Lies prohibited by the commandment are not the little social lies we tell to people we don’t care about, nor are they the self-protective or self-aggrandizing lies we tell to escape censure or obtain approbation.
Thoughts on religion, politics, life and death. And other banned topics.
Once again the Minnesota Department of Transportation is putting the word out that drunk drivers cause 1 in 4 traffic deaths. I begin with this example of a meaningless statistic, not because it is especially egregious, but because it exemplifies what makes statistics meaningless.
Of course, it is not entirely meaningless. We all have a gut feeling that drunk drivers do not drive 1 out of 4 miles driven in America. We strongly suspect that the vast majority of our fellow travelers are not drunk even at 1:00 AM. So it doesn’t take much thought to realize that 1 out of 4 traffic deaths is out of all proportion to the number of miles drunk drivers actually drive. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that drunk drivers drive 1 out of every 140 miles driven on America’s highways. So drivers doing only 1/140th of the driving are responsible for 1/4th of the fatalities. That’s 35 times the expected number.
But most people seeing the signs have no idea what the context is. They do not know what fraction of miles driven are driven drunk. Statistically speaking there is no difference between “Drunk drivers cause 1 in 4 traffic deaths” and “Sober drivers cause 3 in 4 traffic deaths.” Yet the latter statement seems to make a case for drinking before driving! The lack of context is what empties the statistic of its meaning.
In the same way, there is an oft-quoted statistic that women earn $0.77 for every $1.00 men earn that also suffers from lack of context. (Apparently in 2015 the pay gap went down $0.02. Women now earn $0.79 on average for every $1.00 men earn.) The pay gap is an aggregate of all the income women earn compared to all the income men earn. It is commonly used as evidence of continuing sexism in corporate America. But as evidence it fails because there are so many other factors involved. Missing from the statistic are a lot of facts. For example, men work more hours than women. Women also tend to be over-represented in care-giving and hospitality occupations, which do not pay as well as more male-dominated occupations. This may be due to cultural sexism, but it’s hard to see what actions businesses or governments could take to close whatever portion of the gap is due to this kind of income difference. The truth is most companies in America already have policies prohibiting gender discrimination.
Statistics always present an aggregate view of data. That is what makes statistics valuable. However, aggregating data always also loses some information. The reports on which popularized statistics are based are usually careful to include methodology and context and indicate other possible interpretations of the data. But when the statistic shows up in Facebook meme or a highway sign, all that context is lost. The power of statistics is in simplifying complex data into a few numbers. We understand by simplifying. We should not, however, mistake our understanding for a grasp of the truth.
I had intended to move on to the ninth commandment, but since writing about the tenth, I’ve been thinking a lot about the story of David and Bathsheba. It’s a perfect story for illustrating the prohibition on coveting your neighbor’s wife. If you haven’t read the story or need a refresher, you can find it at 2 Samuel 11–12. It’s the sort of salacious story you expect to find in the tabloids.
David, strolling on the roof of his palace one evening, sees a woman bathing on her own roof nearby. He sends to find out who she is and learns that she is the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of the thirty warriors of unquestionable loyalty who acted as David’s personal guard. David sends for her and has sex with her. His coveting leads to adultery, an attempted cover-up, and then murder—killing not only Uriah, but others who were with him on the field of battle.
The story includes almost nothing about Bathsheba. She appears only as the object of David’s desire. It could be argued that this is because she is a woman and not worthy of consideration as a active agent in the story. Yet there are other stories in 1 and 2 Samuel of strong, wise women such as the story of Abigail, another of David’s wives who exhibits great initiative in saving herself and her family from David’s wrath. You can read about her in 1 Samuel 25. Even Bathsheba shows herself capable of taking matters into her own hands when the need arises. So the story does not ignore her agency because she is a woman.
Rather, the reason for the story’s silence on Bathsheba is because of the power differential between her and David. David is her king. She dare not refuse him. Even to remonstrate with him would be to take her life in her hands. So the question of Bathsheba’s culpability is moot. Whether she desired David or not, the power was all on his side, and so no blame attaches to her. Like the woman raped in the country, she is regarded as innocent because she could not resist or cry out. David uses his privilege as king to take Bathsheba, regardless of her desire. That’s rape even if he did not use physical force. By breaking the tenth commandment, David also became guilty of much more—of despising the word of the Lord and showing utter contempt for him.