Learning the wrong (right) lessons -the importance of curiosity

One of the big problems our society has is that we have suffered the death of curiosity and that stops us from asking good questions especially when presented with data and statistics. I get frustrated when people bring out the old “lies, damned lies and statistics” routine because statistics don’t lie, you do however need to know how to handle statistics and the first thing to remember is that statistics are there to be analysed, in other words to arouse our curiosity and get us asking questions.

To give one example, I have talked quite a bit about how statistically when comparing the UK’s death toll with other European countries there is no meaningful difference, even between the UK and Germany we are talking about 0.02% of the population.  Most of the results we are seeing look to be within an expected distribution curve.

However, there is one possible difference. South Korea’s deaths do look abnormal (although the statistical difference is still actually quite small). So, we should have copied South Korea right?  What did South Korea do? Well they did lots of testing. But we don’t stop to ask how their testing and contact tracing was possible.

I have wondered about this. One possibility is that South Korean society is more structured, more ordered, more hierarchical and therefore more compliant with measures.  Another is that they  were possibly more geared up for a testing regime due to the constant threat of biological warfare from the north.

There is another factor which is not just a hypothesis and it has been hidden in plain sight because newspaper articles comment on it and then pass it over. The Guardian article which asks why South Korea’s death toll is lower notes that a few years back there was a particularly nasty viral outbreak causing deaths that concerned authorities. This prompted the South Koreans to put measures in place. This included legislation that:

“gave the government authority to collect mobile phone, credit card, and other data from those who test positive to reconstruct their recent whereabouts. That information, stripped of personal identifiers, is shared on social media apps that allow others to determine whether they may have crossed paths with an infected person.”

This is important because in order to enable full contact tracing, the Koreans required the ability to invade privacy with regards to online and financial data at the kind of level that there has been huge resistance to in this country, even in the face of Islamist terrorism. Imagine the outcry in February if our government had tried to enact those types of powers in February. The outcry would probably have been loudest from the very people now wanting to know why we did not follow the South Korean model.

As always, my aim here is not just to think about the immediate issue of COVID-19. Rather, I want to encourage longer term lessons for churches.  Curiosity is a vital gifting in church leadership. Are we prepared to push hard and to ask the right but challenging questions or do we accept things at face value? 

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