May 23, 2011

fact checking in an age of T.M.I.

T. M. I.

Too Much Information.

I'm not entirely sure this was ever envisioned by the framers of the first amendment when freedom to the press and freedom of speech were created. I'm not sure it was envisioned by the inventors of the internet, or cable tv, or email.

But we are inundated constantly with information. And depending on which sources we use for our information we read completely different "facts." Even within one publication we can have radically different portrayals of the truth. Or opinion - which has begun to substitute just fine for truth these days.

As a pastor, I face this when I have congregants reading different translations of scripture from vastly different sources and theological frameworks. While it provides and opportunity to talk about why these interpretations might be different, do we ever reach back and find out what the truth of the text is? Is there Truth to be found? or is it all a matter of interpretation?

Certainly this isn't a new problem. That's why throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition there have always been schools of thought that argued with one another. There is a reason that Jesus had to interact with Pharisees and Sadducees and Zealots and Essenes. They were all holding on to different pieces of the truth, and holding on to them so fast that they became the Truth for each.

We do this in the church. We do this in politics. We do this in schools. We do this everywhere. Because the idea that we can't fully grasp the Truth - that it is something that is bigger than us, is scary. We want black and white - truth and falsehood, good guys and bad guys. The in-between stuff is a mess and we don't want to live there.

In conversations with fellow pastors, we have discussed anecdotaly that folks tend to like morality sermons better than grace sermons. Because in morality and justification messages, the choice is clear - do this, don't do that. When we talk about love and forgiveness and grace, suddenly we are in the gray area... showing love to a murderer? having compassion for a drug addict? Witnessing someone transform their lives? it's messy, and hard and challenging, and we would much rather label people as good or bad. Even labeling ourselves as good or bad is easier than accepting messy grace.

Photo by:  memory_collector
Whether we like it or not, our world has changed.  Modernity is a thing of the past.  The world we live in is not black and white. Truth is not either/or. Reality is dirty and messy and complicated. More than one thing can be true at the same time. And we still haven't quite learned how to have conversation, how to hold one another accountable, how to make our way forward in the midst of postmodern thought.

Sometimes though, our overabundance of information can be sifted through.  Instead of simply letting the information out there all be valid, we can do the hard work of distilling what is worth keeping and what should be tossed out.

I'm becoming increasingly grateful for a simple little website called They help sift through lots of information and help to clear up some of the mis-information out there. But they do so in a way that realizes that there is fact and fiction out there. They are willing to say that parts are true and parts aren't. They show you which is which. They show which items are a matter of interpretation and opinion. They back stuff up with resources. They are indespensible!!!!

I have gotten into the habit recently of running any email forward I have recieved through - just to see what's out there.

Recently, it was an email forward with pictures from the attack on Pearl Harbor reportedly taken by someone on Dec. 7, 1941.  The email claimed that the film strip was only just recovered preserved from his "brownie camera" recently.

Snopes let me know: the pictures are real, the story is not. There was no way one person could have taken all of those pictures from so many different angles, plus, they are all navy archives photos and have been for quite some time.

What I have learned is that it is good to have some healthy skepticism in the face of information these days.  Do a little bit of legwork.  Ask yourself if it is believable.  Check with a source that you trust.  Be willing to dissect information to be able to find out what is propaganda and what is fact and what is opinion and what is just plain old story.  Sometimes it's all wrapped up in the same piece of information - whether it is a bible devotion or an email forward or a segment on your favorite news program. 

The world out there is a jumble of information.  Be smart.  Be informed.  Don't take anything at face value.

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