The “Miracle” of Surviving a 99% Fatal Disease

Imagine you have just visited the doctor and have been diagnosed with a highly fatal disease.

“Give it to me straight, doc,” you say.

“Well, your chances are not good,” he replies. “This disease has a 99% fatality rate. You have a 1% chance of survival.”

Then, a few months later — miraculously — you survive!

Inexplicably you just get better, and the miracle of your recovery affirms your faith in God… I mean, why not? You only had a 1% chance of survival — and you survived!

But what does a 1% chance mean? Consider it this way, in college I had courses with more than 100 students. Statistically speaking if everyone in my class had this disease, one would survive. His or her survival would have nothing to do with gods or miracles; it would be a matter of math. Of the 100 people in my class, we would expect one to get better; it would be a surprise if one did not.

Now, if the whole world contracted this disease and it killed 99% of the world’s population, there would be 65 million people left (about the population when Homer wrote the Odyssey). 

Considering that the odds of winning the Powerball are 1 in 146,107,962 (like recovering from a disease with a fatality rate of 99.9999993%), and considering that every few weeks or so, somebody wins (again, I assume this is without divine intervention — unless the Lotto folks have contracted with God to perform 10-20 miracles per year), then why would we ever call a 1/100 chance a “miracle”?

We really set the bar low for classifying something as miraculous. I often hear childbirth called a miracle, but the odds of carrying a  baby to term are actually with us, not against us… I mean, wouldn’t the miracle be if pregnant women overwhelmingly were not having babies? If pregnant women didn’t give birth, our very existence would be… er… well, a miracle! 

We are such suckers for coincidence or any old semi-rare occurrence that we leap to call such things miracles. People greedily grab onto the slightest incongruence or randomness that our lives offer and hold it up as evidence of God or fate or purpose or a plan or I don’t know what… but isn’t it all a bit silly?

Don’t get me wrong. If the doctor said I had a 1 in 100 chance of survival, I would resign myself to dying and be pretty bummed out about it. And if I should live, I’d consider myself one lucky bastard… but the recipient of a miracle? No, I don’t think so…


6 Responses

  1. i think your example is too biased towards your point.

    first, you have to assume that the doctor is absolutely correct in his calculations to effectively factor a 1% survival rate to make this statistic realistic. i would imagine doctors don’t spend time themselves calculating survival rates to percentages, rather they take the word of those who have done the research. i know you are going for the extreme to make the point but still it’s a little disingenuous.

    so let’s say there’s a slight window for calculation error which makes your percentage higher, maybe 1%-10%.

    then you say, “the miracle of your recovery affirms your faith in God… I mean, why not? You only had a 1% chance of survival — and you survived!” which already loads the point to towards assuming the reader was just waiting for something like this to happen in order for faith to be restored.

    next the analogy of a stephen king-like apocolyptic mass death disease rendering human population to approx. 65 million people. do you think they would all be so thankful and believe in God for their miraculous survival or lose all belief from such a tragedy? i’d say 50%/50%.

    the lotto analogy again doesn’t work in statistical form when talking about miracles. it’s what the fortune brings that can either be considered a blessing or curse, but i don’t believe it would make a believer out of a doubter any more than a glass-half-empty person may percieve events following as cursed as opposed to windfall.

    bottom line….if you need a miracle to sway your beliefs then you believed all along, don’t kid yourself!

  2. I agree with Jesse. Those who latch on to miracles were just looking for a reason to reaffirm their faith. I don’t think anyone who started out not believing in God would all of a sudden believe in him after a “miracle”, nor do I think they would even call it a miracle. If you want to, you can find a miracle in everything. I think it’s a bit sad though…every time you give the big guy credit with performing a miracle, you kind of take away from what actually happened and who really did the work (i.e. you spent 12 hours in labor, your doctor prescribed the right medicine, you climbed your ass off and didn’t fall off the cliff)

  3. Hmm… I think I said that winning the lottery was not (usually) an example of what people call a miracle, but i guess that was unclear. As far as my “disease” I was just playing with numbers, not really asserting that doctors give people 1% chances of survival… or that the world is going to be struck with a disease any time soon…

    I am simply commenting on how frequently and meaninglessly the word “miracle” is attached to events… and how much we love to see “reasons” behind the slightest of coincidences…

  4. i know, but at least the way i percieved it, your disease hypothetical is something everyone can relate to which makes it a powerful example but taking it to the extreme is the driving force to make your point correct. it’s sort of stacking the deck in my opinion.

    also, the miracle of childbirth is not about the child surviving or being created, it’s the love that you feel for having created a living being with a partner.

    using the term ‘miracle’ only has religious meaning if you are religious (admitted or not).

    as far as recognizing patterns or intent behind coincidences, you know i’m all about that, just not in a religious way.

  5. Ty, you keep returning to this theme… call it the Princess Bride Problem…

    “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    Atheist… Miracle… Theory… Science…

  6. Tee-hee… Yeah, I do…

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