Survivor Bias

Air planes played one of the central roles in World War II. They immediately surpassed the expectations of just strapping a machine gun onto a single engine plane and calling it a fighter plane that had been the standard in World War I. They became crucial strategic players and bombers were soon among the most important air craft. However, because they were bigger, slower, and harder to maneuver they were also easy targets. The UK alone lost nearly 12,000 bombers. Because these air crafts were so important to missions and the success of the war, a group called the Center for Naval Analyses started to study the planes that survived missions and noted where there were bullet holes. They concluded that they needed to add more armor and protection to those areas hoping that it would help them lose fewer planes. 

    Then a statistician named Abraham Wald got involved who came to the exact opposite conclusion. He threw out this term called survivorship bias and, at least in my mind, called them all idiots under his breath. You see, they were only studying the planes that had survived. So while all the planes they studied had multiple bullet holes in the wings and some other areas they were still able to make it home. However, bullet holes in the cockpit, engines, and fuel tanks were basically nonexistent in their research because those were the shots that destroyed the most planes. Wald suggested reinforcing those areas instead. 

    Survivor bias isn’t anything new. In fact, it’s been around since at least 323 BC with Diogenes. It is still a trap that we fall into all the time, especially in the church. Typically we like to do the same things we’ve done before because they are familiar, we know they work, and probably because it’s a good thing to begin with. We see all of our friends enjoying it, we enjoy it, so it must be a good thing, and so we do more of those types of things. In a sense, and I wish this was a different term, we cater to the survivors or the ones who are already home. We don’t always pay attention to the ones who are lost. 

    I believe it was my Intro to Ministry professor who gave me this poem, he also said that if he ever caught us with a copy in our Bible, he’d fail us… Or maybe it was flail us, I wasn’t paying attention. But even 13 years later I still have a copy of Sam Shoemaker’s poem “I Stand By The Door” in my Bible. I’d like to share it with you now, and even though it’s a bit longer than my usual blog post, encourage you to read it. After all, you’ve made it this far, and this poem has withstood the test of time whereas my words will fade away.

I neither go to far in, nor stay to far out.
The door is the most important door in the world -
It is the door through which men walk when they find God.
There is no use my going way inside and staying there,
When so many are still outside and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only the wall where the door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind men,
With outstretched, groping hands,
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it.
So I stand by the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world
Is for men to find that door - the door to God.
The most important thing that any man can do
Is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands
And put it on the latch - the latch that only clicks
And opens to the man’s own touch.

Men die outside the door, as starving beggars die
On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter.
Die for want of what is within their grasp.
They live on the other side of it - live because they have not found it.

Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,
And open it, and walk in, and find Him.
So I stand by the door.

Go in great saints; go all the way in -
Go way down into the cavernous cellars,
And way up into the spacious attics.
It is a vast, roomy house, this house where God is.
Go into the deepest of hidden casements,
Of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood.
Some must inhabit those inner rooms
And know the depths and heights of God,
And call outside to the rest of us how wonderful it is.
Sometimes I take a deeper look in.
Sometimes venture in a little farther,
But my place seems closer to the opening.
So I stand by the door.

There is another reason why I stand there.
Some people get part way in and become afraid
Lest God and the zeal of His house devour them;
For God is so very great and asks all of us.
And these people feel a cosmic claustrophobia
And want to get out. ‘Let me out!’ they cry.
And the people way inside only terrify them more.
Somebody must be by the door to tell them that they are spoiled.
For the old life, they have seen too much:
One taste of God and nothing but God will do any more.
Somebody must be watching for the frightened
Who seek to sneak out just where they came in,
To tell them how much better it is inside.
The people too far in do not see how near these are
To leaving - preoccupied with the wonder of it all.
Somebody must watch for those who have entered the door
But would like to run away. So for them too,
I stand by the door.

I admire the people who go way in.
But I wish they would not forget how it was
Before they got in. Then they would be able to help
The people who have not yet even found the door.
Or the people who want to run away again from God.
You can go in too deeply and stay in too long
And forget the people outside the door.
As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear Him and know He is there,
But not so far from men as not to hear them,
And remember they are there too.

Where? Outside the door -
Thousands of them. Millions of them.
But - more important for me -
One of them, two of them, ten of them.
Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch.
So I shall stand by the door and wait
For those who seek it.

’I had rather be a door-keeper
So I stand by the door.

Nathan Persell serves as our Youth Director. When he's not leading devotions and playing basketball with teenagers, he enjoys disc golf and bike riding. Learn more about Nathan here.