When Bede the Venerable wrote The Ecclesiastical History of the English People around 731 AD, his library of 250 books was perhaps the largest in England. Before the printing press was invented in the early 1500’s, humanity had the “luxury” of absorbing the wisdom of the ages as it was generated. Until the 20th century the sum of human knowledge had doubled every century. That “luxury” of time to absorb new ideas, evaluate the ideas, and discard or slowly adopt new ideas has dissipated as computers exponentially increase in their capacity to create and disseminate material. Depending on which predictive source you choose, the sum of human knowledge doubles every 12-18 months. We rarely take the time anymore to reflect and ponder on anything, afraid we’ll miss out on the next discovery, bargain, newsflash, or the next cat video on Facebook/YouTube (heaven forbid). The advent of the “Internet of Things” combined with advances in neuroscience and nanotechnology will soon bump the rate of doubling to perhaps weeks or even days, a frightening possibility.
How one deals with this ever increasing mountain of information is complicated by two “variants” of information: misinformation and disinformation.
1) Misinformation is when information is jumbled with error, when it is given in a faulty form, or when it is shared at the wrong time and setting by the wrong person to a wrong audience. We engage in it daily when we share a FB post without first checking the source to discern if it is indeed factually based. You can hear it in normal conversations: “Well, I’ve heard that. . . I think I saw something the other day somewhere that said. . .” Most times the lack of accuracy is innocent but often has negative consequences.
2) Disinformation is when intent is involved, when deception and misdirection are deliberate (this can be innocent sleight of hand by an illusionist, or destructive if a foreign power desires to unduly influence our government’s decision on x issue). The latest iteration of disinformation is the planting of “fake news” stories and passing them off as genuine reporting of actual events. Some of these, when done as obvious satire (such as www.babylonbee.com, a hilarious spoof on church related topics; or the raunchy, foul-mouthed secular counterpart www.theonion.com), can have a positive effect of showing flaws and irony of everyday life. It is a different story when that which is satirical passes itself off as normative (like when the younger generation gets most of its news from The Daily Show, Full Frontal, The Tonight Show, or the Late Late Show).
Two factors we use to deal with information are 1) sources and 2) standards.
1) We choose the sources for our information based on a) trust (is this source truthful in how it handles information) and b) affinity (we gravitate toward information which affirms our current beliefs/preferences). The second reason has become central to how we form opinions and beliefs; as a society and even within our churches we have grown increasingly less inclined to explore contrasting viewpoints, or reasoning that doesn’t arrive at the same conclusions we do. It is an open question as to whether that is so because of our fear of opposing views, our departure from any hint of absolute truth, or because we are admittedly lazy and don’t want to exercise the energy and discernment it would take to sift through material and arguments to arrive at a well thought out and well prayed over conclusion.
2) Our standards against which we measure information vary greatly: what our parents believed; what we were taught in school or business; our personal experience; or (the best, in my opinion) the Word of God, our holy Scriptures. If we do take the effort to search for truth, which standards will I use? How will I know I have stayed in or strayed from the truth?
In a world devoid of belief in absolute truth, and where trust is at an all time low in institutions (how can ‘they’ be telling us the truth if there’s no absolute truth?), one’s starting point must be the Bible. Jesus, Paul, John, and James warned repeatedly of false teachers, those who would mix truth with error to make it palatable and plausible. We cannot afford to be swept up in the increasing flood of information and just give in to the technological tsunami, accepting whatever we are told is truth as truth. The best way to detect counterfeit anything is to be utterly familiar with the genuine article. (2 Tim. 2.15; 2 Tim. 3.16; Ps. 25.10) The more we know the living Word (John 14.6) and the written Word (John 17.17), the better we can navigate the information deluge in which we live and operate. Learn to recognize His voice (John 10.4) in the din of data. We must learn to interpret the world in which we live through the lens of Scripture and His Presence, not vice versa.
I welcome pushback/inquiries/comments on this or any other topic.
In His service,
Dr. Allan Thompson, firstname.lastname@example.org