Andrew Hartley is the author of Christian and Humanist Foundations for Statistical Inference; Religious Control of Statistical Paradigms. For more information on this work, please visit the Resource Book page.
Steve Bishop is the compiler of A Bibliography for a Christian Approach to Mathematics and the author of several articles on the relationship between faith and math. He has contributed a number of articles to GodandMath in his series on Christian Mathematicians.
Andrew recently discussed with Steve how his Christian faith and mathematics relate.
Andrew, thanks for agreeing to this interview, could you please tell us something about yourself?
First and foremost I consider myself a child of God, and then His servant. For me, this means I’m growing to see the world as I believe He does, and do what He calls me to do. I want to grow in this way in every one of my roles (activities) in the world, including my role as a statistician.
So, how did you become a Christian?
How did you become a Christian? God converted me in my first year of undergraduate studies. Until that time, I had been trying to manage my emotions and, in general, philosophize my way to happiness. Instead of joy, however, those mind games brought only emptiness. God worked through a campus minister & some friends to show me that the way to fulfillment was to admit my sin and need for a savior, to accept God’s forgiveness, & to live for him in all I do.
How do you use mathematics in your work?
I serve as a statistician in the pharmaceutical and medical device industry; I use most of my time to
1. assist government regulators in evaluating the safety and efficacy of drugs and medical devices, and
2. inform companies in the industry as they select candidate products to research and develop, and as they seek to optimize clinical studies and analyses, balancing costs and benefits in choices of such parameters as sample sizes, adaptive designs, and complexity of analyses.
More abstractly and generally, my occupation involves applying statistical theory to form scientific beliefs and make decisions in the presence of uncertainty and while managing risk, with the overall aim of maximizing expected net benefit.
How does your Christian faith impact how you do mathematics?
My trust in God helps me, I think, appreciate all His good gifts, and not to look solely either to my feelings or to external facts for security and truth. The contrast I want to draw here is between subjectivism and objectivism.
- Subjectivism says that what matters is people’s feelings and impressions. It’s attractive because it allows individuals to decide to their own favor what matters, and whether a given body of evidence is convincing and conclusive. It attracts those who place a premium on believing what they want to believe.
- Objectivism goes in the opposite direction, pretending that the data we can collect from experimentation and observation can automatically determine what we believe (or should believe). A desire to found our beliefs on data as much as possible is commendable; however, objectivism is the dogmatic insistence that data are sufficient in themselves for determining what is right and true.
Faith in God and His provision for us helps me, as a Christian statistician, escape from each of these extremes. Because I’m certain that God gives us everything we need and that we can be satisfied in it, I’m more inclined and better able to draw mathematically on emotions and feelings (“subjective” elements), as well as data (“objective” elements), for guidance in forming scientific beliefs and making decisions. The need for both subjective as well as objective factors in statistical reasoning evinces itself, I believe, in the standard definitions and rules of probability; despite this, however, statisticians have devoted entire careers and multitudes of papers and books, in the last 150 years, to showing that one or the other is sufficient to guide us towards truth or, at least, to meet our desires.
The need, and the ability, of a Christian statistician to keep all created things, such as emotions and data, in proper balance is an instance of a more general responsibility and freedom of all Christians: Insofar as we find our ultimate fulfillment in Him and recognize the limited ability of created things to satisfy us, we are both motivated and able to use those things for God’s glory but not to become completely enraptured by them. This type of devotion to and trust in God is, of course, an ideal to which we should aspire, but which we never attain in this life. Centuries ago, John Calvin wrote that “All the things which make for the enriching of this present life are sacred gifts of God, but we spoil them by our misuse of them…The result is that the very things which ought to be of assistance to us in our pilgrimage through life, become chains which bind us.” He said also, more succinctly, that “…man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” Because we divide our devotion between God and the things of this world, we set our hearts on one “idol” after another, believing that it could make us happy or fulfill all our wants. However, to the extent that we trust God, rather, and rest in His loving provision for us, we will be free to hold those created things “loosely.” We become better able to use them, rather than being possessed by them.
You have written a book on a Christian approach to statistics – how did that come about?
Since the time I became a Christian, I’ve been around people who emphasized serving God in every area of life, including their academic and professional work. They taught that authentic Christian living means using every opportunity to serve God. Expressing my thoughts on some implications of Christian faith for my discipline of statistics has seemed like a very natural way to serve Him in this manner.
Thanks Andrew, I look forward to discussing some of these issues more.
Look for a future posting on GodandMath from Andrew Hartley.
Our Thanks to both Andrew and Steve.