[Note: This post has been edited slightly for clarity. In the first sentence of the last paragraph, "when I vote" has been changed to "when I vote pro-life;" and the phrase "(or not voting)" has been added to the final sentence. -- Simcha Fisher at 11:43 ET]
"We're not that much smarter than we used to be," says statistical analyst Nate Silver, "Even though we have much more information."
Silver is the author of The Signal and the Noise: Why Most Predictions Fail – But Some Don't, and in a recent interview on Fresh Air, he pointed out that the internet age has created a real problem: too much information, not enough meaning.
He says, "That means the real skill now is learning how to pick out the useful information from all this noise."
He was speaking mainly about making reliable predictions, but his observations can be applied more broadly. Silver says that sensible people live by a basic principle called "Bayes' Theorem," which simply says,
[Y]ou shouldn't take each piece of evidence in isolation. You should say here's what I know, and how much should this change what I [already] know?
He explains that we can apply this rule to everyday life. If, for instance, you find "a strange pair of underwear in your dresser drawer," he says, you should
consider it in context of the relationship you have already. It might be very damning if you've already had reasons to suspect that your partner is cheating. But if you've been in a relationship for 20 years or something, and this person is as honest as can be, then you wouldn't weigh it very heavily.
In other words, be alert to new information, but don't forget context.
I can remember the first time I consciously rejected a really significant bit of information, even though it seemed solid in itself, because it just didn't make sense in context. It was when someone told me, "There's no salvation outside the Church. That means that an elderly tribal nomad who's never heard of Jesus Christ will go to Hell when he dies, because he has not been baptized. It's one of those hard truths," she gravely insisted, "And we just have to accept it. Not baptized a Catholic? Not going to Heaven. End of story."
And I said to myself, "That does not sound like anything else God has ever said about salvation. Or about anything."
So I thought I had a horrible dilemma: either (a) become one of those wretched Disney-princess-follow-your-heart Catholics who gasps, "My God would never say anything that I find unpalatable, because my God is a God of love," or (b) become one of those wretched ramrod Catholics who thinks of the Gospel as the Bad News of the Lord, and that Christ came mainly to rub out faces in our inevitable damnation.
Thankfully, I discovered a third route: I could actually learn more about what the Church actually teaches. I could take that bit of isolated information -- "There is no salvation outside the Church" -- and put it into the glorious context of the Church's teaching on God's love and mercy. And I was delighted to discover that, in the words of Pius IX in Quanto conficiamur moerore:
God who sees clearly, searches and knows the heart, the disposition, the thoughts and intentions of each, in His supreme mercy and goodness by no means permits that anyone suffer eternal punishment, who has not of his own free will fallen into sin.
In other words, yes, we are all saved through the Church, and through the Church alone. But many, many, many souls are members of Christ's Church without even knowing it. The Church is really, really big -- much bigger, even, than those of us who are baptized often realize.
And that made sense to me. That comported with everything else I already knew about God: that the one and only thing He has done throughout the entire history of salvation is to draw people to Himself -- to use every imaginable means to invite people to His table. Once I put the isolated bit of information into context, the information meant something real, and my understanding of the larger idea was deepened, too. While I was looking closer at one detail that bothered me, the big picture got even bigger and more wonderful.
I recalled this enlightening experience this week, reading about how Catholics ought to vote. Talk about sound without significance! Well, here is a prime opportunity for Catholics, when considering their vote, to think about context.
Here's a bit of information:
Several top items on Obama's agenda are explicitly immoral. If someone understands the grave evil of what Obama wants to do, and votes for him anyway -- either in favor or in indifference to that agenda -- then that voter is committing a mortal sin.
Here's another bit of information:
Some Catholics like what is good about Romney, and will vote for him;
some Catholics simply despise Obama more than they despise Romney, so vote for Romney against Obama;
and some Catholics, for a wide variety of reasons, cannot bring themselves to vote for either of the possible winners.
All of these Catholics take moral issues seriously, and merely disagree about the best way to vote for the good of the country and for the preservation of our own souls.
Here's another bit of information:
Some Catholics say it's a mortal sin to vote for Romney, because some of his agenda is explicitly immoral. It doesn't matter, they say, that the alternative is even worse: bad is bad, and Catholics mustn't help evil or taint themselves with it.
And some Catholics say it's a mortal sin to vote for anyone other than Romney, or to abstain from voting -- that only a churlish, empty-headed, self-pleasuring crypto-neo-Donatist would squander his vote that way.
Now here's the context:
A mortal sin? From the list of secret mortal sins that you have to read certain blogs to find out about? A mortal sin that is so specific that it only has to do with the 2012 election, and not, say, the 2000 election? And meanwhile, the clumsy old Church lags and stutters, hems and haws and hasn't gotten around to including this mortal sin in any catechism or voter's guide? Really? Really?
Here's some more context: a Catholic voter is absolutely required to take life issues seriously.
A Catholic voter is required to take voting seriously.
A Catholic voter is required to take the Church's teachings into account when he votes.
And a Catholic voter is instructed, "Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation."
So here's what I would do, using Bayes' Theorem: I would take the bit of information about brand new 2012 mortal sins, and I would try to put it in the context of what I already know about what the Church demands and what my motives are . . . and I would say, "Nope. Sorry. Information doesn't fit. Doesn't mean anything. Rejected."
The Church is specific where she needs to be, and broad where she knows people need room to act according to their consciences. The Church speaks on behalf of God, who knows hearts.
Bloggers, on the other hand, know how to type. And that is all.
So when I vote pro-life, I think, I pray, I reject Obama, and then I do as I will. Anyone who tries to shame or terrify me into voting (or not voting) my way out of Hell? They're just part of the noise.