I had the great (mis)fortune of deconstructing during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Not only was my spiritual epistemology falling apart, but the whole country’s ability to discern basic fact from fiction was too. Politics was just one giant gaslight — I couldn’t trust my eyeballs and subitizing skills when it came to crowd sizes; I couldn’t trust my basic instincts to identify a bully and a narcissist and an affront to morality; I couldn’t trust anyone in the media, even the people saying I couldn’t trust anyone in the media.
And on top of the spiritual and the political fake news, anti-vaxxers, flat earthers, and Plexus advocates kept popping up around me like epistemological whack-a-moles.
There is no truth and nothing makes sense and if we can’t even agree on if the earth is round, how can we know anything?!
It was quite the dramatic time.
But dramatics aside, I really did and do feel frustration about how hard it is to figure out allegedly objective, empirical things such as science, medicine, and crowd sizes — much less more complex ideas like politics, theology, and sociology.
How do you even begin to navigate the complex when the obvious is just as confusing?
As I dug into issues in more detail, I began to see some helpful patterns for untangling science, medicine, statistics, and, well, truth in general.
1. People have different senses of reality. Well, obviously. But my young earth creationist upbringing was right: we all interpret reality according to who or what we trust — or perhaps more accurately, who or what we fear.
For example: there are Christians who see the Bible as so authoritative on every area of life, that they deny the earth’s old age or its roundness, and even that the sun is a star — because, as the Bible says, God created the sun, moon, and stars.
It makes more sense to them that all of the governments and scientific institutions of the world are perpetrating a huge conspiracy about basic scientific facts than that the Bible is, perhaps, not interested in discussing details in accordance with the modern scientific method foreign to ancient Hebrew writers.
Which came first — a devotion to Scripture, or a fear of government and the elite? Who knows, but both their trust in the Bible and their conspiratorial fears make these people impossible to engage. When they’ve got even Ken Ham pegged as a brainwashed liberal, you know they’re too far gone.
Along these same lines, there is an incredible paranoia of the establishment or the elite. Alternative medicine and alternative facts alike, people feel duped and distrustful of organizations and triple PhDs.
As I deconstructed, I realized I had internalized a deepset fear of experts. The more educated and researched a person was on a certain topic, the more I doubted their claims to be true or unbiased. Instead, I sought the refuge of the internet, where the uneducated and the less educated can sound just as convincing as the Top Professor at Pompous-Sounding Institution (especially if they’re validating what I want to believe).
And of course, the picture is never as simple as “trust the elites.” The medical community at large mocked Ignaz Semmelweis for washing his hands before operating. Galileo was a lone voice advocating for a heliocentric universe. Sociology of the day deemed women’s brains unfit for any work other than housekeeping. Popular theology and science argued that black people were inherently subservient to whites.
Where would our society be without the mavericks who dared stand up to the elite, the frustrated prophets speaking out against the immoral majority?
There’s sometimes a whopping grain of truth in listening to the outsiders over the insiders.
All that to say, “facts” get circulated and believed based on people’s fears and trusts. I’ve got a good nose for sniffing out fake news because I’ve learned a healthy skepticism of clickbait titles, obscure websites, and sensational headlines THAT THE MEDIA WILL NEVER TELL YOU ABOUT. That’s because I don’t inherently distrust mainstream organizations or experts. Others find the mainstream so deceitful that the Sandy Hook shooting becomes a government conspiracy and Donald Trump transforms into a godly man.
Amidst this insanity, it’s enlightening to ask, “Who or what do they trust, and who or what do they fear?”
2. The truth is often in what’s left unsaid. Mystery and crime aficionados know this well. All of the evidence points to this obvious conclusion, and then one, solitary bit of information pops up and radically changes everything. Even the smallest new fact can alter one’s perspective.
This is why we look for the whole story. Individual facts can be true but situated or arranged in a certain way that obscures the bigger picture.
As a fiscal conservative, I was surprised to find out that many of the government bailouts during the 2008 recession were not only repaid but repaid with interest. The government made money off the bailouts. By the time the government got its returns, however, the news cycle had turned its eye on something else, and fiscal conservatives grumble against Obama to this day.
