The Internet has made it easier than ever before to catch and correct misinformation. Dan Rather’s false reporting on George W. Bush’s National Guard experience was exposed by a blogger. On my own blog earlier today, with the help of some Facebook friends, I had a quick answer to an atheist’s false claims about philosophers’ beliefs.
Corrections abound. Why then do errors persist? (Why is there always somebody wrong on the Internet?)
That question has been bothering me especially this week, as David Barton’s errors have been brought into more public light. My experience blogging has taught me that if I don’t know what I’m talking about I’d better not talk about it. Someone will challenge me and I’ll have to yield. It has its value as a learning experience but it doesn’t do much for my credibility.
From the other side, the Internet is overrun with writers saying that Christians who accept the injunctions in Leviticus against homosexuality should stone their daughter if she’s not a virgin on her wedding night. Here’s a sample search for you. This misinformation persists even Christians (also appearing on that same Google search) show its purveyors that they don’t understand the Bible as well as they think they do. I could share a thousand more examples like this one.
Confirmation bias is a well established psychological phenomenon. We tend to see that which we agree with more clearly and more openly than that which we disagree with. Atheists, believers, and everyone in between are all subject to it. I find that when I’m reading complex material, if I agree with where the author is taking it I can understand it much more easily than if it’s something I disagree with—even if the two are equally challenging, on a neutral, objective standard. I’m pretty sure that contributes to bias.
Sometimes we pursue “facts” that we want to be true, whether they are indeed factual or not. Many Christians, especially politically conservative Christians, have done this with David Barton. Presumably, though, most of us would much rather pursue what’s actually true. I commend to you a simple three step plan for topic areas on which you may need to form an opinion:
1. If you know what you’re talking about—if you have expertise in the subject area—then go for it.
2. If not, then use caution. Do some research. Don’t jump to conclusions. Find out who disagrees with whom, and why.
3. Having done that research, speak according to what you know.
(For topics on which you don’t really need to form an opinion, “I don’t know” works just as well.)
Someone asked me a couple months ago what I thought about David Barton. I said, “I’ve heard him speak, I know pretty much what his themes are, I’ve heard others raise concerns about his accuracy, I haven’t studied it enough to know what to make of those concerns, so I’m taking a cautious stance.” Now, with a lot more information available, I’m more convinced he’s been guilty of stretching facts (to put it charitably).
The same principle would ease tensions in the young earth-old earth debate. Whatever the topic, it would have the virtue of preventing a lot of us from speaking more than we know.
Meanwhile errors will persist on the Internet and beyond, because too many of us think we know more than we actually know, and we’re not listening to the other side. To suppose there could be any other outcome would be foolishly idealistic.