The Handbook: The Zebra Rule, Occam’s Razor, and Robby Dawkins

The Handbook: The Zebra Rule, Occam’s Razor, and Robby Dawkins May 30, 2015

Resurrections really rest close to Christians’ hearts. They love the idea of people coming back from the dead, what with their terror of death and all. Lately, a Christian has been getting a bit of press from overly-gullible fundagelicals with a claim that just thrills them. Yes, Robby Dawkins is telling some porkie pies about helping to resurrect someone who died! Is it true? (Seriously? Of course it’s not.) Let’s look at what happened, and what it shows about Christianity that he’s gotten any traction at all with his fish story.

HOW CAN THEY BE REAL. HOW HOW HOW HOW HOW. (Credit: Chad Rosenthal, CC license.)
HOW CAN THEY BE REAL. HOW HOW HOW HOW HOW. (Credit: Chad Rosenthal, CC license.)

HOUSEKEEPING: Feel free to pop over to my Facebook page to suggest a movie for the next Semi-Drunken Movie Review Night! (Oh, and Roll to Disbelieve has a Facebook page, so if you want to hang out that’s cool; I put up links to all of my posts here and on Recovering from Religion’s blog Ex-Communications. I also link to other bloggers who say interesting related things there and make short observations about religious stuff that I don’t feel like turning into a blog post right then.)

The Zebra Rule.

Sometimes physicians call it the Zebra Rule:

Foreman: “You learn it in first year medical school: when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.”
House: “Are you in first year medical school?”
House, frequently discussed concept and pilot episode quote

And sometimes they just describe it as Occam’s Razor:

No more things should be presumed to exist than are absolutely necessary. Which means that a murder victim is usually killed by someone known to them and fairies are made out of paper and you can’t talk to someone who is dead.
Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Both concepts represent invaluable aids to us in determining what is true and what isn’t.

I’ve heard woo-peddlers offer up impassioned and elaborate explanations for why we shouldn’t care about their misunderstood conceptualization of Occam’s Razor, and the doctors on House find zebras many more times than they find horses, but in general these are excellent guides for a developing sense of skepticism and that is why I’m putting these ideas into our growing Handbook for the Recently Deconverted.

Thundering Hoofbeats.

The Zebra Rule tells us that when we have a series of symptoms or events, chances are the mundane and most common explanation that covers those events is the correct one. When a patient presents to Dr. Gregory House with excessive irritability, a spiked fever, and fatigue, his first instinct will be to diagnose depression, not African Sleeping Sickness. That’s because one doesn’t often see that disease in New Jersey in a patient who’s never been anywhere near Africa and apparently hasn’t been exposed to anybody who has visited there recently.

When we’re alone in our houses and hear a strange noise, chances are the noise is the house settling or the cats running around. The more we know about where the cats are or the history of the house’s settling-noises, the more likely we are to arrive at that conclusion. Could it be a home invader? Yes, of course it could. But we don’t typically leap to that conclusion unless we’re in a heightened state of arousal somehow (like if we watched a horror movie recently).

A mind in that heightened state of arousal is one more prone to accept off-the-wall explanations for a given set of symptoms or events. I heard a neuroscientist once say that our minds light up when we find a new connection or bit of esoteric information we’d never seen before, and he thinks some people get hooked on that little spark of positive feedback. It makes as much sense as anything else I’ve heard for why some people seem more prone than others to getting involved in this kind of thing.

If you’ve ever talked to somebody caught up in a conspiracy theory or who is really emotionally invested in alternative medicine or extremist religion, you’ve seen the Zebra Rule in action. Sometimes their explanations for diseases or events can be really convoluted–and the more convoluted, the more details they string together to make their ideas work, the happier they are and the more convinced they are that they’re right.

A Sharp Razor.

Occam’s Razor tells us that we should pick the explanation for a phenomenon that uses the fewest unknown elements. It does not actually mean that we should always accept the simplest explanation, though that is how it is very commonly expressed (and indeed that’s how that one link I gave above about the woo-peddler considers it). In a nutshell, the Razor is used to slice away all the elements of an explanation that cannot be directly observed or verified empirically.

