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Finding Truth on the Internet (or anywhere else!)

Like many families with school-age children in the 1960’s and 70’s, my parents bought a very expensive but very helpful encyclopedia set. It had 30 volumes and came with 10 years-or-so of annual supplements that provided us with new knowledge and corrections. It became for us (after the Bible of course) the “standard” of truth that we all agreed was an acceptable solver-of-questions, referee-of-arguments, and source for school papers. Even though we knew that scientific answers were changing rapidly and history was being lived right before our eyes, we accepted it as a fair and unbiased statement of facts.

When it comes to faith, I still have an ultimate standard in the Bible. And I spend a lot of time praying that I will understand it correctly. But when it comes to scientific, historical, medical, or political truth, there is no such accepted standard upon which we all agree anymore.

So I am deeply concerned about our ability to know and understand the truth—on nearly every subject in the public eye. Politics, medicine, religion, science, and any number of other subjects are increasingly pointed and polarized, with news articles, social media posts, videos, and newscasts giving half-truth, partial-truth, their-side-of-the-truth, altered-truth, made-up-truth, and untruth. It’s often hard to find the truth in the mix of opinions, slants, and lies that surround us on a daily basis.

And I want to know the truth. I’ve spent much of my life studying the Bible and applying those truths. But I also want to know the truth about the coronavirus. About climate change. About vaccines. About the accusations against politicians. About the age of the universe. And about a hundred other things.

In recent weeks I’ve read the truth and the lies about the coronavirus, vaccinations, and other medical issues—and sometimes wondered what was true and what was false. I’ve read the truth and the lies and the exaggerations about President Trump and Vice-President Biden. I’ve read the truth and the lies about Christianity, Islam, and churches. I’ve read the truths and the lies about racism, murders, crimes, and other current news articles.

It frustrated me, but unfortunately, I’m finding that many people like to live in a world of untruth. They don’t want truth. They want their opinions confirmed and validated and they will seek out a source of news, or science, or medicine that will conform what they already think. Having a ready source of distorted truth is easier than thinking and trying to understand.

Discernment, the ability to judge between opinions in an effort to find the truth, is a lost art.

Unfortunately, this seems to be exceptionally true in the Christian world. We have purposely and understandably put our blinders on to keep out that which is false. The net result, though, is that in our blindness we are heavily influenced by a small number of opinion makers—many of whom may be wrong.

And we have forgotten how to think for ourselves.

But for those of you who want truth and are dissatisfied with the lack of it all around us, I offer you six steps to find the truth on the internet, or anywhere else.

STEP ONE: Seek the truth. If you are just looking for someone to validate your already-formed opinion, that is always easy to find. But if you really want to find the truth, it will take some digging, some reading from both sides of the aisle, some deep thinking, and some discernment. 

For example, if you already have the opinion that President Trump is one of the greatest presidents in history, I could point you to hundreds of articles and videos that will confirm your thinking. If you already have the opinion that President Trump is one of the worst presidents in history, I could point you to hundreds of articles and videos that will confirm your thinking.  But the truth may be far more nuanced, and if you want the truth, you will have to go deeper, look at both sides of the argument, and wade through the opinions and exaggerations of a multitude of modern newsmakers. You would also have to have a good grasp of United States history as well as a good understanding of Biblical principles of leadership. It would help to have a better-than-average grasp of business, science, international affairs, political science, economics, political ethics (is there still such a thing?) and much more.

It’s easy to form an opinion. It’s much harder to find the truth. And on any given subject, it takes hard work. Truth only comes to those who really seek it and put in the work to find it.

STEP TWO: Read everything with skepticism. Every writer, speaker, and newsmakers has an opinion, a bias, and a point of view—so anything said is coming from a certain perspective. It is necessary to understand that perspective and have a healthy level of skepticism about anything that is said—even if that word comes from your favorite politician, pastor, musician, or commentator.

For example, Fox News has a pro-President Trump and pro-Republican bias. And CNN has an anti-President Trump and pro-Democratic bias. Remember that. See through it. And figure that into your thinking.

