fact checking in an age of T.M.I.

fact checking in an age of T.M.I.

Too Much Information. I’m not entirely sure that is what was envisioned by the framers of amendment one when they gave freedom to the press. I’m not sure that was what was envisioned by the inventors of the internet, or cable tv, or email.

But we are inundated constantly with information. And depending on which sources we use for our information we read completely different “facts.” Even within one publication we can have radically different portrayals of the truth. Or opinion – which has begun to substitute just fine for truth these days.

As a pastor, I face this when I have congregants reading different interpretations of scripture from vastly different sources and theological frameworks. While it provides and opportunity to talk about why these interpretations might be different, do we ever reach back and find out what the truth of the text is? Is there Truth to be found? or is it all a matter of interpretation?

Certainly this isn’t a new problem. That’s why throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition there have always been schools of thought that argued with one another. There is a reason that Jesus had to interact with Pharisees and Sadducees and Zealots and Essenes. They were all holding on to different pieces of the truth, and holding on to them so fast that they became the Truth for each.

We do this in the church. We do this in politics. We do this in schools. We do this everywhere. Because the idea that we can’t fully grasp the Truth – that it is something that is bigger than us, is scary. We want black and white – truth and falsehood, good guys and bad guys. The in between stuff is a mess and we don’t want to live there.

I chatted with a fellow pastor a while back about how people seem to like morality sermons better than grace sermons. Because with morality and justification sermons the choice is clear – do this, don’t do that. When we talk about love and forgiveness and grace, suddenly we are in the gray area… showing love to a murderer? having compassion for a drug addict? Witnessing someone transform their lives? it’s messy, and hard and challenging, and we would much rather label people as good or bad – even labeling ourselves as good or bad is easier than accepting messy grace.

But the world we live in is not black and white. Reality is dirty and messy and complicated. When we finally dig deep and get to the truth, sometimes we learn that it cannot always be reduced to either/or… sometimes it is both/and.

So what are we to do when we are swimming in a culture of information and mis-information?  How do we know which way to turn?

First, hang out with people who don’t think like you.  One of the best ways to fact-check your information is to compare it with what other people are hearing.  I am involved in both a weekly bible study and a monthly pastoral gathering and one of the things I cherish the most is that we don’t always agree.  We approach theology and scripture from different angles. We place our emphasis on different words.  But in dialogue with one another, we peel back layers of delusion and confusion and we all grow because of the experience.  I also try to listen with patience when I am home visiting my family and the news is on.  While we might not turn to the same sources of information, we can help one another to gain a larger picture of the truth by asking questions, sharing what we have also hear about that situation, and trying to understand the rhetoric behind the news. The key to this piece of advice is that we cannot immediately get defensive.  We must listen and share with grace and love.

Second, seek outside sources of information that you know to be trusted. Not all questions can be answered adequately with a google search, not every website has accurate and honest information. In the midst of the chaos, I’m becoming increasingly grateful for websites like snopes.com. They help sift through lots of information and help to clear up some of the mis-information out there. But they do so in a way that realizes that there is fact and fiction out there. They are willing to say that parts are true and parts aren’t. They show you which is which. They show which items are a matter of interpretation and opinion. They back stuff up with resources. They are indespensible!!!! I am now in the habit of running any email forward I recieve through snopes.com – just to see what’s out there. But I am sad to say that I have had to actually fact check news stories lately as well. While I am not aware of any specific website that does this for theological dilemmas, I am open to suggestions! The biggest rule here is to seek out a source that doesn’t have a dog in the fight.  Look for a source that doesn’t have a financial investment or tie to the information and how it might be used.

Third, get as close to the source of information as you can. If you are trying to study the bible – take some lessons in greek or hebrew.  Carry a dictionary with you and look at what a particular word might mean.  Spend some time studying the context and what is going on in history at the time.  The same principles apply to news stories.  You are going to be much farther from the truth if you are reading a blog responding to an opinion page article about the Super Bowl than if you were there in person.  Reading in-depth sports news articles from the day after adds another layer.  Get as close as possible to the source as you can for the most accurate descriptions.

Fourth, think carefully about “crowd sourcing”. There is an idea in the Wesleyan tradition about Christian Conferencing – that when we gather to discuss and discern with the help of the Holy Spirit we will find God’s will.  We use it to guide important decisions we make (like voting on issues at General Conference) but also in the discernment of truth and what sources of information are important to consider.  I believe God is good and that it is possible to discern the truth among many, so I want to lift this up as an important principle to share.  In scripture study, this might be thought of as communal lectio divina, where we allow the responses of the group inform us.  In today’s networked world, simply asking a question like “How did Whitney Houston die?” on facebook or twitter might get you the right information and from a number of people with a number of different sources. But it could also lead you directly into the midst of mis-information, rumors, speculation and nonsense. Accept “crowd sourced” information with a grain of salt and let it lead you deeper into some of the other principles we have mentioned here, rather than simply being your final stop.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when we try to pretend that this world of information is cut and dry and easy.  When we skew facts and figures, stories, and information, we do so in order to get OUR point across, but in doing so tell only part of the story. It seems like everyone has their own corner on the truth – a news station for just about every perspective you might care to have, a biblical translation that cuts out all liberal or conservative viewpoints. We are so good at owning up to our biases that we actually forget there are other sides of the story to tell. What used to be sources of real news and information have become just another layer of scum you need to dig through in order to gain a smidgen of knowledge.

Truth is not easy to find.  It will take work. It will take some self-awareness to see outside of the fishbowl we are swimming in.  But in this world of far too much information, it is work that we must do.

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