Logical Theology

…considered thoughts and opinions

The Gambler’s Fallacy Part 2

Now that we better understand the Gambler’s fallacy, let us see how this fallacy can be committed within Christian discourse:

Example 1:

Carissa says, “Our church is about to hire a new pastor and he is going to be just the person our church needs.”

Peter asks, “How do you know that he will be the right pastor for our church? Does his character, beliefs, and personal life demonstrate that he will be a good, responsible and successful pastor?”

Carissa replies, “I do not know anything about his personal beliefs. However, our church’s last three pastors were all dismissed for personal misconduct. After having chosen three unsuitable pastors in a row, it is very likely that our new pastor will be a good one.”

Peter responds, “But how can you be sure the choice will good?”

Carissa responds, “Because our church has surely learned its lesson and will get it right this time.”

If only this were always the case. Often, people and churches continue to make the same mistakes because they do not correct the problems that caused them in the first place. For example, suppose the reason the church has hired poor pastors the last three times is because they are only looking at the doctrine the individual believes. They are not evaluating his personal life at all or only superficially. If only superficially, they will not be spending enough time to allow them to evaluate what kind of an individual the person actually is. Therefore, the fact that the church got its last three choices wrong does not automatically mean their next choice will be right. To think otherwise is to assume that making multiple wrong choices necessarily makes a right choice more likely, which is fallacious. Upon hearing this, Carissa might say that she was not talking about the church’s ability to select a good individual, but rather, she was arguing that probability-wise, after three bad pastors, the odds of getting a good one are greater.  However, this is also a Gambler’s fallacy, as the fact that the three last pastors were bad does not make it more likely that the fourth pastor will be good.

Now consider another example which shows how easy it is to commit the Gambler’s fallacy:

Example 2:

Michael says, “My friend Gloria has been going to school for a few semesters and has had to change a number of her beliefs in response to what she has been learning. It has been a difficult process for her, but I believe it to be good.”

Rachel says, “While I agree that learning new material is very good, how do you know that what the school is teaching her is correct?”

Michael responds, “There are two reasons I know this: First, the school has had a number of problems which it needed to overcome. In the past, the school used to teach many unscriptural doctrines, but they appear to have repudiated them.  In addition, the past leaders of the school said and did some very reprehensible things, but, they now have new leadership. Secondly, the school is accredited and gets very good reviews from former students.”

Rachel replies, “I heard that the school lost its accreditation status a few times in the past due to the odd things it was teaching. Considering the school’s checkered past, how do we know that it really has changed and is not just pretending to have changed so that it gets its accredited status back? After all, perhaps the people who run the school still believe the same things, but keep it under the radar to avoid criticism.”

Michael responds, “That really cannot be the case. Since the school has lost its accreditation status multiple times, it is unreasonable to think that they could keep their beliefs hidden. After all, given everything that has happened, they surely will not make the same mistakes again.”

Michael’s responses might seem good, but in reality he has committed the Gambler’s fallacy. It would be a mistake to think that because the school has gone through many problems and many bad leaders, it is more likely to correct its mistakes. It may well be that the school will take positive action. However, this would be because the school’s leadership saw the error of their ways and decided to change. It would not be solely because they made bad choices. Making multiple bad choices and decisions does not automatically mean that one is more likely to make a subsequent right choice, as there are multiple other factors to consider.

Thinking otherwise is to commit the Gambler’s fallacy. For example, if the school’s leaders are not open to change, then they will continue to make the same mistakes. Being willing to change is a necessary factor and not everyone is willing.  So considering the school’s history, the question of whether or not the university really is open to change is a valid question.

In addition, assuming that after losing their accreditation status multiple times, the school is due to get it right and keep it this time is also a Gambler’s fallacy. It may well be that the school will keep their status. However, this would be due to the school either really changing or being able to hide their beliefs and cover up their mistakes. It would not be because of the number of times the school lost it in the past. That fact alone does not necessarily increase the likelihood that the school will keep its accredited status this time.

The Bottom Line: A run of seemingly unlikely negative or positive, or lucky/unlucky events does not automatically mean that the opposite event is more likely to occur. Believing otherwise is a logical fallacy.

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