We started 2020 already skeptical about experts, pollsters, data scientists, and institutional credibility. Tom Nichols’s The Death of Expertise came out three years ago, after all. This isn’t a new trend. But 11 months into a year that has felt like a decade, the skepticism is even greater, and for good reason.
Consider what just happened with the U.S. election. Almost every pollster predicted a huge Biden victory, and many a Biden landslide. At least one analyst predicted not just a blue wave, but a “Democratic tsunami.” Even conservatives like David Brooks said “this election won’t be close.” We still don’t have final results, but even if Trump loses (as it appears he will), he came much closer to winning than polls and pundits indicated.
These are not armchair pollsters or random bloggers. These are elite data-crunchers at the top of their field. How could they be this off . . . again?
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has also dealt blows to public trust in experts. The world’s leading institutions on disease control have regularly issued shifting and conflicting recommendations. State public-health recommendations and containment strategies have varied greatly, often along partisan lines (e.g., in July Disney World was allowed to reopen in Republican-led Florida; Disneyland is still closed in Democrat-run California). Everyone says they are following the data and science, but which data and which science? There are studies and arguments to back almost any approach. Should schools be open or closed? There’s viable evidence to justify either answer. Are church gatherings more likely to be super-spreader events than public protests? It probably depends on the politics of who you ask.
Everyone says they are following the data and science, but which data and which science?
As much as COVID-19 has been and continues to be a tragic public-health disaster of global proportions, it has also been an information disaster—one that’s further exposed the severity of the crisis of truth we face in the digital age.
Information Disaster: Too Much, Too Fast, Too Fragmented
Should we still value science, data, and information? Of course. But 2020 has made clear that the solution to complex problems is not simply more science, data, and information. What we need is more wisdom to know how to sift through and synthesize it, understand complexity, and make better decisions.
In my forthcoming book, The Wisdom Pyramid: Feeding Your Soul in a Post-Truth World, I highlight three information-age dynamics making us less wise. Though we see many examples of these dynamics throughout culture today (including in political polling), here is how they have been exposed specifically in the COVID-19 pandemic.
1. Too Much
The irony of the information age is that the more access we have to an unfathomable amount of information and accumulated knowledge, the less wise we seem to become. One problem with information glut is that it taxes our brains, forcing them into constant triage mode and sapping them of energy (and time) for the deeper, evaluative thinking necessary for wisdom.
The irony of the information age is that the more access we have to an unfathomable amount of information and accumulated knowledge, the less wise we seem to become.
Another problem of an overloaded digital information landscape—with Google as its gateway—is that we tend to find whatever we want to find. COVID-19 highlighted this problem. A mind-boggling amount of pandemic information is online—projections, opinions on lockdowns, and so forth. With a bit of googling you can find something to back up whatever you want to believe about the pandemic. Whether the coronavirus or racial justice or any number of issues, this is why debates today so often come to an impasse. Each person arrives with their own set of facts and figures (“Did you see this study? Did you hear what this expert says?”) and few can be convinced their “facts” are less valid than the other’s.
2. Too Fast
The speed of information today is simply too fast. Too fast for sufficient vetting, fact-checking, prudence (should I really retweet this?) and commonsense critical thinking. This creates a variety of new problems that erode our collective trust in information: fake news, viral misinformation, conspiracy theories, and too-hasty reporting from otherwise reputable news sources. The “need for speed” in today’s media landscape has given rise to an unhelpful “Breaking News!” orientation of media, the ubiquity of (usually unhelpful) hot takes, and (often unwise) insta-reaction commentary on real-time complexities. These problems have been manifold during the pandemic. Eager-for-juicy-headlines reporting has spread confusion more than it has brought clarity.
Eager-for-juicy-headlines reporting has spread confusion more than it has brought clarity.
One example is the media narrative that took off in August about how wearing neck gaiters was worse for COVID-protection than wearing no mask at all, purportedly proven by a scientific study. But it turned out the study in question proved no such thing. Reporters had misinterpreted the study and ran with a fallacious “study says” narrative that got great clicks. And even if some later added “since this story ran” updates and corrections, the damage had already been done, and millions had stopped wearing neck gaiters. Other examples abound. From Nick Sandmann (“MAGA Boys Mob Native Elder at Indigenous Peoples March.”) to Jussie Smollett (“Attempted modern-day lynching”), false narratives can be quickly and recklessly spread—even by prestigious media and “trustworthy” sources.
3. Too Fragmented
Algorithms and personally curated feeds have created a hyper-fragmented information landscape where no two of us are experiencing the same reality. Ever more entrenched in echo chambers and bias-confirming bubbles, we become increasingly more convinced of the rightness of our preferred narratives and accepted truths, even as others become more convinced in entirely the opposite direction.
Algorithms and personally curated feeds have created a hyper-fragmented media landscape where no two of us are experiencing the same reality.
COVID-19 has highlighted this dynamic too. Depending on your bubble, you might think lockdowns are big-government overreach—or that they don’t go far enough. Depending on your media diet, you might think masks are a socialist imposition—or that we should be wearing them at least through 2022. Social algorithms make matters worse by further refining one’s skewed impression of reality. The more you see QAnon theories in your newsfeed, the more you start to believe them. Combined with the “too much” problem of easily finding “evidence” on Google for whatever reality you want to believe, the fragmentation problem of the information age further destabilizes any notion of shared truth.
How Christians Can Respond
This year has vividly displayed the dangerous dynamics of the information age. But so will 2021. Our crisis of epistemology will likely worsen before it gets better. One day society may recognize how these truth-destroying dynamics create a fundamentally unstable society, and that big things need to change. In the meantime, Christians should lead the way in pursuing and preserving wisdom as a buffer against rampant foolishness.
Key to this will be discernment in the area of knowledge and information intake. I’m increasingly convinced that media habits are a discipleship matter that must be foregrounded in church ministry. What dubious sources (podcasts, “news” outlets, subreddits, YouTube channels, Facebook groups) are shaping Christians today? What are the trustworthy, wisdom-giving sources we should be pointing people to instead?
Christians should lead the way in pursuing and preserving wisdom as a buffer against rampant foolishness.
It was already happening before 2020, but this year disturbingly exposed the extent to which many Christians have had their minds warped, hearts malformed, and souls sickened by the ubiquitous toxins of untruth online. Many Christians have sadly followed the world in the path of foolishness—but it doesn’t have to be this way. As worshipers of the God who created wisdom (Prov. 8:22–31), and people of the Book where God reveals wisdom, Christians of all people should have a solid wisdom foundation.
As uncertainty escalates, foundations crumble, and chaos reigns, who will carry the torch of truth? Who will be the preservers of wisdom for future generations? Christians can be. But we’ll need to get our own (increasingly compromised and foolish) house in order first. In 2021 and beyond, let’s commit ourselves to that task.