In his book iGods, Craig Detweiler gives this shocking statistic: “From the beginning of time until 2003 we generated 5 billion gigabytes of data (5 exabytes)—all the books and news and movies and information in history. We now generate five exabytes of data every ten minutes.” We have been living through a Cambrian explosion of information in the last twenty years. I’ve heard it said that because of recent technological advances, Abraham Lincoln had more in common with the biblical Abraham than he does with people living today. Maybe that’s true. Maybe it’s an overstatement. But I’m also wondering if it is actually an understatement. I wonder if the Chad Ragsdale who attended elementary school before the age of the internet had more in common with Abraham Lincoln than he does with the Chad Ragsdale living 30 years later. All I know is that the information age has created a new world and to a degree has even rewired human nature.
A lot of this new information is helpful obviously. In The Matrix characters learn new skills by simply downloading information. We haven’t reached that point yet, but we’re on our way. Trinity learned how to fly a helicopter by downloading information from the Matrix. I learned how to replumb a kitchen sink from YouTube. So, you know, similar.
As helpful as the information age is for fixing sinks or looking up what other movies that actor has been in, it has also made us anxious and confused. The information age hasn’t exactly made us dumber, but it might have made us more foolish. We’ve been given all this information, but our skills of discernment cannot keep up with the amount of information we’re taking in. It’s like being thrown into the ocean without learning first how to swim. At the risk of mixing my metaphors, information is not the same thing as truth any more than rocks are the same thing as diamonds. The information age has left us vulnerable to lies and propaganda like no other time in history. It is growing more difficult every day for ordinary citizens to identify what is true. Like fools, we are easily manipulated. The rich, the poor, black, white, college-educated or not, Republican, Democrat. If you think you alone are immune to misinformation, I’ve got some unsettling news for you. You’re not. The first step in dealing with the problem is admitting that it isn’t everyone else’s problem. It’s our own problem. It’s MY own problem.
This post is dedicated to discernment. I’m old fashioned enough to believe that truth still matters. We need tools to discover what is true. Now, more than ever. Events over the last ten months culminating in the riot at the Capitol have shown us that when misinformation gets tied to social movements, there are violent and deadly consequences. What I want to do in this post is articulate some principles for discerning the truth in these confusing times. Like most of my posts on this blog, I’m writing first for myself, secondly for my students, and thirdly for anyone else that might benefit. I hope that includes you.
Three Necessary Caveats
- Not everything called a conspiracy theory is a conspiracy theory. One of the ways that we socially try to suppress misinformation is by labelling it a conspiracy theory. This label functions as a “do not enter” sign. It’s a way of sending a shame signal. Saying “That’s just a conspiracy theory” is a way of bypassing an honest argument by begging the question. Such a dismissal makes two unwarranted assumptions. The first is assuming that every alternative theory is a conspiracy theory. A conspiracy theory requires, well, a conspiracy. It requires a group of individuals or organizations covertly organizing together usually for nefarious purposes. A person who believes in conspiracy theories believes that this conspiracy is hidden out of plain sight and can only be seen by those who have been enlightened of the true truth. Remember the “Plandemic” video from this spring? That was a conspiracy theory. On the other hand, believing that nationwide lockdowns are inhumane, unnecessary, and ineffective is not believing in a conspiracy theory. It is merely the questioning of conventional wisdom in favor of an alternative hypothesis. A fair amount of what is labeled a conspiracy theory are actually hypotheses contrary to conventional wisdom (HCCW). I wish I could come up with a better acrostic.
- Not all conspiracy theories or HCCW are false. The second unwarranted assumption is holding that a hypothesis is false merely because it is a conspiracy theory. Critical Race Theory is literally a conspiracy theory. That doesn’t necessarily mean it is false. If conspiracies are possible, that means that conspiracy theories are regularly true. The ongoing challenge is determining their truth. Watergate was literally a conspiracy theory that had to be painstakingly proven by brave and determined journalists. Similarly, it is not only a flaw in reasoning but also a flaw in character to assume that every HCCW is false. After all, Galileo might have made the most earth-shattering HCCW of all time. He ended up being correct, but not without personally suffering first. Conventional wisdom doesn’t go down without a fight. I’ve become very alarmed by the unthinking, mob-like suppression of contrarian ideas. (Just ask J.K. Rowling about what it looks like to even lightly challenge the conventional wisdom of gender doctrine.) Thinking people must be willing to engage and critique conventional wisdom even in the face of social consequences.
