National headlines were made this week when a snake-handling Pentecostal pastor, Jamie Coots, died of a rattlesnake bite after being bitten in a church service. Coots was a pastor at the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus' Name in Middlesboro, Kentucky, and was a star of the reality show "Snake Salvation," which aired on National Geographic.
While it seems unsurprising that a serpent-handling pastor might die of a snakebite, particularly since they tend refuse treatment for their bites, it is less so than it seems. Seemingly more surprising is that this was actually Coots's ninth rattlesnake bite. At the bottom of this seeming mystery is the fact that rattlesnakes rarely inject large doses of venom into non-prey like humans, and largely for this reason, even if left untreated rattlesnake bites carry nearly a 97.4% survival rate in humans. (This is a 1/40 chance of dying, which is extremely serious, and this rate is improved to 99.7% while other serious complications can be avoided with rapid medical treatment, so do not refuse medical treatment if bitten by a rattlesnake, obviously!) Coots's son identified that something about this bite was different than the others, and a good guess for that is the quantity of venom the snake injected into him.
While there's a salient point to make about the fact that the relevant Bible verse inspiring Coots and other snake-handling Pentecostal Christians, Mark 16:17-18, is considered apocryphal by the wide majority of Bible scholars, I am more interested in the role snake-handling plays in illegitimately bolstering the faith of believers in this fringe practice. Obviously, knowing that there is a 97.4% survival rate to a rattlesnake bite takes some of the faith-inducing mystery out of the situation, but what about less likely medical "miracles"?
One way we can analyze this question is by turning to the reasoning tool known as Bayes's theorem. This basic mathematical result about conditional probabilities allows us, among other things, to identify the effects of false positives in apparently miraculous cases like Pastor Coots's survival of eight venomous snakebites.
Because the chance of surviving a rattlesnake bite is so high, the miracle in this case already appears busted, but what if Coots had been bitten instead by the most venomous snake in the world, Australia's fearsome inland taipan, which packs an 80% untreated mortality rate. Would surviving this snakebite be a miracle? (Note: The African black mamba, the second most venomous snake in the world, because it more reliably injects fatal doses of venom, has an untreated mortality rate of very nearly 100%).
Let's make the assumption that miraculous healing is rare, but let's also be generous enough to suggest that it happens one out of a thousand times it is sought. We will also assume that a miracle is 100% effective at curing someone when it occurs.
With these values, we can use Bayes's theorem to calculate the probability that we have witnessed a miracle should someone like Coots survive an untreated bite from the inland taipan. Sparing the calculation, the result is a mere 0.5%. In other words, if a snake-handling preacher were to be bitten by the most venomous snake in the world and survives the encounter, for all the prayers and songs involved, to assume it was a miracle of faith would be to be wrong slightly more than 99.5% of the time. We should simply expect a lot of false positives when miracles are assumed to be rare events, and one in one thousand isn't even all that rare.
But Coots survived eight untreated rattlesnake bites. Isn't that something shocking enough to be considered miraculous? Not quite. He had nearly an 81% chance of surviving them, assuming independence of the circumstances in each bite. To have had a cumulative survival chance equal to a single bite from the inland taipan, Coots would have needed 61 rattlesnake bites. But even surviving that more venomous encounter would hardly have counted as a miracle.
We cannot underestimate the power of these displays, though. Though Coots was slightly more likely to survive any given rattlesnake bite than to throw a pair of dice and roll "boxcars" (six on both dice), he gave his congregation a very convincing appearance of dramatic evidence for his faith. These emotionally charged actions and displays will cement faith in those who see them, and they are therefore a clear call for basing our beliefs upon reasoned analysis.
Written By: James Lindsaycontinue to source article at