Saturday, 8 November 2008

Surveys, statistics, stereotypes and such

Earlier this week, I (uncharacteristically) participated in a telephone survey. It was totally electronic, of the "press one for more, two for less, three for about the same" variety, with no room for comments. A number of the questions had to do with economic situations - so, for example, I was asked if my housing expenses were higher than a year ago, and if I was concerned about my financial situation (I'd like to know who is not), and whether, in the coming month, I expected my outlay for recreation (such as films, theatre, dining out, or gym memberships) to increase, decrease, or remain the same.

Considering that most people I know, at the moment, are finding that the price of necessities such as groceries have doubled or tripled, I'm sure I'm not alone in that it is a rare month that I spend a single penny on what was classed as recreation. I must be a bit too logical, because my answer to the question about that area was "the same.' I cannot, after all, spend less than nothing! Yet it occurred to me later that anyone surveying results could determine that someone whose money situation is worse than a year ago (just like the rest of the world) is not decreasing spending on entertainment.

I'm very cautious about surveys, for various reasons. First off, even when one does have the chance to comment (which one seldom does - I've seen surveys which present the conclusions the compiler wishes regardless of how one answers), lots of people give the "correct" answer rather than the truth. (Witness that sales figures for tabloids are far higher than those for distinguished periodicals, yet few people would admit to reading tabloids.) Second, I've seen surveys for which results totally puzzled me, and which had to be slanted. Third, I'll just give an example of confusion in that, until very recently, figures for 'life expectancy' did not mean that everyone who lived to adulthood died at 34 - the very low figure was based on that infant mortality was high.

Stereotypes worry me the more - because those who believe them will assume what often is far from true. I well remember, in my young adult years, when many of my acquaintances were pursuing jobs in the education of children. I grew up in an era when large families were relatively common, and I doubt that any mother of 8 would have illusions that all children are the same (indeed, she'd know everyone is different from day one), or that everyone acts the same way at 3, 4, or 8. That did not keep those who were disciples of a 'child development' credo from assuming these very general ideas, which often were based on 'averages,' applied universally (or that any child who deviated from the average was somehow damaged.)

I have no flair for mathematics, but have some vestige of common sense. Even assuming that this-or-that was absolutely true for 75% of those surveyed, or aged 8, or of those in a particular classification (and I strongly doubt this is ever true), it would seem wise to recall that the individual 'subject' may be one of that other 25%!

My own concern, of course, is largely pastoral - but it applies to all human relationships. Once one assumes that this-or-that just has to be true of anyone, or of any member of a 'classification' (be it based on income, class, education, citizenship, or who scratches his nose with the left forefinger), one will not see the truth. In fact, if the other explains that the stereotype does not apply, he may well be assumed to be lying, deluded, or bent. Haven't we all known people who finish others' sentences? (They cannot, of course, hear the actual response.) Or who have a textbook model (literally or figuratively) of how someone is supposed to think or feel (even if said other is a member of a very large set, such as 'male' or 'female'), and are convinced that anyone who does not conform to the stereotype is lying, crackers, unenlightened, or insufficiently educated? Or who are so utterly convinced that their doctor, prayer group, reading group, nutritionist, guru, or acupuncturist has the answer to all the problems of the world that they are responding with a recommendation for physical exams when the other speaker mentioned a house fire or job loss?

This hardly applies only to pastoral situations (in fact, it is frequently a trait of those in any way involved in the medical profession, I'm sure with equally hopeless results), but I'd add this word of caution specifically in that realm. I would say, after a lengthy career in church work, that most people I have met genuinely wish to help others. (The trouble is assuming both that the other needs help, what it is with which he needs help, and that he wants it from you.) Assumptions ruin any possibility of communication far more than fostering same.

I'm the least observant of people. It is perfectly possible for me to not notice that someone I've known for twenty years is standing next to me when I'm waiting for the bus. I do have a strong intuitive sense, but it seldom gets out of hand because I both think the eleventh commandment is 'thou shalt mind thine own business,' and am highly unlikely to notice what anyone else does in any case.

My first rule for intuition (beyond not assuming it is a direct communication from the Holy Spirit) is to realise that, even if one does 'pick up on' that another is happy, troubled, or whatever, this in no way means one knows details, or should assume what the others reason for happiness or sadness is. Those more observant than myself, but equally intuitive, need to be all the more careful. They are more likely to shoot five darts, have one hit the target or somewhere in the area, and manage to think they know someone else's entire story and are qualified to advise them - when they may have no notion of what the circumstances are in another's life.

I have no objection to charismatic prayer if one finds that helpful, but, as I've discussed elsewhere, it was not a healthy approach in my own case (though I certainly thought it was at the time... I all but thought I could raise the dead.) I recall its going from very popular to just about dead within a few years. I cannot say why, and am sure there were many reasons. Yet I think, at least in some part and for some participants, disillusionment played a role. Many people I knew in the groups were very excited - seeing the Holy Spirit as inspiring them, bringing others into their lives, giving them insight into others' situations, even thinking they'd witnessed miracles.

Yes - I believe strongly in divine providence, and think that, all the more with hindsight, we can see places in our own lives where it well may have been at work. I think there indeed are times when an insight can be the gift of the Holy Spirit - though usually such are a call to repentance (not necessarily from wickedness, but in a sense of removing bars to divine intimacy) and directed at one's self! I've known many good, devout people with many gifts, but discernment is the rarest gift of all - and those who do possess this gift would be the last to base it on whimsy or stereotypes.

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