One in a Million - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity


One in a Million

There's a logical fallacy I've come across many times whose general pattern goes like this: X is a rare event. Therefore, if someone claims that X happened to some specific person, that's impossible and they must be lying.

I saw an example of this recently on a web forum. Let me note here that while the specific issue discussed was about religion, my point here isn't really to talk about religion but about logical fallacies.

A poster said that the average life span in ancient times was only about 40 years. Few people lived to be truly old. So when Christians claim that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote the Gospels, this is impossible. These men would have been at least 60 or 70 years old by the time the Gospels were written. Only 1 in a 1000 people lived to be 60, so the odds againt Matthew (for example) living to be 60 were 1000 to 1! The claim that Matthew wrote the Gospel with his name must be a lie!

We have little direct evidence what life spans were back then. No one was keeping records of the average person's life span. But let's accept the premise. Few dispute that life spans were shorter in ancient times.

But even given that, do you see the reasoning? Because relatively few people in those days lived to be 60, therefore the claim that any given person lived to be 60 must be a lie.

How does that follow? Some people lived to be 60 or 70 or 80 or 90. We have plenty of records from Greek and Roman and other histories of an occasional person living to be that old. So to say that because most people didn't live to be that old, that therefore a claim that one specific person lived to be that old must inevitably be false, simply doesn't follow. No one is claiming that all of Jesus's followers lived to be 60 or more, just that 3 or 4 of them did. There's nothing remarkable about this claim.

Yes, if you and I had been around when Matthew was born, and you had asked me, "What is the probability that this particular baby will live to be 60?", my answer would have been that it was very small. But that's not the question. The question is, Here we have a man who lived to be 60. And you point at him and say, "What is the probability that that man is still alive?" Well if he's standing in front of us and I can see that he's breathing, I'd say the probability is 100%! The fact that we couldn't have predicted that he would live that long when he was a new-born baby is irrelevant.

Suppose I asked you, "What are the odds that my friend George Jones will win the lottery?" You would presumably say, "Several million to one against." Suppose I then show you a newspaper with the headline "George Jones Wins Lottery". Now what would you say the odds are that he will win the lottery? Obviously with this new information, the odds are now 100%. It would be absurd to say, "That newspaper story must be wrong. The odds against any given person winning the lottery are millions to one, so the chance that this person won the lottery is millions to one against." The odds are millions to one before the winning number is picked. Once the winning number is picked, then the chance of anyone who doesn't have that number is 0% and the chance of the person who does have that number is 100%.

Thinking of the Gospel writers reminds me of another very similar argument. I've read that John could not have written the Gospel of John because it is written in Greek and few people of his nationality and background spoke Greek. But again, the flaw is the same. Maybe it's true that few Jewish fisherman in those days spoke Greek. But some did. No one is claiming they all did, just that this one particular Jewish fisherman spoke Greek. The fact that he wrote a book in Greek would seem to be pretty conclusive evidence that he was an exception.

There is a best-selling American novel called "In The Distance". (I've never read it, so I have no comment on whether it's any good.) It's written in English, but the author, Hernan Diaz, was born in Argentina. At that point would you say, "Wait! That's impossible! Most people born in Argentina don't speak English. Therefore, it's impossible for someone from Argentina to have written a novel in English." Of course not. Some people from Argentina learn English. Obviously Mr Diaz is one of those, the simple proof being that he wrote a novel in English.

If you could somehow prove that X is absolutely impossible, then a claim that some particular person did X must be false. Like if X is "built a perpetual motion machine". But to go from "only 1 person in 10,000 has done X" to "therefore any claim that any particular person did X must be false" just doesn't follow. Maybe that person is the 1 in 10,000.

Maybe I should add that of course this argument doesn't prove that a claim that a person did some improbably thing must be true. There's no way to know without further evidence one way or the other. But the jump from "we couldn't have predicted this when he was born" to "therefore any claim he did it is impossible" just doesn't hold water.

© 2020 by Jay Johansen


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