I’ve always loved history, especially political history. As a young teenager, I’d get into lively disputes with my friends after church, usually over the legacy of a past president. It got out of hand to the point that there was a backroom apology session with fathers involved. It’s almost hilarious now—Elijah and I have more than made up. But as a budding young thinker, there was always a question of how to use my thirst for knowledge in a productive way. I remember my obsessive interest in the 2008 election, staying up late to listen to primary results on the radio. I’d question my dad incessantly about it. Finally, one day he told me, “Drew, I think you need to find something else to think about.”
I remain fascinated by history and current world events, including our own political drama. In the past decade, my positions and sympathies have shifted dramatically. It hasn’t been on a steady trajectory, either. There are authors and theories I’d respect highly, then laugh off later, only to return after a long pilgrimage. Goodness, there are books I’ve read just in the past couple months that are forcing me to adjust pre-existing beliefs. The adage is true that the more you learn, the more you’re aware of what you have yet to learn.
My goal in writing this article is not to convince you of certain positions I currently hold—especially since they’re liable to change! But there are principles I’m learning that help me process what I hear and read. I think they hold true across the board, even if I’m applying them most specifically to the news and political history. You don’t need to be a college student with heavy intellectual interest to learn discernment. I’d love to inspire you to learn more for yourself: it’s such a thrilling pursuit!
So let’s dive in.
1. Your worldview will heavily influence how you process new information.
We like to think that we’re smart and committed to the truth. If new information comes out that contradicts our existing ideas, won’t we just adjust our views to match? But of course it’s not that simple. When you’re reading, remember that your reaction could say more about you than what you’re reading. If you think you’re not biased and just processing information at face value, one thing is certain: you’re wrong. This isn’t to say that we aren’t capable of changing our minds. We are, thank God, which is why the pursuit of learning is worthwhile. We simply need to be aware of our natural inclination to accept information that matches our existing views. This is why it’s helpful to try to understand different perspectives, engage in conversation with those who hold different views, and constantly reevaluate our own views. It’s hard work and doesn’t happen automatically. But if we are going to maximize our understanding of God and others, it’s definitely worth it.
2. Word-of-mouth reports are not always reliable
We trust those we know best. There is nothing wrong with this, of course. Often well-intentioned friends will pass on information that isn’t quite right, though. Rarely is this deliberate. But a simple inaccurate relaying of information can soon create problems. Since we’re emotionally inclined to take what our friends say more seriously, we’re less likely to verify what they say. In the process, reports can slowly be distorted as they get passed around. It’s the age-old problem with gossip. This is why it’s often helpful to check information out for yourself before sharing with others.
This doesn’t mean that you can never pass something on before fact-checking it—although it wouldn’t hurt to err in that direction. At the very least, make sure you don’t embellish what you heard as you pass it along; this happens very easily. And if you hear conflicting reports, don’t assume the story you heard from your friend is the correct one. Perhaps he was misinformed or you remembered what he said incorrectly.
3. Social media is a questionable source of information
Social media is driven by popular approval and sensationalism. Posts that get the most likes and reshares will naturally reach more people. This doesn’t mean that they’re accurate, though. Social media is not the most thoughtful kind of platform. People post or reshare on impulse. Posts are often short (sometimes just a meme) and can generate a quick emotional reaction without being factually strong. With only minor exceptions, there is no editing or filtering of content. There is much debate about the amount of censorship a company like Facebook should exercise over posts. Censorship endangers free speech, but with no censorship, there’s an open door for false information to spread. It’s a fascinating debate, but no matter what side you sympathize with, it’s clear that we shouldn’t rely heavily on information being spread on Facebook. If you see a post that makes a surprising claim, why not Google the topic and see if you can find data to back it up? If you can’t, that should raise flags.
4. Hold all sources to the same standard
We naturally hold ideas we disagree with to higher scrutiny. But we need to remember that it’s much easier to knock down a bad argument than to build a good one. If you apply careful scrutiny to sources you trust, how do they fare? The only source that can be trusted for consistent reliability is the Bible. All other sources, no matter how many valid points they make, will not be immune from flawed ideas. It’s courageous to be willing to rigorously examine ideas and sources we are inclined to agree with. Otherwise, we will limit ourselves from being able to learn—new insight often comes from unexpected places. Be willing to hear out a new idea without rushing to take it down.
5. Don’t be quicker to believe conspiracy theories
Since many people distrust the mainstream press, this leaves a wide opening for conspiracy theories. In fairness to conspiracy theorists, there certainly have been times in history where those in power deliberately misled the public. Not everything we’re told by those in power will always be accurate. We shouldn’t believe everything we hear, you might say. While this is true, this ironically applies to the conspiracy theories themselves. It’s too easy today to dismiss a news report as “fake news,” while simultaneously accepting a far-fetched conspiracy theory. This is perhaps a sub-point of my last point: make sure you hold standards of scrutiny consistently. But I also think we should be careful not to assume the worst of our leaders. While it’s appropriate to acknowledge the possibility that we are being misled, we should give the benefit of the doubt unless there is clear evidence that contradicts what we’re being told.
6. Make sure the data matches the conclusion
It’s not enough to cite data to prove a point. The data needs to demonstrably support the conclusion. Many times someone will build an emotionally compelling case, yet their argument lacks factual support—even if data is cited. For instance, statistics are tricky business. They can easily be used irresponsibly and if we don’t pay close attention, we’ll miss it.
For example, imagine the headline “Air Travel Surges 123%!” coming out in May 2020, right after the COVID outbreak caused a steep dropoff in air travel. Technically, the statistic is correct, but the message it conveys—that air travel is radically recovering—isn’t. The problem here is the comparison point. For the week ending on April 17th 2020, there were 95,161 air passengers per day. Fast forward a month to the week ending on May 17th, and the figure was 212,580 a day. That’s a true 123% jump. But in a typical year, there is an average of 2.4 million air travelers a day. With that in perspective, the increase in air travel in May doesn’t look so impressive—it’s still far from normal.¹
7. Be flexible—there’s a lot we don’t know
Whenever we think that we have something figured out, that’s when we run the greatest risk of being wrong. We get cocky, easily dismissive of other ideas, and are likely to miss valid points others are making. As we learn more, we need to remember that there is still much we don’t know. Humility is key. If you are willing to change your views if they are shown to be incorrect, this will not only increase your understanding, but it will also make it easier for you to relate effectively with others. No one enjoys relating with know-it-alls.
In conclusion, the pursuit of knowledge is admirable. But let’s pursue humbly and responsibly.
1 thought on “Seven Principles for Discernment in the News”
Great article Drew! I really appreciate the points you brought out.