Given two explanations for an event, the one that contains the fewest number of totally unobservable elements is likely to be the more correct of the two. For example, religion often offers very simple explanations like “my god must have done this thing” but which incorporate entire nests of unobservable elements:

  • the supernatural exists at all;
  • sentient, intelligent beings exist in that supernatural world;
  • at least one of those beings has enormous power, enough to be considered godlike;
  • that being can interact with our natural world;
  • that being does interact with our natural world;
  • and that being looks and behaves like the claim being waved at us…

… and other claims still, but you get the point, I hope.

Not a single one of those elements can be observed or tested to establish its veracity. Not even the first one has ever been credibly established! When a religious, conspiracy-based, or supernatural explanation gets offered up, we need to be considering the unobservable elements that nestle within that explanation. Most of the time, we don’t even think about them–which works to the woo-peddler’s benefit but not to our own–because we are steeped in a culture that fully believes that these untested, unverified, non-credible ideas are perfectly true and valid.

And Robby Dawkins.

Robby Dawkins is a fundagelical preacher and author who claims to have raised a man from the dead during a service he gave at a church in Northern England. I don’t think he’s any relation to Richard Dawkins. If you’ve never heard of him, don’t feel bad; I sure never had, and I can’t help but feel that his claim is meant to raise his visibility.

Apparently he’s got a real hard-on for resurrections, and one can’t blame him for that. The Christian religion promises TRUE CHRISTIANS™ that they will be able to do this and even more. But with medicine’s advances, claims of resurrections have become quite sparse. If a Christian zealot ever comes into contact with the opportunity to even try to do this extremely impressive miracle, it’s going to be by accident–and that Christian will likely face quite a lot of criticism for doing something that obviously pointless when real medical help was needed. Indeed, Mr. Dawkins has been whining for years that the airline crew of a plane he was on refused to let him try his stunt on a patient who had died in mid-flight. (It reminds me of the similar whining that my then-husband Biff did over not being allowed to pray over our dying pastor, years ago, to the very letter).

So when a man had a seizure in front of him during this service and fell down, rather than get out of the way for trained professionals to help the fellow, this overzealous opportunist leaped on his opportunity. He claims that he recited various arcane incantations and blustered a lot, which impressed “the spirit of death” enough to leave the man alone. He is now making the rounds in Christian media claiming that he personally resurrected this fellow from real live clinical death. He is a rock star for Jesus! Checkmate, atheists! That sound you just heard is his Jesus-Boner popping out of his pants because he’s finally realized his big dream!

The Reality.

The man’s own sister, however, has set up a Facebook page specifically to debunk Mr. Dawkins’ claims and refute his account. I’ve reached out to her with a few questions, but haven’t heard back yet (she might be like me and not realize or forgot she has an inbox–sorry, to those who’ve tried to contact me via it; I answered everyone except the dickbag who threatened me, who got reported). In her version of events, her brother only had an epileptic seizure, and according to his actual doctors and the nurses who were there, he never actually died at all.

Robby Dawkins is distorting and vastly overinflating the event to make it sound more dramatic to his gullible Christian audience, according to her (and according to a commenter on that FB post, this isn’t uncharacteristic behavior for the fellow). Further, she says that her pastor ended up apologizing to the congregation later for inviting this weirdo into their church to speak at all.

So you have two completely opposite narratives. In one, a miracle occurred–a man was snatched from the very jaws of death! In another, a Christian zealot is quite wrong about a miracle he claims happened.

Examining the Claim: The Zebra Factor

When someone is very sick and has an episode like that in public, chances are they were sick for a long time beforehand. When that person recovers, chances are the cause of the recovery is not magic but rather decent medical care and prompt medical attention–both of which this man had access to right at the time and directly afterwards.

It is hugely unlikely that he died and came back because we don’t actually see that happen very often at all. When someone’s clinically dead, they stay dead–supposed Near-Death Experiences are not actually evidence of life after death because they are, by definition, things that happen when the brain thinks it’s about to die but hasn’t yet (and this experience can happen to even pilots going through serious G-forces–and they’re nowhere near dying!).

Not only do we not have a single verified instance of someone being resurrected miraculously from a state of actual clinical death, but there are many other factors influencing our examination of Robby Dawkins’ claim.

Robby Dawkins Himself.

Just as a start, we know that Mr. Dawkins has for years harbored a serious desire to see a miracle resurrection and that he’s deeply bitter and angry that he missed what he saw as his shot at spiritual superstardom years ago (no word on whether he actually ever offered up any condolences or sorrow for the dead man in question or his grieving family–it was all about him, from what I could see).

