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Long Before There Was Talk of “False News”…

I teach philosophy, and one of the subtopics that I have always emphasized in my teaching is epistemology — the study of knowledge. This is where we ask questions like, “How do you know that such-and-such is true?” “How reliable is this information?” “How can we tell the difference between truth and falsehood?”

I encourage my students to face epistemological questions before they go on to other issues, because I want them to be conscious about the criteria they use in forming judgments about things. It’s a tough sell. If they’re interested in philosophy, it’s usually because they want to dive right into the meat of it — they want to talk about the existence of God or the nature of Time and Space or the metaphysical foundations of ethics. And if they’re not interested in philosophy, they have even less patience for a professor who questions what they think they already know.

Over the years I’ve taught a course called “Theory of Knowledge” that’s designed to engage incoming freshmen who aren’t interested in philosophy. It’s divided up into sections that are meant to appeal to their interests. One part I’ve always enjoyed is the section on “How We Know What Happened When We Weren’t There.” Under this section I put historical knowledge, but also “The News.” I have them read newspaper clippings and discuss the questions, “What happened, and how do you know what happened, since you weren’t there?”

At first, it all seems cut and dried. They tell me “what happened” just as it’s described in the clipping they read. But when I ask them how they know, it’s not always easy for them to say. In some cases, sources are given by name and reference is made to that person’s claim to authority: “according to Officer Jones, who arrived on the scene shortly afterwards” or “said Jane Smith, an eyewitness.” In other cases, we have only a vague idea where the writer got his information: “according to sources close to the Governor” or “said a witness who refused to give her name.” There are even cases in which the writer simply says, “The Courier has learned that…”

Before long, my students are in the game. First we try to reconstruct where the journalist got his information, and that’s not always an easy thing to do. Then we ask ourselves, “How reliable are these sources? Are they in a position to know what they’re claiming to know, or are they speculating? Do we have any way of knowing whether they’re honest? Can we think of any ways in which they could benefit from convincing us that their version of the story is true?”

We also want to pay attention to discrepancies among the sources, and if there are any, then we ask ourselves, “Why do these people offer differing accounts of what happened? Even if we assume that they’re all sincere, can we think of reasons why they might have viewed the event in different ways?”

And so on.

Of course, my cards are on the table. I teach my students to be cautious. “You weren’t there,” I tell them. “You’re relying on people you don’t know to tell you what happened, based on what other people you don’t know told them. The thing is, you’re forming judgments all the time — about big and little things — and those judgments inform you as you go about living your life. Much of what you think you ‘know,’ you received just like this… from ‘undisclosed sources’ and from people you’ve never met… and never will meet.”

We’re called to recognize the truth and be liberated by it (John 8:31-32). We’re not to be conformed to this world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). The New Testament word translated “repent” (metanoeite) means to change our minds (Mark 1:15). The Apostle Paul challenges us to “take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ” (II Corinthians 10:5, NIV). And yet we take so much for granted. Much of what we consider “knowledge” has passed through our minds unfiltered.

So… are you wondering what I think about all this talk about “false news”? The truth is, I’m horrified.

Why? Because nobody’s talking about criteria. They’re all just hurling accusations at each other. And even when they’re trying to sound professional, they’re making claims they can’t back up.

There’s a chart making the rounds of social media right now, telling us which of the news outlets are trustworthy and which are not. But what is the chart based on? There seems to be an assumption that “Mainstream” news outlets are trustworthy and all others can be judged by how far “right” or “left” they are of the Mainstream. But by what criteria do we identify a media source as “Mainstream”? And even then, by what principle can we argue that the Mainstream represents the truth?

As I’ve been telling my students for over 20 years, you have got to be critical of what you hear, regardless of the source. As a consumer of “the news,” you’ve always got to ask yourself, “What actually happened, and how can we be sure, since we weren’t there?” We have no assurances. We never did. It’s up to us to filter, to question, to sift, and to place our beliefs before God, asking to have our eyes opened to the truth.

The people who are harping about “false news” seem to be trying to discredit all other sources of information so that we will listen exclusively to them. They want us to believe them — not somebody else. We are therefore in an extremely dangerous situation, in which our sources of information are being called into question, but no one is laying out clear guidelines for knowing who to trust.

If you’ve never given any thought to epistemology before, it’s time to bone up on it. In the School of Life, it’s a required course now… for all of us.

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2 thoughts on “Long Before There Was Talk of “False News”…

  1. Indeed, Ron. We need to “bone up” now more than ever. I try to discern where the source came from and if its verified by other sources. But the bombardment of news today makes it easy to skip over that. I found the chart helpful to me, and I have updated the news feeds that come to my phone each day, based on the chart. I’m relying on past experience, and a gut feeling, and what other friends consider to be reliable sources. I don’t know who put the chart together, but it seems to be pretty much on target to me. “Alternative facts” are pretty scary. We should give the new administration and a “wet behind the ears” press secretary the benefit of the doubt for a while. But how do I know what is truth, or lies, or alternative facts. I’d probably flunk your course.

    • Thanks for that comment, Jim.

      As William James pointed out over a century ago, we all rely heavily on “authorities” for many of the things we claim to know. There’s simply no way that we can test everything we’re told; there’s too much information, and much of it is beyond our immediate reach.

      But there are certain things we can do with the information we’re given. We can cross-reference, as you mentioned. We can widen the range of sources, including opposing voices, and carefully weigh their arguments. This doesn’t apply to you, but I would definitely warn people against narrowing their sources just because those who wield political power at the moment are trying to discredit certain media outlets.

      The main thing is to be aware of the criteria that we’re using, and to be open. I, too, found the chart useful in certain ways, but one of its uses is to prompt reflection and conversation about the criteria we use for determining which sources are reliable.

      Thanks for your thoughts!

      Ron

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