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A new online acquaintance told me of a discussion she got into with some people she works with.  It was prompted by the tornado that ripped through Westminster, TX in May, 2006.  They were talking about a man they learned of who left his home to warn others of the tornado warning.  When he returned home, his house was destroyed.  If he'd been home he probably would have been killed.

My acquaintance' immediately reaction was that he'd been saved because he was selflessly helping others.  In my They *need* it posting this would imply a Plan or Greater Purpose.

What I see in her conclusion is confirmation bias.

People have this idea that there's a God controlling things, and that He chose to spare this man for doing a good deed.  Divine intervention is indeed one of the possibilities.  But there are many other possibilities that turn out to be much, much more likely.

First, let's look at the likelihood that he would be killed in the first place.  The world is a big place, and a tornado is very, very localized.  There are many places he could have been where he wouldn't die.  Even though the tornado wiped out several homes and damaged many more, only three people were killed.  There are about 400 other people in that town that weren't killed.  So the odds were over 100-to-1 in his favor right there.

He happened to leave his house just before the tornado got there.  But there were several other homes that were wiped out that also didn't have anyone in them at the time. How many of those people were doing good deeds? Or, from the other side, how many of them were people who would normally be home at that time but were instead doing something selfish or wrong. Just as an examples, maybe someone conning a bunch of people out of their money. Or someone cheating on their spouse. Or maybe doing something even more awful, like burglarizing another home or assaulting someone. We don't know. We don't know how many awful people avoided the tornado by accident just like this guy.

That's why it's called confirmation bias. When you hear a story that fits what you believe then you remember it as confirmation of your preconceived notion. You don't invest any time in determining if there are other stories that contradict your preconceptions. People (everyone, including me probably) are inclined to be biased toward anecdotes that confirm their views of how things work and forget that a few scattered anecdotes are not even close to the whole story.

So. This guy going out to help people tells us nothing about whether or not God exists. It was probably just random chance. This man is a very good person for trying to help people. And he may have been inclined to do it because of his religious beliefs. But it was probably just random chance that this nice guy had his home wiped out. Divine intervention is not even close to a likely explanation of why he chose to leave his house.

One of my favorite one-liners is: Random chance is sometimes lumpy.

Another is: Correlation is not causation.

What those mean is: Just because one thing happens after another doesn't mean that the one thing was caused by the other. Sometimes things line up that make it look like there's a connection when there's really not. Be open to the possibility of a connection. But don't insist there's a connection when you really don't know. Also be open to the possibility that there is no connection.

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Last modified: July 10, 2006
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