Saturday, April 04, 2009

The limits of statistics

According to a well-known statement attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. Despite this warning, we tend to give statistics a great deal of credence, perhaps more than is warranted at times. For example, last month the Toronto Star reported as fact that the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) is home to 200,000 Tamils, making it the the largest Sri Lankan Tamil community outside Sri Lanka. The fact is, as admitted in today's edition of the Star, this statistic is rather completely unprovable. According to various sources, the number of actual ethnic Tamils in the GTA range from 29,435 to 98,265 to the claim by some academics that there are more than 200,000. Confusing the situation is the fact that many Tamil speakers are not from Sri Lanka but from India. Also Stat Canada's records show that the total immigration from Sri Lanka from 1983 to 2007 was 114,896. Hence the conclusion from the Star library that "it seems highly unlikely that the number of Tamils in Toronto is anywhere near the reported 200,000 figure." So why was the statistic used? Probably to add a greater of sense of credibility, relevance, and urgency to the story. "This is a story that impacts a lot of people in the GTA!!"

This reminded me of a comment made by my seminary Greek professor in class one day, wryly observing the tendency of many preachers to refer to the original Greek or Hebrew scriptures at precisely the weakest points in their sermons. You can always bring out the intent of the original languages in plain English, he would admonish. "A pox on you if you refer to the Greek or Hebrew in your sermon!" he would exclaim. Please, he would beg, don't make your audience feel that they can't really understand the Bible if they don't know Greek or Hebrew.

I would say the same to my staff about persecution and the use of statistics.

We are often asked here at The Voice of the Martyrs to provide statistics regarding the extent of persecution faced by Christians around the world. How many are killed every year? How many in each country? How many are imprisoned in China/Vietnam/Egypt/etcetera? Of what denomination? One of the strangest requests I ever received was when I was actually asked to supply the names of all of the Christians who had died in the previous twelve months!

In our FAQ section of our website, we address the common question "How many Christians are killed for their faith every year?" Here's how we answer:

The persecution facing Christians is the largest "human rights" violation issue in today's world. However, it is impossible to know with absolute certainty the exact number of Christians who are killed each year for their faith.

According to the World Evangelical Alliance, over 200 million Christians in at least 60 countries are denied fundamental human rights solely because of their faith. David B. Barrett, Todd M. Johnson, and Peter F. Crossing in their 2009 report in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research (Vol. 33, No. 1: 32) estimate that approximately 176,000 Christians will have been martyred from mid-2008 to mid-2009. This, according to the authors, compares to 160,000 martyrs in mid-2000 and 34,400 at the beginning of the 20th century. If current trends continue, Barrett, Johnson and Crossing estimate that by 2025, an average of 210,000 Christians will be martyred annually.

It is worth noting, however, that many have asked whether the figures cited by the annual Barrett/Johnson/Crossing reports are reliable. Indeed, many persecution experts have concluded that they are untenable. Queries to the researchers have shown that these figures are, in fact, projected averages or statistical guesses rather than based on hard figures or actual documentation. Hence, it should be understood that The Voice of the Martyrs does not stand behind this report's findings as being indisputable facts.

The fact is, despite our modern technology making today's world a much smaller place, much of today's persecution still takes place in remote areas of countries often cut off from or with restricted access to modern communications. Most martyrs suffer and die anonymously, unknown, forgotten, their deaths unrecorded except in heaven. Even email, which most of us consider a basic everyday tool is a struggle to use in places like Ethiopia, Burma, and much of central Africa. Even where it is more readily available, it is not secure. Much goes unreported or is reported months, even years later. For many, persecution is such a part of life that it hardly dawns on the afflicted to tell the world. Many are nervous about sharing what they know for fear of retribution. That assumes, of course, that those who are persecuted know or have access to someone or an organization like VOMC. All have limited resources and staff for documentation and research purposes. None probably feel that they have adequate representation in any given country. And sadly, the sharing of information and contacts between organizations is still in its infancy, despite improvements in recent years.

In short, I suggest that persecution, by its very nature, defies being statistically analyzed with any degree of certitude.

I used to refer to the statistics above in my messages. But after a while, however, I realized that it was not unlike how some preachers tend refer to Greek and Hebrew when they feel the need to strengthen a weak part of their sermon. There are better ways and more ethical ways of strengthening our case. Indeed, I wonder if, in the long run, statistics do very little to strengthen our claim that persecution is an urgent issue that needs greater attention by the worldwide Body of Christ. Those who are convinced by statistics we give are often already convinced of the problem, while those who doubt the seriousness of persecution will probably doubt any statistic that we come up with.

If statistics play any role, it tends to be in capturing the attention of the hearer/reader. But it often ends there too, as the large numbers tend to overwhelm, leaving one with a sense of hopelessness in actually being able to make much of a difference. That's why we at The Voice of the Martyrs would rather focus on the people involved. Putting faces on the figures and stories on the statistics. That's why I would rather we spend money putting together our newsletter with its testimonies of faithfulness in the face of tribulation, our email news service with its up-to-date reports, and our videos with actual interviews with persecuted believers than investing in putting together reports that few read and compiling statistics that are ultimately disputable. As I tell my Communications Team repeatedly, we need to say what we know and leave the rest unsaid.


Anonymous said...

I have found that the persecution statistics at least give me an idea of the magnitude of the problem. Otherwise people can easily believe that it is only the ones whom you actually report. However, I appreciate only too well how statistics can be 'invented' or made to prove the point that you want to make. Eunice

Ben Clements, Rome,/ Cave Spring, GA. said...

Thanks for your labor, your love for Christ, your love for the Body of Christ, and for your honest and strait forward approach to statistics. I learned of your website recently while listening to my mentor (Rick Baldwin, Wildwood Bapt. Church, Ackworth, GA.)and I was very pleased when I checked out the site myself. I will be praying for you guys. Keep up your labor. Remember Philippians 1:6 "..He who has began a good work in you will perform it until the day of Christ."

Pastor Ben K. Clements (Live Oak Baptist Church, Cave Spring, GA.)

Glenn Penner said...

Thanks for your kind and affirming words.

turnertown said...

Don't be so dismissive of statistics. If one Jew had been executed by Hitler instead of 6 million, it would have been terrible, but not a holocaust. Numbers matter, they determine the severity of the problem. Is the problem severe or not? Only some blessed bean-counter can tell us. Get the names. Publish them. Does anyone have time/money for this? I hope so.
Some people make up statistics to "hide the decline" when reality undermines theory. We must never do that, we have a higher standard. People's lives are at stake. May God bless statistics and statisticians.

Turner Johnson

Glenn Penner said...

I have no problem with accurt stats that can be shown to be accurate. But, as present, persecution stats do not fit that criteria in my opinion. There are are those who are working on it, bit I have ltittle confidence that the time and money can be found to do the job right