I’m not criticizing them. I’m just pointing out that it is healthy to be skeptical of any anti-Trump thing said on CNN and any pro-Trump thing said on Fox. Other news organizations have built-in biases as well, from the far-left to the far-right. I’m not saying that you can’t find truth in these places; I’m just saying that you have to account for the bias before you accept their version of truth.

By the way, it’s true of me as well. If I were to try to give you an accurate comparison/contrast of Christianity and Islam, you would recognize my bias. I would try to be fair and accurate, but my bias is there. It is real. And I don’t deny it. I’m a believer in and a follower of Jesus, so clearly I have a built-in opinion. Someone seeking truth might want to balance my words with a Muslim speaking on the same subject, and I would have no problem with that, for (and here is my bias) I believe that someone who has heard both sides of the argument will choose faith in Jesus.

Extend your critical thinking to all sources. Some news agencies (AP for example, and to a lesser degree USA Today) do a decent job of being fair and unbiased in their news reporting, but not in their commentaries. Skeptics and critical thinkers, though, will look for the bias, account for it, balance it with bias from the other side, and use discernment before concluding that they have found the truth.

STEP THREE: Fact check everything. Unfortunately, most people lie on a regular basis. And those who don’t lie can and do make serious mistakes. The only solution for us if we hope to find the truth is that we fact-check everything we read.

For example, I listened to two news radio stations yesterday. One said that the United States has tested far more people for coronavirus than South Korea.Less than ten minutes later, the other station said the EXACT opposite. Both inundated me with numbers, statistics, and expert opinions. Both cannot be right. If I want to know the truth, I have some real research to do.  I haven’t done it yet, so I’ll withhold my judgment.

Here’s another example. I have heard all of my life that “Republicans are business-oriented and so the stock market increases more rapidly when a Republican occupies the White House.” It seemed to be accepted truth, but I decided to fact-check it for myself. I set up a spreadsheet covering the last 10 presidential terms, recording the Dow Jones averages at the beginning and ending of each term. I now know the truth about stock market increases for the last forty years, for every president from Reagan to Trump. 

I won’t share my data in this blog, because I’m not promoting Republicans or Democrats.  (But feel free to email me if you feel you must know.) Instead, I’m encouraging you to do your own fact-checking before you accept what anyone tells you is “true.” Your opinions will be better-informed and more likely to be true.

(And, yes, some people have told me I’m a little obsessive in seeking the truth, but I’d rather know for sure than accept what someone told me—even when it seems to be widely accepted as true.)

STEP FOUR: Seek informed opinions. Some opinions are much more informed than others, so seek the opinions of those with expertise in that area. If you seek scientific truth, seek the opinions of scientists with a great reputation for honesty and professionalism who have published in established scientific journals. If you seek medical truth, find it in doctors who have done thorough research and whose work has been peer-reviewed.  (That means that other medical researchers have thoroughly read and reviewed the opinion before it was published.) For history, seek the input of thorough historians who have researched in primary sources. For preachers who claim to know what the “Greek” really means, ask them to read directly from a Greek New Testament.  (Don’t ask me; I can’t do it quickly enough to satisfy myself or my Greek professor—Dr. Mike Baird.) There is a reason why I don’t use much Greek or Hebrew in my preaching. I’m not an expert in either language.

You get the idea. In every field of research, there are those who have done their homework over many years. They aren’t perfect in their understanding of truth, but their opinions must be carefully considered and not easily rejected without real evidence.

Today, unfortunately, we tend to look at the wrong things. “This video has gone viral and has been viewed X times” means nothing in the realm of truth, other than people watched it. “My friend read this article and really likes it” tells you nothing about the article, even if you really like your friend and think he is wise. Is the author credible and does he have expertise in his subject matter?  Is the article or video peer-reviewed by other experts?