- Many HCCW are not a denial of facts, but are actually the addition of more facts. Let me explain with the awful picture below. You think you know what a seal looks like. Cute, playful. But from above they look like a Muppet’s worst nightmare. Same seal. Different angle. A lot of HCCW are like this. They recognize the facts of conventional wisdom, but they also recognize new data and different angles which leads them to challenge conventional wisdom. I’ve run into this a lot with the pandemic. My HCCW is that closing schools during COVID-19 was a catastrophically bad and unjust decision. One of the laziest responses I get from people is “don’t you know there’s a pandemic going on?” As if that settles the argument and there’s no policy, no matter how inhumane or unjust or silly, that can’t be justified by a pandemic. My belief that schools should all be open is not a denial of sad facts of the pandemic, but it also includes other pressing facts like the mental, emotional, and educational consequences for children – especially those in at risk communities. You can challenge and argue with my HCCW, but you shouldn’t dismiss it as some sort of irresponsible denial of facts.
Principles for Discerning the Truth
- You are the journalist. One of the reasons why we are having such a hard time discerning truth is because we are living through a crisis of authority. We are deeply suspicious of traditional gate keepers for truth especially in the media. This suspicion is not unwarranted. The ideological slant and bias of traditional media is well documented. The situation has led many people to pursue truth in out-of-the-mainstream places. Some of this independent journalism is exceptional, but a lot of it is trash or even dangerous. The sad reality is that discerning truth in our current media landscape actually requires that each one of us become a journalist. This means that we doggedly pursue the truth and properly resource our claims. The work of the journalist means that we cultivate some healthy skepticism. We are suspicious of any claim until or unless it can be sufficiently proven. The journalist doesn’t just “take your word for it.” The more fantastic the claim, the more sourcing is needed. For instance, claiming that the riot at the Capitol was instigated by ANTIFA is a fantastic claim. Such a claim demands proper sourcing otherwise it is irresponsible to spread it. Hearsay spread across social media does not count as a reliable source. It is also not sufficient to say that because mainstream media isn’t talking about it, it must be true. That’s nonsense. Sometimes the reason no one is talking about your theory is because it’s dumb. It would be a healthy habit to look for at least two, independent sources supporting any particular claim. If those sources are ideologically at odds with each other, even better. Finally, some of you may not want to hear this, but professional journalists with a long track record working for reputable news outlets are typically more credible sources than a website recently created by a random guy with a day job. Again, independent journalism can be extremely helpful, but all things being equal, I’m going to give a report from NPR more weight than a basement blogger.
- Interrogate your sources and the sources for your sources. The Washington Post recently tweeted (and then deleted) this headline: “Police officers won’t be charged in shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man who was shot 7 times in the back in Kenosha, Wis.” They deleted it because it wasn’t true. Blake was armed with a knife, but by the time they deleted the post the damage was done. People were already fighting with each other in the comments about the whether the cops had planted a knife on Blake or coerced his confession while in the hospital. In another tweet, Fox News shared this headline: “BLM activist inside Capitol building claims he was ‘documenting’ riots.” This headline was true but very misleading. Highlighting the presence of one BLM activist gave certain people all the evidence they needed to conclude that the entire riot at the Capitol was orchestrated by BLM protesters in disguise. Both of these headlines (and many, many others) demonstrate the need for us to interrogate our sources. We’ve got to ask our sources questions. Are they telling the truth? Are they telling the truth in a partial or manipulative way? Why do they think this story matters? What emotion/response do they want from me? Is the source taking a side? How are other sources reporting on this same story? I’ve also gotten in the habit of taking note of the sources for my sources. Are they only interested in representing one side of the story? Who have they ignored, marginalized, or dismissed in their sourcing for this story?
- Distinguish commentary from fact. Neil Postman warned us decades ago that the media was becoming inseparable from entertainment. The purpose of the media is not necessarily to tell the truth. The purpose is to be profitable by getting clicks, retweets, views, etc. If the truth has to be modified or twisted in the process, then so be it. Our talking head culture has made it almost impossible to distinguish between what is commentary and what is news. How many Americans get their “news” from either Chris Cuomo or Sean Hannity? Discerning the truth requires that we learn to tune out the outrageous rhetoric and breathless commentary and listen for facts. Rhetoric can be very effective at persuasion, but it can also be used as a concealer for really bad arguments.
