Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Fake news versus real news: Is there a difference?

Donald Trump in his presidential campaign last year popularized the practice of labelling news reports with which one disagrees “fake news.” Since then, the practice of calling news reports “fake news” has proliferated, spreading among conservatives and liberals.
Is there a difference between “fake news” and “real news”?
In answering that question, I want to avoid using the word “truth” and its cognates. Truth has too many meanings to permit easy use in this context. A friend and I had an extended conversation on Ethical Musings some years ago about the nature of truth. He argued that if truth does exist, it is impossible for humans to know truth with certainty, a position akin to that of Hegel’s postmodern individualism.
On some issues I agree with my friend. For example, nobody can prove that God (a human word denoting ultimate reality) does or does not exist. Furthermore, given the unknowability of ultimate reality and the limitations of human language, each person lives with her or his own truth with respect to God. Witnesses to a crime (or any other incident) similarly have personalized, unique memories of the event, shaped by the individual’s inherently selective perception of the event, pre-existing brain patterns that process those perceptions, and their brain’s retention or non-retention of those processed perceptions. Again, truth is highly individualized. Yet another example of the elusiveness of truth is the partial displacement by, and uneasy coexistence of, Newtonian physics and quantum physics.
However, I disagreed with my friend about other issues. In these instances, the word “truth” has a different meaning. “Truth” may denote a fact (or set of facts) or perception supported by the available evidence that was accumulated from multiple sources to ensure its validity and then tested for reliability. Illustratively, if numerous people describe a wall as red and a properly calibrated spectrometer agrees with that description, then I believe that we can truthfully say “the wall is red,” with the word “red” connoting the absorption of all light except that of wave lengths that humans usually describe in English as “red.”
By this standard, “fake news” denotes a news report in which the reported facts do not cohere to valid, reliable facts. Of course, opinions about the import of the facts will often vary widely. In the case of opinion, whether a person expressed a particular point of view is an issue of fact; the opinion, per se, represents a form of relative truth, personally determined.
To illustrate the distinction between fact and opinion, consider reports of Russian meddling in the 2016 US elections. Factually, the Russians meddled. The preponderance of evidence is valid (actually reveals Russian attempts to interfere in the election) and reliable (comes from highly trustworthy, multiple independent sources). Reports of Russian meddling are not fake news but real or true. However, far less certain is whether the Trump campaign colluded or was aware of that meddling, at this time more a matter of opinion than fact. Concern about the integrity of US elections should prompt continuing efforts to resolve the truth of all such claims.

Civil discourse and the search both meaning both require clarity about truth. I’m deeply disturbed that claims of “fake news” are proliferating in an effort to dismiss uncomfortable truths, i.e., facts one strongly prefers to discredit and then ignore. Distinguishing “real news” from “fake news” requires the hard work of setting aside personal prejudices to dig into available data and engage in the careful, time-consuming analysis. On occasion, the process may entail suspending judgment until sufficient valid, reliable data becomes available.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Crisis: Danger or Opportunity?

The Chinese character for crisis combines the characters for danger and opportunity. Military veterans, whose service we honor on Veterans Day, appreciate that double meaning. No military effort in war – whether traditional combat such as was fought in WWII, Korea, and the first Gulf War or a less traditional form of war such as was fought in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and other places – is without danger and an opportunity for potential gain. Great military commanders have the ability to recognize when the potential gain exceeds the danger.
Military veterans also know that the military loves a crisis. In the absence of a genuine crisis, leaders from the ranks of NCOs up through four-star officers tend to create an artificial crisis. Crises evoke a sense of urgency that can prioritize the perceived urgent over the truly important. Crises can aid in developing team spirit and teamwork. The stress of artificial crises is one way to prepare military personnel for the actual stress of combat.
Post-retirement, I have recognized that many civilians also love a crisis. Pundits are fond of identifying a crisis, real or imagined, that the world, nation, or a particular group of people face. Then, if the pundit takes the role of public intellectual seriously, proposes a solution to the crisis.
Careful analysis and an in-depth knowledge of history contextualizes and clarifies the true nature of many alleged crisis. Illustratively, the current political gridlock and polarization echoes Congress’ inability to pass any major legislation from the 1870s until FDR’s election as President. Similarly, the often-touted social stability and economic progress of the 1950s reflects a predominantly white perspective; for black Americans, the 1950s largely continued the racial injustice of previous decades. In sum, the nature of a crisis is often definitively shaped by the eye of the beholder.
People, according to psychologist Jonathan Haidt, cope with a crisis in one of three ways. A crisis may activate the person (this is the military’s general expectation), prompt a reappraisal of what is happening (politicians and pundits both hope that declaring something a crisis will at least prompt people to reappraise the situation, if not act), or trigger avoidance (i.e., respond like the proverbial ostrich).
Brian D. McLaren in his book, Everything Must Change, identified four global crises that he believes we face:
  1. The crisis of the planet, which I called the Prosperity Crisis, since our way of pursuing prosperity is unsustainable ecologically.
  2. The crisis of poverty, which I called the Equity Crisis, since the gap between rich and poor is growing, leaving more and more people in a less and less equitable situation.
  3. The crisis of peace, which I called the Security Crisis, in which the widening gap between a rich minority and a poor majority plunges both groups into a vicious cycle of violence, each group arming itself with more and more catastrophic weapons.
  4. The crisis of religion, which I called the Spirituality Crisis, since all our world’s religions are failing to inspire us to address the first three crises, and in fact too often they are inspiring us to behave in ways counterproductive to human survival. (Summary taken from McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, p. 253)