We often enjoy conspiracy theories which go against the flow of accepted medical, scientific, or economic theories, but there is a reason why the accepted theory is the widely accepted theory. Usually, it’s because the accepted theory has the weight of scientific and medical data and research on their side. Don’t be quick to accept the new and the exciting without reading the accepted theories. 

You may have a different opinion than I do—and I won’t criticize you for it—but there are many scientific reasons why vaccines are considered to be safe and effective, why climate change appears to be human-caused, why a diet high in fruit and vegetables is good for you, and why the universe is billions of years old.

Don’t automatically buy into the argument of those who contradict widely accepted theories without first reading and understanding why the accepted theory is so widely accepted. Always seek the opinions of those who are accepted leaders in their field.  It’s an important step in finding truth.

STEP FIVE: Read both sides of an argument before you form an opinion. I get a lot of flack for this one from my politically oriented friends. I firmly believe that if you want to know what’s happening in politics today, you should listen to both Fox and CNN and maybe three or four others to get all sides of an argument. I want to hear directly from “the other side” of whatever issue I’m thinking about. It’s not enough for me to hear “my side” tell me what the “other side” is thinking or saying.  They don’t usually get it right.

If I only listen to “my side,” I’m not really thinking. I’m just seeking validation for what I already believe.

There is a big political race going on in my state (Arizona) and I had heard repeatedly that one of the two candidates wants to “take our guns away.” I was more-than-surprised when I heard him say when asked about it, “I probably own more guns of more types than anyone in this room, and I intend to keep them.” I’m still not sure I agreed with his overall stance, but at least I heard it from him, and his stance was much more nuanced than what his critics were saying. 

Here’s another example. I grew up attending many classes (in Baptist Churches) on denominations and cults, and so I thought I had a pretty good idea of what Lutherans, Episcopalians, and Mormons thought.  It wasn’t until I talked to a Lutheran, an Episcopalian, and a Mormon that I had a good handle on their beliefs. I had the general facts right—but not the nuances and emphases. I told a Mormon acquaintance, “But you guys believe this, one of your prophets said so.” His answer caught me by surprise, “I’ve been an active Mormon for 20 years, and I’ve never heard that. I don’t know if he said it or not so I won’t dispute it, but that is not at all what I’ve been taught.” Obviously, I’m still a Baptist and not a Lutheran, Episcopalian, or a Mormon, so their arguments didn’t convince me. But I am a better Baptist because I’ve heard their beliefs directly from then.

I was recently criticized by a well-meaning friend when I said that I wanted to talk to a transgender person. (My friend just said, “You don’t have to talk to one to know that they’re wrong.”) My motivation is simple—I want to hear their story directly from them. I want to be fair and know if my assumptions about their thinking are right or wrong. I have an opinion, but it is only fair to listen to their point of view. I will be better informed if I do.

STEP SIX: Be willing to change your mind when new evidence arises. Let me tell you of an experience I had in a class at the University of Arizona.  (Sorry, Sun Devils, for mentioning the school. I hope you won’t stop reading.)  I had always been interested in space, so when I needed a science course, I jumped at the change to take an introductory astronomy course.

It was a big class in a big lecture hall. On day one, the professor came in, introduced himself and gave the standard talk about the course, the syllabus, the expectations, and the textbook. He pointed out that the textbook had just been published and that he himself was the primary author. We were duly impressed that someone with his credentials would be teaching the introductory course.

He shocked us, though. He said, “Let me show you what I think of the textbook.” He held it gently for a few seconds, and then threw it noisily into a metal garbage can he had placed on the platform. “New research in the last year has shown that many of my theories are wrong. I will change them in the second edition, but by the time it is published, much more may be wrong.

I was impressed that an expert would be willing to change his opinion when new evidence arises. But that is exactly what wise people do.

So seek truth. Search for it. Don’t just accept what your friends or heroes say. Don’t watch the latest video on social media without a critical eye. Don’t listen to your favorite commentator or politician or friend or musician or celebrity or pastor and automatically believe that they know the truth.

Truth will only be discovered when the real work of seeking it has been thorough and honest.