Communicating Truth in a Digital Age

Used by CC license. Original:

Used by CC license. Original:

The greatest thing about the internet is that democratizes the exchange of information. We are no longer dependent on curators choosing which parts of the story we get to hear.

The worst thing about the internet is that it democratizes the exchange of information. We no longer have people filtering the stories we hear to help us get an accurate understanding of issues.

Carl Trueman wrote a critique of the problem the democratization of the internet a few years ago:

Then there was the case of a young guy who wanted to engage in email banter about something I’d written. What fascinated me was the way this person referred to himself at one point in our exchange as a scholar. Yet he had no higher degree, no track record of publications which had passed muster with peers in the field. Indeed, he’s still a student, not yet even beginning a doctoral program. Indeed, he’s a long way from possessing that most basic of academic union cards: a PhD. Now, I guess I’m old fashioned but the category of scholar is one which should be reserved for those who have established themselves in their chosen field by actual scholarly achievement, not by simply talking a good game. This credibility is achieved by consistent, careful and scholarly contributions to a field in terms of refereed publications which then enjoy currency among qualified peers outside the person’s immediate circle of epigonous friends.

Trueman may be a bit stodgy when it comes to academic qualifications. Sometimes people without the guild card of a terminal degree can make outstanding contributions to fields of study. However, those people are usually put forward by an expert who knows the field and recognizes the contribution made by an individual. Rarely do they self-identify as an expert. And rarely do they rise to the top of the field by merely reading and writing blogs.

Additionally, sometimes people that have academic qualifications are not as well informed as they believe themselves to be. This is particularly true when people are qualified in one area and speak out in another.

Overreaching by assuming authority in another discipline is a common trap for smart people to fall into. They assume that because they are highly qualified in one field, that ability bleeds over to other fields. Thus, an excellent civil engineer may feel herself to be an expert in evolutionary theory, too. The potential for that expertise may exist, but, as we all know, potential and actuality are two vastly different things.

The Value of Experts

Trueman’s criticism is generally valid because the process of earning a PhD in any subject trains an individual to recognize their own ignorance. The practice of careful scholarship and the fear of academic hubris that is generated during higher academics should improve a person’s ability to reason and explain a position.

There is an old aphorism, “The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.” I heard professors spout that over the years, but it never really sunk home until I started working toward a PhD.

When I was reading introductory books and sitting in classes as an MDiv student, I was able to gain much of the information rapidly. Sometimes I felt like I knew it all. Then I started doing independent, academic research and realized how little I knew. I also realized how many of the opinions that I held so strongly had more potential criticisms that I had imagined.

This doesn't mean that my positions were not correct. I held to and still hold to a robust orthodoxy. However, sometimes I’ve had to rephrase my understanding of my positions. At other times, I’ve maintained my position and recognized that I’ve held it for the wrong reasons. And, still other times, I’ve come to the recognition there are a broader range of valid options than I had initially allowed.

Used by CC license. See Original:

Used by CC license. See Original:

None of this means there isn’t an absolute truth, which can be objectively known. Neither does it mean that all ideas are fair game and we can’t know anything. However, it does mean that a bit more humility is in order than I originally allowed, particularly when I am dealing with differing ideas within the bounded set of orthodoxy.

This is where the democratization of expertise comes back into this discussion. The internet is the Wild West of information and opinions. Anyone with a little time can start up a blog and make it look official.

As a result, the internet gets flooded with content that is ill-reasoned, ill-informed, and often caustic toward people that hold different opinions. You won’t go far on the internet before you run into someone being denounced because he holds a different position than another person.

Debate is a good thing, but in the wilderness of the internet there is a great deal more bloviating than debate. This is true on the left and the right. Part of this is that things look black and white when considered at an elementary level. This means that the subtleties of positions are generally not understood. It makes debate difficult, but being an insulting troll very easy.

So what’s the point?

The point is that we all need to engage in online conversations with grace and humility. We need to appreciate our own limitations. The handful of blogs and few books we’ve read don’t necessarily qualify us to comment on every social or theological debate.

We need to be clear, but gracious, where Scripture speaks clearly. In places Scripture doesn't specifically speak we need to be especially gracious and humble in how we approach the issue. We also need to recognize the complexity of our views and the opposing views.

No one believes they are a bad guy. Everyone thinks they are doing good, except for a few psychotically selfish people. Most of the time the place the discussion needs to begin is much deeper than the actual issue in question. The problem is not in the particular position, but at a deeper theological level.

For instance, the debate about abortion is more about an appropriate understanding of the value of human life than it is about individual rights. When we hold the debate in rights language instead of dealing with the deeper theological issue, we will make little progress. Unfortunately, the popular debate is nearly always couched in rights language.

Worse still, when we insult and impute motives to the people that disagree with us we merely galvanize their position. As William Blake wrote in the Proverbs of Hell, “Damn braces. Bless relaxes.” It’s hard to convince someone of your position when you’ve insulted them. More significantly, it’s hard to show the light of the gospel to someone you’ve verbally assaulted.

Christians, as people who claim to have access to objective truth through God’s special revelation, need to be especially careful about engaging in conversations well. We need to be purveyors of truth who seek to make our case well, but never compromising on both the meaning and the tone of our message.