Monday, February 28, 2011


A few years ago I was having a theological discussion with a friend of mine. He was really impressed that the English word son and sun were homophones. It really appealed to him that Christ, the son, brought light into the world and Sol, the sun, also brought light to the world. Now I realize that this wasn’t the format for textual criticism so I just bit my tongue. I was tempted to point out that the significance of his revelation only applied to English. I didn’t know for sure but I was pretty sure that son and sun were not homophones in the original Greek or Hebrew. If this doctrine were so profound why would it be left for only those who spoke English to understand? But it wasn’t my job to take the air out of his sails. So, I just listened patiently and encouraged him to continue his studies.

Yesterday at church I had a similar tongue-biting experience. In Sunday School we were discussing the New Testament and somehow we started talking about the words thee, thou and thine. For quite a while we talked about the importance of using these words when we are talking about deity. Begin tongue biting. Personally I think this type of language says more about England at the time King James version was translated than it does about anything contemporary to Jesus. But I continued to listen.

Then the discussion centered on the fact that thee, thou and thine were more familiar and casual forms of the more formal pronouns for you and your. More tongue biting. One member of the audience even challenged that claim, saying that the instructor had it backwards. Thee was the more formal not you. But he stood his ground and correctly stuck to his point that thee was the familiar form and you the formal.

Then two other members of the class shared personal experiences about the formal and familiar tenses in different languages. And how when they learned the different language they were trained to use the familiar forms when referencing deity, in Spanish and Portuguese just like King James’s contemporaries did with English.

One good thing about have a wife that is so understanding of my condition is that I can quietly vent a little bit to her rather that completely sever my tongue. So I asked her, “Does anybody here know if the original Greek or Hebrew had rank distinctions like Old English, Spanish or Portuguese?” My point was the same as my point to my friend a few years ago. If we were to be having this lesson in the language the original text was written in would there be a distinction at all? It was my suspicion that we were spending valuable lesson time discussion the particulars of doctrine on a subject that quite possibly was just an artifact of translation. Until somebody could verify that Greek and Hebrew had rank distinctions in their pronouns we were just wasting time.

So once I got home I turned to the interwebs and the Google helped me answer my questions in only a few minutes. The instructor was correct. Thou, thee and thine are the familiar form and not the causal form.

“Following a process found in other Indo-European languages, thou was later used to express intimacy, familiarity, or even disrespect, while another pronoun, you, the oblique/objective form of ye, was used for formal circumstances.”

And, as I suspected, Greek and Hebrew do not even have rank distinctions in their pronouns.

“Emphasis in biblical languages was on the noun, subject, or name, whether referring to God, man, a spiritual being, or an inanimate object. There were not two or three sets of pronouns used: for example, one to convey the significance of God's name and another when referring to Abraham. Hebrew and Greek do have pronouns that distinguish between singular and plural and between subject pronouns (referring to the one performing the action of the verb); and object pronouns (the one receiving the action of the verb or joined with a preposition); but they are used without any reference to rank. In Biblical Hebrew and Greek pronouns were a matter of precision not piety.”

I guess what concerns me about issues like this is that it distracts from time that we could be using to discuss truly important things. Rather than talking about how we can help other in the congregation we were nit-picking over our choice of pronouns.

As soon as church was over we loaded up the truck and headed up to visit my new nephew and his parents. He’s still in the NICU since he was born rather small. It was inspiring to see this tiny little soul struggling to survive and seeing his parents do everything they can to help him get started right in this world in spite of his bumpy landing. I really enjoyed the time spent with him, his parents, and the nurses showing him so much love in his first week of life. The drive home gave me pause and really got me thinking about what it means to be spiritual.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Internets Polls and other Cons

The book I’m currently reading has a whole chapter on opinion polls. Specifically, it focuses on how systematic errors in the polls can cause error bars so broad that the data is completely worthless. Unless your goal in the first place isn’t to measure public opinion but to shape it, then they aren’t worthless at all.
Yesterday on my facebook feeds I got a request to answer a survey about where I get my news. Sounds good on the surface, but then the problems start popping up.
What’s wrong with this kind of a survey? Well first off, it’s voluntary. They aren’t gonna get any mediocre opinions. People don’t log on to a volunteer survey to say that they really don’t have an opinion. So right off the bat the survey will be artificially polarized, since it will only take responses from people passionate enough to participate.
Second, I didn’t see this same survey come across any other media; radio, TV etc. This isn’t a problem by itself. They may have been specifically looking for the opinions of facebook users. It’s only a problem if they then try to extrapolate from there out to the general population. Many surveys often do exactly that.
But the big death nail in this survey’s credibility is the surveyed audience. This came across my NPR feed. Yup, this survey was only sent out to people who are already self declared fans of NPR. Are you kidding me? You’re taking a survey of people who are already fans of NPR and want to know where they get their news? Gee, I wonder how that will turn out.
Of course this is nothing new. Fox news can’t seem to go a whole hour without asking you to log in and tell them what you think. Then they come back with some ridiculous misinterpretation of the data like, “55% of Americans think Obama is Muslim.” As if the opinions of their viewers makes it reality. I’ve grown to expect this kind of meaningless polling from most news outlets. I was just a little bit surprised the see if from NPR. In fairness to them, I don’t think they were being partisan. They were just trying to create a poll that disproportionately favored NPR itself.
So If you’re ever around me when somebody tells me about a recent poll, you’re liable to hear sigh or a snicker and then a series of follow up questions about things like statistical errors v systematic errors, controlling for sample bias, error bars, etc. You see polls themselves aren’t news. At best, they are what news organizations talk about while they are waiting for real news to happen. At worst they are an attempt to manipulate opinion or politics.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011


It snowed in the Southeast a few weeks ago. Since Atlanta has no appreciable snow response plan other than to just wait for it to melt, most of Atlanta was stuck at home burning vacation days as fast as they were their Kroger bought firewood. Nothing pulls out the deniers of Global Warming more than a colder than average day. Never mind the fact that most of them were conveniently silent during the records highs of only a few months ago, 87 degrees on October 11th and I didn’t hear a peep out of any of them Saturday and Sunday when it was in the 70s. I could do a whole post on confirmation bias here. If you only look at the data that supports your conclusion and ignore the rest the world looks just like you imagine it would. But I’ve done that before.
Of course a few hot days in October or a few days in the 70s in January don’t prove it is happening any more than a few cold days in January proves it isn’t. If you are talking about a global issue increasing over the long term you have to average all of the data for the long term.
My post today is to issue a challenge to those who honestly believe that a few cold days mean that the general trend is not increasing. Let’s put your money where your mouth is. Do you believe the same thing about your stock portfolio? I propose that we take all the stocks in your portfolio and every time one hits a localized low you sell it to me at that low price. If we apply the same logic to your portfolio that you apply to the weather then a localized low must mean that the general trend is not increasing. So why would you want to hang on to it anyway?
Any takers? No I didn’t think so. Because most people are smart enough to realize that when it comes to their stock portfolio it’s the long term trends that are important not the localized highs and lows. Sure there are bad stocks out there that are not performing well. But if you look at all of them all and average them out, it’s still a pretty good place to invest. Why, because in spite of localized events the trend is generally increasing.
I think that most people who deny the evidence of global climate change are smart enough to realize this point. They obviously accept the same logic when applied to their portfolio. They just choose to deny it because they don’t like the political implications that accepting the evidence would have. And they know that a cold day in January doesn’t prove anything except that it’s a cold day in January, yet they deliberately play on the emotions of those that follow them to lead you to a fallacious conclusion. They think their listeners are that easily manipulated. Unfortunately, many of them are.