We also know that he’s a member of a religion that does not put a very high value on strict honesty. As for me personally, I was a member of a particular part of Christianity that was known for its overinflated miracle claims and its huge social rewards for Christians who could make claims of being personally involved in those kinds of miracles.

See, Robby Dawkins is one of the leaders of a similar sect (seriously, you could have heard me snort in derision from upper orbit at the phrase their organization uses: “power evangelism”). From interviews he’s given and books he’s written that he viewed being the person involved–if not directly responsible–for a resurrection as the highest peak of spiritual superiority and fitness, which is why he so openly yearned for the opportunity to demonstrate this power he thought he had. (Notice that one of these interviews’ headlines is “Robby Dawkins raises a man from the dead in England,” not “Jesus raises a man from the dead in England oh and this guy Robby Dawkins happened to be there”–even they understand exactly what these claims mean for their claimants!)

Given those factors all put together, it seems hugely unlikely that Robby Dawkins really resurrected a dead man at that church service.

Lastly, Consulting Occam’s Razor.

Robby Dawkins’ explanation requires that we buy into all those nested assumptions about his religious beliefs. But there’s another:

Mr. Dawkins is not accurately retelling this story.

We’ve never verified any supernatural claim of any kind in the history of our planet, but we’ve certainly verified that there are a lot of people whose claims are not accurate. Indeed, his target’s sister wrote a very compelling competing account of that night that doesn’t involve the supernatural in any way.

One story asks us to take into account all kinds of untested ideas that nobody has ever verified

The other makes an assertion we’ve all seen for ourselves many times.

The Verdict.

I cannot speak for Robby Dawkins’ honesty level, but it seems hugely unlikely that his claim is true. I do not mean to say he is a liar; he may completely believe that his claim happened exactly as he says it happened, though that seems unlikely given the blustering way he describes it.

The “healed” man’s sister doesn’t offer up any corroboration for her story either, but she doesn’t make any claims that aren’t perfectly normal and reasonable. Moreover, her story accounts for every factor we have before us, from exactly what happened to her brother to exactly why Robby Dawkins might be saying what he is about her brother’s seizure. Anything she’d have to say at this point would just be the fulfillment of curiosity more than anything else, in my opinion–valuable, especially with regard to her claims about her brother’s health, but not strictly necessary.

If you’ve ever heard the saying “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” then you’re likely already aware that the more extraordinary a claim is, the more evidence it will require before reasonable people accept it as an explanation. Robby Dawkins’ claim is outrageous on every single level, so he’s going to need a lot more than his word that this event happened as he says it does.

He offers up anonymous “doctors” and other such things he thinks constitutes proof. But just like the Bible is often used by Christians to prove the Bible, he doesn’t seem to recognize that the evidence for a claim can’t come from itself. The proof he offers up is nothing more than part of his overall claim.

The “healed” man’s sister’s narrative is more compelling than Mr. Dawksins’ is because it does not make as any assumptions about untested, unobservable things, and it better fits the factors arrayed before us.

What Are the Odds? Another Dishonest Christian?

Therefore, I do not accept that Robby Dawkins either saw or was involved in a true miracle of any sort, and furthermore I think it is hugely dishonest of him to assert that this was a miracle without any proof being offered. I’d accept “I don’t know what happened, but it felt like a miracle” as his explanation for that night. We all have That One Weird Thing That Happened Once. But it’s extremely dishonest for a Christian to assert something like a miracle healing without proof of some kind for it, and he ought to be ashamed of himself considering how often disproved miracle claims lead to his brethren beginning that traumatic questioning process that will lead them straight out of that dishonest religion.

Or maybe I should thank him on behalf of all the Christians who will see his claims, realize they are bullshit, and start seriously wondering about all those other things they’ve heard that don’t make sense. After all, it was realizing that the Bible’s claims of healings and resurrections is preposterous and false that led me to realize that none of its other claims are true either. I might not be here writing this blog if the Bible had made nothing but truthful claims about the world; I’d never have been startled out of complacency.

So either Christians start doing a better job of patrolling obvious hucksters and charlatans, or else they’ll continue to lose people at a remarkable rate.

And, uh, not to keep repeating myself, but either way, humanity wins.


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PS: I’m noticing Christians slamming the “healed” man’s sister for writing her account. Shame on them too.

(Cassidy tidied up this post a bit on April 19, 2019.)

About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. You can read more about the author here.
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