Good morning. This is working theology.
In a world where information costs less than bullets, you can be sure to find warfare waged in words rather than weapons. The soldiers in this war aren’t dressed up in military fatigues. They wear Nike sweatpants and slippers. They’re me and you.
You can find a thousand examples of propaganda and conspiracy theories in history—some real, some not. A good, modern example of this is the Netflix film The Great Hack, the story of Cambridge Analytica and its influence on global politics. Orwell’s 1984 comes a little too close to the truth.
That’s just the thing I’ve been thinking about lately: the truth. What is it? Or perhaps where is it?
One comedian recently summarized the lifecycle of reality nowadays.
I’ve been watching friends, family, coworkers, and total strangers drop knowledge bombs on each other in link battles to shape “reality” for their readers. Surely you’ve seen these battles and likely taken part in them, lobbing truth grenades at your closest comrades. They go like this.
A: Here’s this interesting thing I found on the internet. [link]
B: Well, here’s a thing I found that contradicts that thing. [link]
A: Have you not seen this video? [link]
B: This tweet says it was staged. [link]
A: But what about these videos? [link]
B: Here’s a video that shows just the opposite though. [link]
A: No, no, I heard the context of that video is this. [link]
B: I guess we’ll never know the real truth.
Conversations like these get us nowhere.
This isn’t just happening between the average citizen or Twitter user either. Link battles and information warfare wages at the highest levels of society.
A few weeks ago I wrote about corona conversations and how deluded “facts” can be. Here’s the screenshot I posted from my Google News feed.
Just this week The New York Times posted an article called “The Pandemic Claims New Victims: Prestigious Medical Journals,” with this opening:
One study promised that popular blood-pressure drugs were safe for people infected with the coronavirus. Another paper warned that anti-malaria drugs endorsed by President Trump actually were dangerous to these patients.
The studies, published in the New England Journal of Medicine and The Lancet, were retracted shortly after publication, following an outcry from researchers who saw obvious flaws.
These are prestigious journals, mind you, and retractions like these are akin to anathema in the research community. For those interested on how this might happen, a podcast episode from the Cato Institute talks about the incentives researchers face when it comes to publishing new studies, and how those incentives can bias and distort their findings. As my dad always advised me when searching for the truth, “Follow the money.”
Another article in The Times this week from Paul Krugman also points out this information war in which we find ourselves, calling it “A Plague of Willful Ignorance.” In it, Krugman recounts a story from the early twentieth century about a disease ravaging the American South.
“However,” he writes, “for decades many Southern citizens and politicians refused to accept this diagnosis, declaring either that the epidemic was a fiction created by Northerners to insult the South or that the nutritional theory was an attack on Southern culture. And deaths from pellagra continued to climb.
It does, actually. We’re seeing cases of COVID-19 increase, riots destroying cities and lives, and relationships torn apart because of bad information. We must restore and honor the truth in our conversations. In some cases, it’s a matter of life and death.
Christians are supposed to be people devoted to the truth. But finding the truth is like work. It requires careful consideration, deep thought, contemplation, and real research.
Whether our conversations huddle around pandemics, politics, or people of color, I urge you to take the time to read the entire article you’re about to post on Twitter or to your comrades. Read the whole thing, and then read dissenting opinions, and then read about the author and the context of the piece. Use real, reputable sources. Dig into the meat of the arguments and the statistical methods used in their findings.
Unless you’re a professional virologist, constitutional researcher, historian, or climate scientist, the truth is a lot harder to come by, and it takes work to unearth the nuances and complexity of our modern world.
If we’re unwilling to read and think at this level, then the links we want to share should rather die with us. Perhaps in this truth pandemic, then, info distancing will help us live.
Thanks for reading.