics for hopeful trends. It was well before lockdown that, thanks to BBC News web-content, I began to notice some alarming statistics about the mortality rate of the virus. As early as the end of January, The Lancet medical journal had published an article warning that the Wuhan outbreak could become a lethal pandemic. Later, in the pre-lockdown period, when people were generally quite blasé and thinking that for most individuals it would be like catching a case of mild flu, I was much more cautious, thanks to the statistics.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, as they say. But there is a growing school of thought that lockdown was imposed a fortnight too late in the UK because the scientific consensus had overlooked or misinterpreted the available UK data about the virus in mid-March. The claim was that we were four weeks behind Italy. In fact, we now know that we were just two weeks behind. Instead of infections doubling every five to six days, they were actually doubling every three days. Statistically, that makes a big difference – if an infection doubles every six days, in a month it will spread to 32 people; but, if an infection doubles every three days, it will spread to 1024 people in a month. We might have saved tens of thousands of lives and had a shorter lockdown, if we had interpreted the statistics correctly and locked down earlier. This is not to attribute blame, just to show how important it is to understand statistics!

There’s a statistic that I’ve used once or twice as an illustration in all-age worship: Imagine you told just two people about the Christian gospel, and they went on to tell just two new people each, and the same happened with those two people, and that spread carried on for just over a month. How many people would know about the gospel by then? The answer is surprising – you would reach over 1 billion people within a month and within 3 more days you would exceed the world population! In other words, it is 2 to the power 33. That would be an example of very beneficial contagion!

As the name implies, the Book of Numbers in the Bible has to do with statistics. At the beginning, God tells Moses to conduct a census of the Israelites, clan by clan, counting all males from the age of twenty able to undertake military service. You can see the overall figures in the first chapter of Numbers. Doubtless the census was conducted carefully, but, as with all statistics, there’s reason to be cautious about these figures which seem improbably high. Either some exaggeration has crept in or, more likely, biblical commentators have suggested that there has been mistranslation of one of the Hebrew words, which, instead of meaning ‘thousand’, can also mean ‘contingent’.

One of our greatest statisticians was also keenly interested in military statistics. She was Florence Nightingale and we’ve just celebrated the bicentenary of her birth. Better known as ‘the lady with the lamp’ and as a pioneer of modern nursing during the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale was also particularly skilful in her use of statistics to argue her case for health reforms. Motivated by her strong Christian faith, she went out to the Crimea to nurse British casualties. The conditions she found in the military hospitals profoundly shocked her and led her to submit a damning report, with the help of telling statistics, to the British authorities. She discovered, for instance, that, in the first 7 months of the Crimean campaign, the mortality rate in the military hospitals, from preventable disease alone, was 60% - which was greater than the mortality rate in London during the Great Plague! Poor sanitary practices were killing more soldiers than the enemy. 

Crimean War: Florence Nightingale going around the wards at Scutari Hospital. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

It was Florence Nightingale’s love of statistics that ultimately helped to bring about much-needed health reforms. As E W Kopf put it: ‘Her ardent, genuine sympathy for the sick and distressed was greatly augmented by a positive genius for marshalling definite knowledge of the forces which make for disease and suffering’ (‘Florence Nightingale as Statistician’, ASA, Dec 1916, p.404). She is reputed to have said: ‘to understand God's thoughts we must study statistics, for these are the measure of his purpose’. Maybe we should, in future, call Florence Nightingale ‘the lady with the lamp… and the data’!


Friday, June 19, 2020

21 June 2020 | Fathers' Day

Mother’s Day, we were in lockdown. I only had my daughter’s hand-painted Mother’s Day card at the beginning of June, when we were able to meet outside. She forgot to put it at the end of the drive on the day, and didn’t want it to get creased in the post. It had different flowers painted on illustrating the ‘virtues of motherhood’. The flowers included lady’s mantle (comfort), angelica (inspiration) and the blue hyacinth (constancy of love).

Now we are approaching Father’s Day with social distancing! So we are going to be nearer each other! Philip will get his cards on the day I imagine, and a permitted visit. I don’t know what those cards will be, but what are the ‘virtues of fatherhood’? In my experience, even people who do not have the experience of the presence of fathers long to know the story about them. Even if their father has not been the role model they should have been, they ache to know in their own lives those qualities a good father should show.

If I think of my own Dad – he always sat down and polished our shoes, taking great trouble over putting on the polish, and spending time vigorously buffing them with special brushes, so when we faced the world we were looking our best. I’m afraid I am not so thorough – a wipe over with one of the all-in-one products is all they get! My father gave me independence – he was the one who let go of my bike when I wasn’t expecting it, so I took off on my own. He was the one who left me in the room at university when I first got there. I suddenly didn’t want to stay, and he walked away saying I could come back home - but only in a few weeks when I had tried! Dad never wasted anything - he would sort out and separate the useful and recyclable, only discarding what was absolutely useless. He was a protector and provider.

The most beautiful picture of fatherhood is the one Jesus gave us in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. A German preacher and theologian, Helmut Thielicke, inspired people to think of it as ‘the Parable of the Waiting Father’. The father in Jesus’ parable gave his son his independence - and when the son went away and made terrific mistakes, the father was nevertheless there waiting for him all the time. When the broken son came back with nothing, the minute the father saw him in the distance he ran to meet him, and immediately enveloped him in his arms.

‘Return of the Prodigal Son’ Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), Hermitage Museum

Rembrandt painted a picture of this moment, called ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’. Henri Nouwen said the picture could ‘easily have been called ‘The Welcome by the Compassionate Father’. It has become one of the most iconic and treasured pieces of art in the world.

‘Virtues of fatherhood’ can be practised by anyone, regardless of whether they are fathers or not. Marcus Rashford has been talking about the role of provision and being a provider this week in campaigning for children to have free meals vouchers in the school holidays to help struggling parents. By showing what it means to people when they are provided with essential help, he has caused people to talk about issues, and helped inform and change people’s perceptions.

One of the features people have noted about the lockdown is that people have been going to computer sites and accessing all kinds of material about prayer and the Christian faith. This period had given people the space to reflect and think about the big issues of life, the universe and faith.

Over the weeks to come, we hope that we will be able to open up the topics of our faith with people who previously had not thought about its importance and how essential it is. What awareness can we raise, and how can we tap in to the mood of the moment and bring positive strength and hope to people’s lives? How are we able to present the positives of our faith, and enable people, as Jesus did, to see God as 'Abba'? Abba being an intimate address, like Dad, or Daddy, or Papa, or Pops which shows affection and relationship and the great strength of togetherness. Jesus portrayed his Father as waiting and compassionate and ready to provide the best things for a child when they come to him in all honesty and need.

We have all had fathers – hopefully we can help people celebrate the good ones - and commend to them the most caring one of all – ‘Our Father’ to whom all days belong.