- Facts don’t care about your feelings. Wanting something to be true doesn’t make something true. When I put it in those terms, I’m not sure anyone would disagree. But in practice, we make this mistake all of the time. We naturally gravitate towards claims that make us feel good and confirm our biases. We see this all the time. One of the best examples of this is the number of political liberals who threaten to cancel their New York Times subscription every time they say something that liberals don’t like. Conservatives do the same thing with Fox News. They love Fox News as long as they are telling them what they want to hear. But being told what you want to hear is not the same thing as being told the truth, and only listening to what you want to hear is childish. Beware of anyone making claims meant to manipulate your emotions. If someone is only telling you things to make you happy or, more often, to make you angry, you should regard them with skepticism. It is much easier to change someone’s emotions than it is to change their mind. If you want to be more resistant to lies, you’ve got to relearn to think with your brain and not your emotions.
- Beware of RCOs. RCO stands for Repugnant Cultural Other. I stole the term from Alan Jacobs’ wonderful book How to Think. Tribal thinking makes us more eager to believe bad news about our enemies and good news about our friends. For instance, we are willing to believe that the majority of protesters in Kenosha were irredeemably violent, but the small number of violent protestors in DC were ANTIFA plants. We witness this type of thinking across the political spectrum. Remember those on the political Left who eagerly believed that a white teenager was harassing an elderly Native American even after the full truth became known. Some news organizations even got sued for their biased coverage. Tribal thinking blinds and binds us making it much more difficult to arrive at the truth. I think this is a good rule of thumb especially in regards to recent political debates: If you could never see yourself believing a political claim if the words “Republican” and “Democrat” were swapped for each other, it is likely not a claim worth believing.
- Consider the possibility that you’re wrong. It’s okay to be wrong. It happens all the time. It’s helpful especially when making a HCCW claim to always hold out the possibility that you’re wrong. Admit to the reality that smart and informed people see things differently than you do, and maybe there is still more for you to learn. Rather than protecting your pride, be open to changing your mind if the facts demand it.
- Read the article. How many times have we jumped to conclusions based on incomplete information? We see a headline and rush into a conclusion without even clicking on the article, much less reading it. What has also become very common is watching one short video clip of a complex situation and concluding that we now understand the whole truth of the situation. Discerning the truth requires that we see slivers of truth within their broader context before we arrive at any firm conclusions. Do the hard work of resisting the knee-jerk reaction and diving deeply into the story to find the truth. Be careful though because resisting easy conclusions will very often lead you to make HCCW. That leads me to this next point.
- Take a breath. Sometimes journalists will say that you can be either first or accurate, but you can’t be both. If we are now doing the work of journalists, we probably need to learn the truth of this statement as well. Social media incentivizes quick reactions. The quicker and more outrageous your take, the more positive feedback you receive. Social media doesn’t only incentivize quick reactions, it demands them. If you don’t immediately post about today’s outrage, then you are complicit in that outrage. “Silence is violence” after all. I know it is hard. Believe me, I do. But somehow we have to learn to resist the technological imperative to post an immediate take on every single event. Take a breath. Let the emotion subside. Think deeply and critically. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve quickly tweeted a take only to regret hours later after I’d actually given it some thought.
- Check and recheck your hypotheses. Lastly, I want to share this list from Garry DeWeese and JP Moreland. A good hypothesis should have the following characteristics or it isn’t a good hypothesis. If it doesn’t have these characteristics, it is likely not true or helpful and shouldn’t be shared.
- Explanatory power – The best hypothesis will explain the observed data better, making the data more probably than its rivals.
- Scope – The best hypothesis explains a wider range of data than its rivals.
- Fertility – The best hypothesis will generate more possibilities for new research than its rivals.
- Less ad hoc – The best hypothesis will involve fewer new assumptions not implied by other theories than will its rivals.
- Coherence with accepted theory – The best hypothesis will agree with a wider variety of accepted theories than its rivals.
- Simplicity – Other things being equal, the best hypothesis will be simpler than its rivals.