Considering the Third Variable

When I was in college studying psychology, in a lecture about research methods, the professor discussed third variables.  It is a fascinating reality that every researcher needs to be aware of, because if you don’t pay attention to third variables you will ─ almost always ─ come to the wrong conclusion related to your data!  Let me share with you how they work.  You could, for example, do a research project related to ice cream consumption.  And at the end of the study you could prove that eating ice cream increases drowning deaths.  The numbers are incontrovertible.  The third variable is summer.  Ice cream consumption and deaths by drowning both rise in the summer, but if you only take the two variables of ice cream consumption and drowning you “prove” that the more ice cream people eat, the more people drown.

I was thinking of this lecture the other day when my wife and I were watching the movie Sully. (Spoiler alert here!)  In the movie the NTSB was seeking to make the case that the pilot could have returned safely to the airport rather than landing in the Hudson River.  They showed it on simulators and on computer models. Following the bird strike there was time to return to the airport.  But as Captain Sullenberger points out this is discounting any time to work out the problem.  That was the variable they were leaving out.  Yes, if they knew the precise moment they were going to have a duel engine failure due to bird strikes, if they were ready for it and turned the plane the instant it happened, then they could have barely made it back.  But that scenario left no time to figure out what happened, no time to sort out all the things rushing at them in this unforeseen situation.  Once the variable of time was factored in it became clear that the only option was the river.

Considering all the variables is important.  It’s the only way you get the whole picture.  I wonder how often we miss third variables in the church?  I wonder how often in our relationships with others we miss an essential element or two in our evaluation of people.  Would it change our perspective if we knew some of the hurts folks have endured?  Would we be gentler with one another if we knew the kinds of things going on at work or in the family?  I have known a number of people from other countries who, as children, lived through war.  And while sometimes their behavior as teenagers was not ideal, when I really took time to think about what they had been through, I was amazed they could get out of bed in the morning, let alone go to school and be productive.

I think we all have variables in our lives.  And if we’re not willing to look at those things and include them in our equations we might come to some very wrong conclusions.  May we be those who offer one another grace. May we be those who look for the best in one another.  May we be those who pay attention to the whole picture.


2 thoughts on “Considering the Third Variable

  1. Just a note, Bill, of appreciation for your presence at Wolf Lake UMC last Sunday afternoon. Your guidance of the SPRC session was even and clear, and I appreciated your plan to check on the conflict of interest issues regarding paid staff being on the SPRC. I personally benefited from your homily in the general session and applied one of your insights at home that day (re: forgiveness). Thanks much, and you are in my ongoing prayers. (No need to respond to this, you are a very busy man.)

    Bruce Dempsey

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