Wednesday, November 14, 2018

General Conference 2019 and the Null Hypothesis

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

When I taught at Ripon College, I had a colleague in the biology department who would frequently challenge the faculty during our discussions with the following question: "What's the null hypothesis here?"

In statistics, the null hypothesis is an assumed hypothesis set up so that researchers can try to prove it false as part of proving that some other hypothesis is much more likely to be true. Usually, the null hypothesis assumes no correlation between phenomena under study, no impact from experimental interventions, no change under test conditions, or the like.

General Conference 2019 has been presented as an opportunity for delegates to select between three plans: the One Church Plan, the Traditionalist Plan, and the Connectional Conference Plan.

If we were being scientific in our analysis of GC2019, we might call the assumption that the One Church Plan will pass Hypothesis 1, the assumption that the Traditional Plan will pass Hypothesis 2, and the assumption that the Connectional Conference Plan will pass Hypothesis 3. Much has been written about the relatively likelihoods of Hypothesis 1 and Hypothesis 2 being true.

Yet any analysis that is focused solely on these three plans as possible outcomes overlooks the Null Hypothesis in this situation. The Null Hypothesis, at least as I see it, is that no plan will pass GC 2019. No action by GC2019 is the baseline scenario against which the likelihood of other scenarios must be measured.

To prove that any of Hypotheses 1-3 are true, the Null Hypothesis must first be proven false. In other words, to show that GC2019 will adopt a plan, it must first be shown that it will not adopt no plan.

The difference is perhaps subtle, but it changes the analysis if the question is not, "Which plan is more likely to be passed: the One Church Plan or the Traditional Plan?" but instead, "Is it likely that GC 2019 will pass a plan? If so, which plan is most likely to be passed?"

Of course, others have acknowledged that it is a possibility GC2019 could do nothing. Yet most of the conversations I see (on both ends of the spectrum and in the middle) are, "What will you/I/we do if X plan passes?" I have seen a lot less sustained conversation about, "What will you/I/we do if no plan passes?"

Yet it may be worth having those conversations. The Null Hypothesis may well prove to be false, but it may also prove to hold true.

Moreover, the Null Hypothesis does not mean no change in the church. It means no plan, but change will come, with a plan or without one. What could that change look like and how might various actors respond?

Unless one is willing to contemplate the possibility of the Null Hypothesis, one will be unprepared for and surprised by the changes that will come if it is true.


  1. Hello David and thanks for your post. Do you think our current structure approximates any of the three current plans on offer? If one is most similar, then it seems that plan would essentially be the “null” hypothesis. Seems to me the traditional plan is the closest one to our current structure.

    1. Thanks for the question, Jack, but in that all three plans require some change, the null hypothesis is still that no plan passes. While there may be pressure on the General Conference to pass a plan, there is no requirement that it do so, so I think it behooves us to consider the possibility that it won't.

  2. My thoughts are that forming the null hypothesis begins with this question that takes the long-running nature of this "discussion" into account: "Are the consistent decisions re sexuality previously made by General Conference, the only thing that can make decisions for the whole church, valid?" Obviously, the answer is mixed: For many it is valid. For many it is not valid. Then, another hypothesis emerges: "Does it make sense to restructure the church to accommodate those who refuse to abide by the current decision making process?"

    1. Whether something makes sense depends on the framework within which one distinguishes sense from non-sense. All sides claim that their actions make sense in light of the demands of Christian discipleship, so clearly they disagree on just what those demands are. It seems to me that the only framework that makes sense of decisions by all actors has nothing to do with the gospel and everything to do with defending or extending power. In the light of the desire to possess power all the actors are acting sensibly. But not necessarily effectively.

  3. I note that all the plans vary significantly from the status quo. The Traditional Plan maintains the disciplinary language around human sexuality, but significantly so significantly altars patterns for enforcing uniformity of belief and practice as to change the ethos of the denomination.

    All participants in these discussions seem to me to fall under exactly the illusion that arises when you don't consider the null hypothesis, and that is confirmation bias of some sort. We hear the voices that tell us what we want to hear. What is interesting in this case is that the null hypothesis most likely represents the outcome of the upcoming Conference, and this will then force all of the actors to make decisions in the presence of the unknown and without the possession of coercive power.

    1. Well said. I think there's lots of confirmation bias going on in the online discussions, and I think both sides are committed to an assumption that is likely not true: that the General Conference has to do something instead of nothing.