One of the best things about the internet is that anyone can state his opinion about anything.
And one of the worst things about the internet is that anyone can state his opinion about anything.
The digital revolution has made knowledge more accessible, the flow of information more diverse, and the ability to make your voice heard easier than ever before.
The same revolution has also made invincible ignorance more sustainable, pervasive crankery more common, and the ability to discern what voices are worth listening to harder than ever before.
There’s no putting the genie back the bottle. Even if more news and punditry is being “curated” these days, it’s still the case than anyone with a strong opinion and the self-discipline (or blinding rage, the case may be) to blog and tweet and post consistently can command a following and wield a level of influence that would have been unthinkable 20 years ago. If we are to be wise, then, in both what we read online and also how we read it, we need to stand by the unpopular conclusion that not all opinions are created equal.
In his book The Death of Expertise, Tom Nichols tells the story of an undergraduate student arguing with a renowned astrophysicist who was on campus to give a lecture about missile defense. After seeing that the famous scientist was not going to change his mind after hearing the arguments from a college sophomore, the student finished in a harrumph, “Well, your guess is as good as mine.” At which point the astrophysicist quickly interjected, “No, no, no. My guesses are much, much better than yours” (82–83). Just because someone is confident doesn’t mean he is anywhere close to correct.
So how do we evaluate the cacophony of punditry around us, especially the online variety? Few of us have time to research every author we read, let alone the subject matter on which they are pontificating. In most of life, it serves us well to assume that people are telling us the truth. Without knowledge of the inner workings of a church or school or institution, it can be hard to tell what’s factually accurate and what’s a false allegation. Sifting truth from error in an online world is no easy task.
But there are several common-sense questions we can run through our brains before giving undue credence to the latest and loudest opinions.
1. Does this person inhabit a healthy web of family and friends? Of the questions listed here, this is the hardest to answer. Often, we won’t know anything about the person we are reading online. But at times, we may be able to discern something of a relational pattern, for good or ill. To be sure, even nasty folks can find a friend or two, and sometimes the best people suffer through family drama not of their own making. And yet, as a general rule, if I know someone has a good marriage, a happy home life, a lot of supportive friends at church and at work, and a long track record of strong relationships, I’m more inclined to hear what he has to say, especially on spiritual matters. Conversely, I’m less likely to consider someone an expert on spiritual matters who is surrounded by a train of relational wreckage with himself at the center. We are whole people, and those who are emotionally unhealthy and unstable are not usually the best go-to guides for fair analysis and discernment.
2. Does this person have full-time responsibilities beyond independent punditry? Again, there are exceptions. Tim Challies, for example, has proven to be one the most trustworthy and reliable voices on the internet. He made his name as an independent blogger and has kept up the good work for years. But he’s the exception that proves the rule. When I read some people online I can’t help but think, What do you actually do for a living? I’m not talking about full-time moms either. I’m talking about people who don’t seem to be running a church, running a business, running a family, or punching in regular hours to pay the bills. If you mainly hang out online responding to every mention on Twitter, provoking your opponents, fishing for compliments, and getting into digital fights every few days, I wonder if you have the real-world maturity and perspective to be helpful. I take inveterate pugilists and narcissists with a massive grain of salt.
3. Does this person have the commensurate education or experience that makes them worth listening to? Yes, I know the talk of academic degrees can sound hopelessly elitist. There are plenty of dumb smart people in the world. But when it comes to real expertise, there is a big difference between someone who has taken years or decades to become acquainted with a subject and someone who has been looking into a given person, place, or thing for a few weeks (or minutes!). I prefer to listen to people who know more than I do, not simply emote their convictions more strongly.
4. Is this person held accountable by any meaningful institutions? When it comes to public controversy, institutions are always at a disadvantage. A lone blogger or tweeter can make allegations, respond to comments, and be single-minded in his effort to expose what he sees as corruption or error in a church, school, organization, or business. And sometimes, we need these whistle blowers to see what everyone refuses to see. Institutions do make mistakes; they can become corrupt. But lone wolves can make mistakes and be corrupt too. And when they are, the institutions they oppose are at a profound disadvantage. An individual can post and respond with relative impunity. Institutions have to move slowly and cautiously. They have boards and employees and constituencies to think about, not to mention financial and legal ramifications. This doesn’t mean that belonging to an institution makes one right. But I generally feel more confident about someone who is actively involved in and accountable to a church, a session, an employer, a school, a board, a presbytery, or some combination thereof, than I do about someone whose performance, ideas, and behavior reflect on no one but himself.
5. Does this person provide the necessary links and citations to bolster his assertions? Fairly often, I will have people in my church ask about articles and allegations they read online. Usually, the accusations involve people they thought they could trust, but now appear to be mixed up in some nefarious underworld. Almost always, the accusations brought to my attention come from those (the online source, not the people in my church) who provide no hard facts to substantiate their slanderous claims. When links are provided, they are often nothing more than elaborate attempts at guilt by association. The click bait is usually the product of hearsay, half truths, and an eagerness to believe the worst about people. Or else the most serious charges are based upon unprovable and ambiguous accusations about Illuminati-like conspiracy theories. Likewise, just the mere recitation of a claim does not make it true. If I assert that Organization X is funded by blood money, and Leader Y is a closet Zoroastrian, and Institution Z drowns puppies behind closed doors, those claims are no more true because I repeat them and no more tied to facts because other people start to assume them to be true.
6. Does this person express his opinions and state his case with a due sense of proportion? This rule of thumb will serve you well: don’t believe hysterics. If the matter at hand is truly grave, the facts should speak for themselves. Or if we must use hard words, make sure they are in conjunction with even firmer arguments. When everything in one’s public profile is a five-alarm fire, I tend to think the pundit is interested in starting fires more than in putting them out.
7. Does this person exhibit any interest in trying to understand the arguments of others or speak carefully about those he means to criticize? I can learn a lot from people who try to persuade. I learn little from people who do nothing but berate. When a writer, thinker, or critic never sees any good points on the other side, or never sees any trade-offs in his own position, I question his commitment to intellectual rigor. Likewise, when a pundit always—forever and ever, amen—finds fault in people to the left of him or only in people to the right of him, it makes me think the punditry is about party loyalty more than a honest search for truth.
Granted, these tests aren’t foolproof. There are exceptions to all these “rules.” But rarely does someone break all (or most) of these “rules” and prove to be a trustworthy voice. We owe it to our families, our friends, our churches, and to ourselves to think critically before we take in gossip, pass along slander, or simply succumb to logical nincompoopery and ill-founded bloviating passed off as courage.
Update: 7 Diagnostic Questions for My Writing Life (drafted by Samuel James)
1. How is the current quality of my relationship with my wife, children, friends, church members, and coworkers? Do these relationships lend legitimacy to my perspective or raise questions about my character?
2. Am I being faithful to my day-to-day vocation? Do my effort and focus at work lend credibility to my writing, or would they undermine it if readers could see my week?
3. Am I consistently speaking to areas in which I have valuable knowledge and experience? Am I regularly going “outside my lane” simply to get clicks/follows?
4. Am I saying anything that could damage the reputation of my employer or my church? Would I quietly prefer if these people didn’t read what I’m writing?
5. Do I take the time and effort to educate myself on topics so that I can point others toward credible resources? Am I trying to generate content more than I’m trying to generate knowledge?
6. Am I investing time and energy in issues that really matter? Do I easily get distracted by “conversations” that nobody will even remember next week?
7. Am I teachable and open to correction? Do I try to convince people or defeat them?