Avoiding Deception in the Age of Misinformation - Four Steps
I was recently awakened from a slumber by God with four practical steps to employ to avoid being duped by falsehood, whether in the media, the classroom, or in conversation. I believe it was God because A. I think He does that kind of thing, and B. I can't imagine my flesh or the devil waking me up in the middle of the night with a strategy to discern what's true or not. I think this is a sound blueprint for arriving at the truth in a climate of disinformation, misinformation, lies, and half-truths.
Here's the short list.
1. Seek God - This one is the most spiritual AND the most important. Invite God into how you process information. Invite Him into your perusing of news and current events. You can't afford to compartmentalize God when it comes to news, civics, and education. You need His wisdom here more than you know. As Leonard Ravenhill said of prophets, "dedicate your head to heaven." I think that statement applies here in the context of what you take in.
Did you know there is a gift of the Holy Spirit that can help us distinguish between spirits, or, to put it in a different way, discern what is good and evil. This gift is listed in 1st Corinthians 12:10. It's the discerning or the distinguishing of or between spirits, depending on the translation. The Greek word for "discerning" here is [DIAKRINO] which means "to distinguish, clearly discriminate, or judge." This gift of the Holy Spirit is a critical weapon in the fight for what's true. Is it available to everyone? I believe it is.
"Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. 8 To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, 10 to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues,and to still another the interpretation of tongues.11 All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines." 1ST CORINTHIANS 12:8-11 (NIV)
Notice the language at the beginning and end of this verse. The Beginning - "To each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good." The End - "All of these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines." "Each" means, well, it means each of us or all of us. He [God] has to determine it, as it says in the last line of this verse, but I think He does, provided we're seeking Him for it and we're ready for it. At the end of chapter 12 of 1st Corinthians and then again in chapter 14 of the same book we see the statement also, to "eagerly/earnestly desire the gifts." I think Paul was purposeful in making "gifts" plural here, because it means, potentially, all of them. Besides, it is one and the same Spirit that supplies these gifts, and that Holy Spirit lives in us.
To summarize: I believe that we all have access to this gift if we seek it out. How exciting is that!
2. Understand Context - Context is really important. It's important when reading the Bible and also important when reading, watching, or hearing anything else. It's always critical to understand who, why, when, where, and how something is being communicated. This is a tool that I wish more journalists would use, but it's at our fingertips so long as we take the time to find out. Let me give you a quick, simple example of the some of the questions I would ask if I was presented with a "study" that purportedly proves something.
a. Who did the study? Statistics prognosticators should always be impartial. I'm always immediately skeptical when I read or hear about a study conducted by an "advocacy group," as opposed to a group not affiliated in any major way to the results of the study. Advocacy groups, for example, are groups that are advocating for something. That 'something' depends. It might be advocating for financial support, specific legislation, awareness, or to change the way we think. The point is, whoever did the study is quite important, especially if they have an interest in its findings, other than supplying the truth.
b. Why did they do the study? This is similar to the first point. The "why" is always so important when measuring a study, article, or even a teaching. Sometimes you can sniff out ulterior motives. Sometimes the "why" is to persuade, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, unless what it's proposing is false, of course. If you boil it down, the "why" has to be satisfactory to seriously consider its value.
c. Do they have anything to prove other than the facts? This is also similar to my first point. If the purpose of a study is so agenda-laden that it's hard to weed out what's fact, opinion, or wishful thinking, then it may not be a worthwhile read.
d. What metrics did they use and who did they ask? You don't have to be a statistician or an actuary to apply this rule. What questions did they ask? How did they measure the results? Could the questions asked be framed more clearly, be more direct, or be more effective at extracting the truth? Pollsters are infamous for asking very specific questions to get very specific results. A tactic some pollers use is polling a group that's not necessarily representative of the people they say they're representing. For instance, if I wanted a poll to reflect a favorable attitude toward lower corporate taxes, I might interview a majority of corporate CEOs. That may represent a group of CEOs but it doesn't adequately represent, say "Americans." We have to think about these things.
3. Primary sources - Primary sources or documents are those sources that are the most original to a story or event. Before the interpretations and the opinions, and then the opinions of the opinions, you have a chance to determine for yourself, through first-hand accounts, what something means. I'll give you an example. I can either read newspaper articles or blogs about George Washington's faith in God, or I can read his journals, letters, and testimonies of people close to him (written in their journals and letters) concerning the matter. Which one wields more power in getting to the truth of a matter?
4. Deference - My final point is that of the power of deference. People that are able to defer to others, in certain instances, are humble people. What I mean by deference is the ability to confer with and take advice from someone who is more expert in a given area of study or vocation than you. For instance, if I'm reading about someone's take on a law that affects people's estates, I might just check in with a friend who is a will & estate attorney. Rather than deciding the author is right, wrong, or neutral by myself (I have little to no experience in wills, estates, or legal matters) it might be wise to ask someone with know-how.
I believe we live in an age where it's not just necessary but required to make sure we're set up to be deception-proof. I think this four-step filter might just be a good starting point for those of you who see the threat of deception in our media, schools, and elsewhere, and are serious about protecting the truth.
To wrap up, here are those four steps again.
1. Seek God / Get the gift
2. Understand context
3. Search for primary sources
(#2 and #3 take time, but is knowing the truth worth a few extra minutes?)
4. Be humble enough to defer, and don't default to a rash position
JF D'Orsie - Communications Director