This is post 9 of 9 in a series about the book of Jeremiah.
Data is a tricky thing. When people say, “the data doesn’t lie,” I often wonder how hard they’ve looked. True, the bare facts of the data technically don’t lie, but it’s actually fairly easy to make a large dataset tell whatever story you want it to tell. I have seen many such examples in both my MBA statistics class and in real life business situations.
For this reason, I’ve called Big Data the death of truth for almost as long as people have been saying Big Data will save us from a multitude of societal problems. Some may argue that the problem isn’t the data, but the way in which the data is being interpreted not being appropriate for the type of problem. That is certainly true, and I’ve experienced that myself a number of times.
Yet, the point is that Big Data IS in the hands of people who don’t fully understand the big picture (rare that any of us do fully), nor do we often know how to use the most appropriate tool to use for interpretation.
Data Science & Statistical Analysis: When the Data Tells the Wrong Story
One of the many tough issues in data interpretation is the effect of lag. When some time goes by, it’s difficult to determine the exact cause and effect of a particular event. In Jeremiah 44 we see this exact problem. We will circle back here in a minute.
Every political party will claim its policies had their intended effect on the economy (when things are good) and will blame the other party for hard economic times. They are able to do this because of the lag effect. It is easy for Trump to blame Obama and Biden to blame Trump when so many policies they implement take time to affect the economy. Further, correlation doesn’t equal causation. Consider a couple of examples:
- There is a strong correlation between shark attacks and ice cream consumption in Florida. It is highly unlikely that sharks like ice cream, and it is more logical to recall that shark attacks typically happen in the summer (because that is when people swim in the ocean), which is also when it is warm enough to eat more ice cream.
- Firefighters are strongly correlated with fires. We would hate to get this one wrong and actually blame them for fires rather than thanking them for their bravery and sacrifice. The correlation is only strong because firefighters respond quickly to fires. The lag effect is easy to pick up on in this example, because we understand how firefighters are called when fires occur.
Jeremiah and the Lag Effect
Now that we’ve seen a bit of how wonky the world can look when we don’t understand the lag effect, let’s get back to Jeremiah.
In Jeremiah 42-43, the LORD had warned the remnants of Judah not to flee to Egypt, but to remain in the land and ride out the Babylonian exile storm. They left anyway. In chapter 44, Jeremiah tells those who had fled that the LORD has set His face against them for harm (44:11-14).
Astonishingly, these men and their wives bowed up to this word from the LORD and rebutted:
“As for the word that you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord, we will not listen to you. But we will do everything that we have vowed, make offerings to the queen of heaven and pour out drink offerings to her, as we did, both we and our fathers, our kings and our officials, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. For then we had plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no disaster. But since we left off making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by the sword and by famine.”
Jeremiah 44:16-18 ESV
Do you see what happened here? The people—who hadn’t understood the big picture or the longer time horizon the LORD was working from (the lag effect due to His patience)—misinterpreted the data in front of them. In their short lives, they hadn’t experienced any problems after making their sacrifices to idols, and they hadn’t lacked anything, so they assumed the idol was working for them.
The people argue that when they stopped making sacrifices to the queen of heaven everything fell apart in their lives, likely referring to reforms made under King Josiah (44:18). Jeremiah responds that God DID remember their sacrifices to the queen of heaven but, in His patience, had held back His wrath until He was pleased to let their own foolishness reign down on them (44:21-23).
God’s patience created the lag effect, but because of that lag the people assumed the queen of heaven was the one in charge, since the data seemed to fit that model best in the moment.
Statistical Correlation and B4T
It seems so silly to us, looking back with more data, but surely we can resonate with what has happened here. Asaph experienced something similar in Psalm 73, when he saw the wicked prosper around him and his foot almost slipped. Job also encountered something similar from the opposite angle when his life was in complete upheaval and his friends assumed he must have done something wrong. By placing the wrong model over the Scriptures, or indeed over our lives, we can do the same thing.
Cross-cultural workers often make assumptions like this. We think that proclaiming the Good News hasn’t worked because we haven’t seen the fruit we hoped to see; but when we lower the bar for what a disciple is and try to create a movement as quickly as possible, we see “fruit” and then proclaim God is doing a new thing. In reality, if churches don’t last more than a few years, we have not met the right standard.
Data Science and the Gospel
It is imperative we don’t fall prey to problematic data science methodologies in our gospel work. We need to remain faithful to the Scriptures as our anchor and approach the work not with a lens for how to get “fruit” the fastest, but how to listen to God for His timing and His way, so as to see fruit that reproduces fruit. That takes time, but it’s worth it.
B4T is not so much a method as it is a lifestyle. We work—not because it will bring us fruit the quickest or easiest, but because by working alongside those we are assigned to serve, we are able to serve them all day long. We are able to display more fully how the Good News transforms our lives. With a level of natural contextualization (we share a lot in common with people we work with), we are able to show them how following Jesus can look in their context in a reproducible manner.
Join the movement! Get in touch with OPEN USA.
Greg is the President of OPEN USA. He used his education to work as a tentmaker in the Middle East for 8.5 years seeking to plant a church amongst a least-reached people group. Currently back in the USA with his wife and children, they aim to return to finish what the LORD used them to start.
To learn more about B4T, read Business for Transformation by Patrick Lai.