The Downside of Testimonies
by Mark Gutman, March 13, 2015: An Adventist lady had planned to fly from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur on Thursday, July 17, 2014, as part of a trip that would end in Ambon, Indonesia, on July 19. Since 1991 she has worked with the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), which is kind of a United Nations for “indigenous peoples, minorities, and unrecognised or occupied territories” who “are not adequately represented at major international fora, such as the United Nations.”1
“In all of my [many] UNPO missions, no matter where I’ve gone, I have kept the Sabbath and not once set foot on an airplane,”2 she later wrote. Three days before the flight, she realized that July 19 was a Sabbath, which meant that she would be flying on Sabbath. “[God’s] Spirit spoke to me during our (the lady and her husband’s) devotional on Monday morning and told me, ‘If you take this route, you will travel on the Sabbath. Don’t.’” So she changed her flight schedule, notified UNPO on Tuesday, then confirmed the flight change, and flew on Wednesday instead of Thursday.
The plane she had originally been scheduled to fly from Amsterdam was shot down while it was over Ukraine, in an incident heavily covered by the media. But our church member, having changed her schedule to leave Amsterdam on Wednesday, was busily and safely at work for UNPO. “I am here to witness that God has spared me because I need to continue my mission here in Ambon and be available to aid people in our world who need help,” she said. Likewise, a commenter on the website asserted, “It doesn’t mean that God was not concerned about the lives of those that perished. It just means that He still has a work for this lady to do, and that is why she was impressed to change her ticket.”
Others were no longer necessary
She may indeed have been spared because she had a work to do but “it appears that some of the world’s leading AIDS researchers lost their lives. The Australian reported that 108 of of the passengers were researchers and their families, who were en route to the 20th International AIDS Conference in Melbourne.”3 Would we be justified in concluding that either their work was not as important or that their particular role was no longer important? Is it a given that nobody else on the plane had more work to do?
Statements we make praising God for his goodness to us often seem insulting to others or relatives of others who did not fare as well. Such comments may also fail to back up and take in a larger picture. Since we only interview survivors, no evidence can now be provided by the unfortunate deceased passengers. There is no way to find out how many people were flying that particular plane because they had felt similarly impressed that God’s Spirit was telling them that they should be on it. After all, they weren’t breaking the Sabbath by flying on Thursday.
Just reporting the facts
The writer of the Review article about the flight switch felt that “an article should focus on the biggest, most relevant story for its audience. In this case, the audience is primarily Adventist and has a special interest in the case of a fellow Adventist associated with MH17 [the Malaysian airlines flight number].” In other words, if this is what people want to read, let’s supply it. He also defended his writing with “The article only reports the facts,” which reminds me of a story (probably a fable) about a captain and a first mate.
On a special occasion, the first mate of a ship got drunk. The captain reported in the ship’s log, “The first mate was drunk today.” The mate pleaded with the captain to remove the sentence, pointing out that it could delay the mate’s captaincy by months or years. The ship’s captain stated firmly, ”If it is true, it has to go in the log. That’s the rule. End of discussion!” A few weeks later, the first mate got to make the log entries. He wrote, “The ship seems in good shape. The captain was sober today.” “We report only the facts” could more accurately be stated as “We report only the facts that we select to make our case.” The facts we report may lead people to incorrect conclusions, but at least the conclusions will be more like our own. “60 Minutes,” FoxNews, and “the liberal media” have all been accused of such one-sided reporting.
If it worked for me. . . .
Eye-catching headlines or articles often claim cause-effect relationships that don’t exist. For example, “The number of vaccines children are receiving is increasing, and the number of children who are being diagnosed with autism at some time after being vaccinated is on the rise. Therefore vaccines must cause autism.”4 As has been brought to our attention recently, such reasoning, known as post hoc ergo propter hoc (Latin: “after this, therefore because of this”), may be very wrong, but can win a lot of followers.
Because one lady felt impressed not to take a certain flight and thus missed dying in a plane crash, some have gathered that it is dangerous to fly on a commercial airline on Sabbath (although the plane crashed on Thursday). One can read too much into a coincidence. One can also read too much into a sample of one. Deciding we want to believe something often results in a “confirmation bias” (reread “Just reporting the facts”), which is “a type of cognitive bias that involves favoring information that confirms previously existing beliefs or biases.”5
Follow God, and you’re safe
Reporting stories that appear “providential” can create the impression that recognizing God’s impressions is fairly straightforward. And when God impresses, you obey. But we don’t know how many people were impressed that they should be on that plane, perhaps to accomplish some good deed. Nor have we been given a report on how often the good lady has impressions that turn out to be useless. (“I should go back and make sure that I turned off the oven.”)
Scientists warn us against basing important decisions on anecdotal evidence. The fact that three people took the snake oil I sold them and got better doesn’t prove that my snake oil is good, even though it increases my snake oil sales. (Reread also about post hoc ergo propter hoc.) Some commenters were so impressed (unnerved?) by this event that they had started rethinking their travel plans (. . . the commandment doesn’t exactly say not to fly on Sabbath, but why take chances?)
Sometimes our cheery testimonies strike others as unkind barbs or unproven claims. Our looking good in one story can lead us and others to forget that an incident in which we shine proves neither our sainthood nor our theories. If we can tell who is on God’s side by observing who escapes calamity, we’d better delete Job from our Bibles. We don’t tie the long lives of some cigar smokers to their smoking. Nor should we be quick to claim that an occurrence of escaped mishap or good fortune can be attributed mainly to our rule observance or goodness.
2This quote and other details from the story are taken from the Adventist Review website. See https://www.adventistworld.org/2014/october/news-feature.html