The world experiences an infinitesimal decrease in bullshit

On the occasion of Chuck Colson’s death, I’d like to take one final opportunity to point out the online discussion I had with him before he died.

I was too young for Watergate.  In fact, Richard Nixon resigned one month to the day before I was born.  Or as I like to think, Nixon saw me coming and said to himself, “Well, the jig is up.”

That being the case, the first time I became aware of Chuck Colson was when I used to listen to Christian radio and run into his five minute “Breakpoint” series.  Colson was one of those folks who, like Jerry Falwell, liked to perform rants about how everything going wrong in the country is the fault of people who aren’t religious enough.

I’ve gone over the details about his prison ministry a few times, but it’s worth bringing up again because of its remarkable dishonesty, and a prime example of how you can fake scientific conclusions by “creaming the data.”  Colson considered his ministry the crowning achievement of his life, and so did his friends.  You can tell because it’s one of the first things that everybody brings up when they eulogize him.

“Observers suggest Colson will likely be best remembered for his prison ministry…” — Christianity Today

“And he was consumed — utterly consumed — by his calling to serve prisoners, ex-prisoners and their families.” — Michael Gerson

“Except that there was also something that set the post-conversion Colson apart from the average G.O.P. partisan, and that was his zeal for prison ministry and penal reform, embodied by Prison Fellowship, the group that he founded after his own stint in behind bars.” — Ross Douthat

This is remarkable when you consider the fact that the main study that Colson has always proudly referred to, actually showed  that the ministry did not work.

What Colson claimed was that they studied the recidivism rates of prisoners who completed his ministry program and compared them with those who did not.  Recidivism means that within a certain amount of time after they were released from prison, they were reincarcerated for committing new crimes.  Colson always argued the study demonstrated that those who completed the program experienced a significantly decreased recidivism rate.

What he didn’t tell you is that the standards for “completing” the program dramatically skew the numbers in his favor.  A person is only defined as a graduate if they stick with the program for a period of time, then are released from jail, and get a job after their release.  In other words, a person who sat in on the ministry classes for the required amount of time, left the program, and then couldn’t find a job, wouldn’t be considered to have completed a program.  Therefore, if they were arrested later, that would be counted as a win for Colson, because they didn’t do what they what they were supposed to, therefore this proves that failing to “complete” the program was correlated with their arrest.

But this is a total cheat.  If you simply removed the ministry from the equation, and only compared prisoners who got a job to those who didn’t get a job, obviously the employed prisoners would be far less likely to go back to jail.  They don’t need to steal stuff to get money!  So here we have Chuck Colson deliberately excluding the group most likely to go back to jail, and then giving his ministry credit for something that happens after they leave.  The study doesn’t even attempt to demonstrate that people who take the program are more likely to get jobs.

In fact, what the study showed when you looked at the raw numbers was that among prisoners who simply entered the program — including both graduates and “dropouts”, the recidivism rates were slightly higher than the control group that wasn’t involved at all.  Or to put it simply, if the program had not existed at all, it’s possible that fewer of them would have returned to jail.

That’s the main thing I remember when I think of Chuck Colson.  When I pointed this out to him, he acted like this interpretation was a complete surprise to him — he had no proper response.  He said he would look into it, but I never heard anything on the subject again.

That is the main thing that stands out for me about Chuck Colson; that his most touted project actually appears to have either slightly hurt people or had no effect; and that he either didn’t care or refused to believe it.

One important detail is that reading his book “The Faith” gave me a great deal of insight into what evangelists mean when they talk about “The Truth” with a capital T.  They don’t mean something that can be empirically studied and verified.  They mean that when you believe something, you should really really really believe it, and not harbor any room for doubt, no matter what the facts say.  All the ink that Colson spilled on denouncing post modernism and moral relativism really made that he had drawn his conclusion and could not be talked out of it, and he was damn proud of it too.