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.


  1. Zengaze says

    You weren’t seeing the stats in the right light Russel that’s why you misinterpreted the results. You have to understand the context. Secondly of course people who don’t want to commit crimes are going to get jobs, that’s what god does for people.

  2. says

    And how do you know that God played a role? You know, correlation does not equal causation?

    It could be that the common factor between going to the ministry AND going and getting a job is that they wanted to re-integrate into civilian life – and that’s the core of the better rates.

    That’s also likely why the Ministry’s success is indistinguishable with controls groups without it.

    But yes, magical sky man is more likely, apparently.

  3. says

    I knew the name from Watergate, but was not aware of his Christian roots or prison ministry. It seems quite dishonest indeed for him to skew the numbers like this, it always makes me wonder if these kind of people have really deluded themselves into accepting clearly wrong conclusions, or if they just ignore criticisms and stubbornly refuse to change beliefs…

  4. Jdog says

    I’m pretty sure he was being sarcastic here, JT. 😉

    Of course, sarcasm is difficult to communicate well in strictly text. I’m considering shunning people who don’t include some indicator of when they’re being sarcastic.

  5. jacobfromlost says

    Ah, but no true graduate would be a recidivist, therefore the data shows that all of the TRUE graduates who graduated had a 0% recidivism rate. That data shows it!

    It’s just a weird coincidence that the True truth happens to say whatever we want it to say. (end satire)

    It’s like I’ve said so many times before: referencing data when arguing with some is pointless. They will always fall back on, “Whatever you see, that’s evidence for whatever I say.”

  6. Corey says

    As an interesting aside, in Hunter Thompson’s piece titled “Fear and Loathing at the Watergate: Mr. Nixon Has Cashed His Check,” which can be found in Thompson’s book, The Great Shark Hunt, Thompson reports that Colson once ordered a cop to firebomb the liberal Brookings Institution, and then later claimed he was only joking. In response, Thompson “joked” about conspiring to kidnap Colson, tie him to the rear bumper of a car, drive him around town, and cut his bloody torso loose in front of the White House.

    Thompson cites one Pat Buchanan as referring to Colson as “the meanest man in American politics.” Later, Thompson writes that Colson was “slowly and surely emerging as the guiding light behind Nixon’s whole arsenal of illegal, immoral and unethical ‘black advance’ or ‘dirty tricks'” Finally, Thompson claims Colson kept a sign on the wall of his office that said, “ONCE YOU HAVE THEM BY THE BALLS, THEIR HEARTS AND MINDS WILL FOLLOW.” (caps in original).

    Quite the picture this paints of Mr. Colson.

  7. coragyps says

    “but was not aware of his Christian roots”

    I’m pretty sure Colson didn’t have any of those. He found some in the jailhouse and grafted them on, the better to be a sanctimonious grifter.

  8. HP says

    I’ve got about ten years on you, I think. My earliest reliable political memory is watching Nixon resign. (I think I saw Nixon on Laugh-In saying, “Sock it to who?,” but I imagine I remember that from reruns.)

    It’s purely wishful thinking on the part of Colson’s hagiographers that he will be remembered for his prison ministry. Most Americans over 45 remember Chuck Colson for his role in Watergate, full stop. Most Americans under 45 have no idea who he is. Historians will remember him for his role in Watergate, full stop. If he’s lucky, his prison ministry will earn him an asterisk.

    (I had a young musician friend whose name was John Dean. I told he should start a band called John Dean and the Unindicted Co-conspirators. He had no idea what I was talking about. Still, there’s a handful of history professors who would totally see that show.)

  9. Hairy Chris, blah blah blah etc says

    As someone who’s a) not old enough to have lived through the original time and b) from a fifferent continent… my views on politicians from the era are highly coloured by Hunter S Thompson’s political writing!

  10. thebookofdave says

    Of course! I should have seen it all along. God just wants us to accept his true love, and rewards the truly penitent with stable employment. But he has little tolerance for a false confession, and can spot the faker a mile away. In this case, not only does he withhold the job, but sets up the next arrest. That way, career criminals get another chance for Chuck Colson’s ministry to work its miracles.

  11. busterggi says

    As someone who was in college during the Watergate mess (I voted for Nixon in ’72, I thought he was crooked enough to be involved but I didn’t think he was stupid enough to be) and is aware of Colson’s ministry, etc, I will always simply remember him as a shifty hypocritical rat.

  12. James Thompson says

    It might have been a little more that an infinitesimal decrease.

    What a wasted life

  13. Soledad says

    While you laugh at the death of Colson, I still get a warm feeling from the slow death of Hitchens.

    May that war mongering swine rot in hell.

  14. rickking says

    I am old enough to remember Watergate but the name Chuck Carlson didn’t ring a bell until I started doing some research on prison reform. Say what you will about statistics they can have and will always be manipulated to make a point of argument.
    The government does it everyday. Despite an arguable response to the reform issue based on the ministry statistics I would challenge you to release some of your disgust towards our country’s huge prison industrial complex that uses 70 billion dollars per year of tax payer money not to implement much needed education, drug treatment programs, and value based moral mentoring but to build more prisons and stimulate a booming business through government contracts.
    If Carlson’s group made a difference in 1 inmates life it’s more than is being done by a perverse system that is supposed to be protecting us. If it weren’t for the many prison ministries including Buddhist, Muslim, Hindi,and Christian that are trying to help these people learn to be better citizens so they can survive when they are let out your public safety to exercise freedom of expression would be severely threatened.