It’s a fact that bailing out banks and the Mexican economy put us into massive debt. It’s a fact that it was a huge risk. But the whole story involves a fiscally happily ever after. (And as I’m no economic expert, there’s probably more to the whole story than this brief bit of information my husband shared with me when he looked up from his book.)
It’s not only pieces of information that get left out — unclear definitions can either obscure or clarify the facts. What does “sexual assault” mean in any particular study, for instance, and is it the same for every study on sexual violence? Perhaps it might make a difference to pro-life anti-vaxxers that regarding the cell cultures gathered from an aborted infant, the infant was aborted or miscarried in the 1970’s for purposes unrelated to vaccine development.
3. Even statistics have contexts. My husband and I recently looked into the circumcision debate. It was fascinating how many websites — good, neutral, factual websites — failed to put statistics into context. For instance, many of the websites framed statistics like, “Circumcised infants are less at risk for a rare penile cancer,” “Circumcised men are at a lower risk for HIV infection,” and “Uncircumcised infants are at a higher risk for UTIs.”
The full context is that this penile cancer is too incredibly rare among both circumcised and uncircumcised males to warrant circumcision; the study on HIV was conducted with African men with unclear conclusions for American males; and the risk of UTIs for all male infants is only 0.5%-1% to begin with.
Not very convincing evidence, after all.
I encountered this same thing when a loved one sent out a group message warning against the cancerous properties of red dye. Being married to a chemist who once spent a whole afternoon opining on the LD50 table (lethal dose, for all you humanities people not married to chemists), I pointed out that red dye in Skittles is only poisonous if you consume an impossible amount of them in one sitting.
I don’t normally try to sound like a know-it-all, but forgive me — Skittles were on the line.
The popular documentary What the Health? that’s turning all my friends into vegans also makes these statistical mistakes. It claims that eating processed meats will increase your risk of colorectal cancer by 18%. That’s technically true — but only if you eat processed meats every single day. And even then, your risk of colorectal cancer is only 5% to begin with. Eating processed meats every day for your entire life boosts your 5% chance of that cancer by 1%, which means a 6% risk, which is 18% of the original 5% risk.
I’ll take a chance and eat my occasional Subway sandwich, thank you very much.
4. Not everybody knows what they’re talking about. We all receive a massive influx of information every day about all kinds of issues. And we all have the opportunity to send out a massive amount of information every day about all kinds of issues. Our social media platforms can become echo chambers, with the only people policing our facts being that one grumpy conservative posting memes or that flaming liberal you befriended at drama camp sharing Huffington Post articles.
It’s like a giant game of Telephone — except there’s nobody to clarify what exactly was said.
And our go-to method of fact-checking is finding whatever website we trust the most and seeing what they have to say about it.
It is so easy for uneducated or undereducated people (whether in general or in a particular subject) to grab onto these rumors and misreported statistics and pass them on to others with their own wrong understanding or failure to catch errors. When people or sites we love, trust, and respect start circulating this misinformation as confident fact — especially when it appeals to who or what we trust or fear — we buy it uncritically. We absorb it into our system of beliefs and values. We then become immune to rethinking facts and opinions, because those things shape our sense of reality.
We’ve got a crap ton of information coming in, we’re not even equipped in the 101 of that field, and we all feel like we or our belief system must have an opinion on everything.
No wonder we can’t agree on anything.
5. If you’re stumped, read books, take classes, and talk to people in the field to get the lay of the land. These are more surefire ways of understanding what’s left unsaid and the context for tricky statistics. And let me clarify — I’m not talking about your favorite blogger giving a summary of the scientific evidence from your pet perspective. I’m talking about reading firsthand accounts, watching serious debates between multiple different professionals, and talking to somebody who actually studied the issue in a peer-reviewed setting with an open mind.
Then again, I just showed who I really trust, didn’t I?
This post was inspired by all the medical decisions I have to make as a parent and Pete Enns’ excellent article, “11 Recurring Mistakes Evangelicals Make in the Evolution Debate”