Few people can concurrently cope creatively with four crises, much less the numerous other crises that are features of our personal, professional, social, and political lives. Overwhelmed by too many crises, avoidance typically becomes our response of choice.
Nonetheless, I find McLaren’s listing of the four crises broadly useful as an ethical framework for approaching the future.
However, instead of attempting to respond to all four, at best fragmenting my efforts and at worst suffering from an ethical and practical paralysis, I choose one of the four as the primary focus of my efforts. That focus may shift over time. And I remain interested in all four. But as part of a community of believers, I trust others to focus on the three that are not my prime focus. Indeed, I rely upon others to assist with the crisis that focuses my efforts because all four global crises are too large for any one person to address in total. Concurrently with my personal responses to one of the four crises, I support the efforts of others with my prayers as well as through timely, appropriate comments in my teaching, preaching, and writing.
Furthermore, I find McLaren’s framework helpful in sorting, weighing, and prioritizing the numerous crises that lay claims on my attention and resources. What is truly important (and not simply urgent)? What coheres well with my overall focus? Where can I personally make a difference? Where can only I make a difference?

Conservative economist Milton Friedman believed, “ONLY A CRISIS – actual or perceived – produces real change.” Emulate those veterans who joined the military to make a difference in the world. Choose your crisis wisely and make a difference! 

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Hope, positive thinking, science, and All Saints Day

(This post first appeared on Ethical Musings in October 2014).

Two conflicting – almost diametrically opposed – news reports recently caught my attention. The first, published in The Atlantic (Maggie Puniewska, "Optimism is the Enemy of Action," October 17, 2014) reviewed scientific research that supposedly demonstrates that positive thinking impedes achievement. The second, published in the New York Times (Bruce Grierson, "What if Age Is Nothing but a Mind-Set?" October 22, 2014) argues the opposite, citing research that suggests a person can retard, perhaps even prevent aging, by thinking her or himself young. Both studies are worth a read.

Then I came across an article in Science (Tom Siegfried, "In science, popularity breeds unreliability," October 17, 2014). Siegfried cites research to show that the popular news media tends to feature reports of controversial studies and studies with practical implications, regardless of the quality of the research undergirding the study. That conclusion made sense to me, especially in view of the two news items I had read in the previous hour.

Let me advocate two theses.

First, one cannot use good science to prove anything (unlike the Bible, in which one can find a justification for almost anything!). Unlike biblical interpretation, quality science functions by using standardized principles: articulate a thesis; develop testable predictions based upon that thesis; then test the accuracy of those predictions adhering to recognized scientific methods and protocols.
Incidentally, a scientific approach to biblical study can occasionally be helpful. For example, predictions of the end of the world, based on whatever biblical texts one wishes to consult, represent a thesis (one can predict the end of the world) that is testable (i.e., a prediction of when the world will end). To date, the dozens if not hundreds of specific dates proposed have all proven false. Biblical prophets described God at work in their world; they did not predict the future.
Good science reports that Ebola is transmitted only through body fluids (spit, blood, urine, etc.). Ebola is not transmitted through the air. This is not a matter of opinion or choosing one study over another. There is simply no evidence of airborne transmission of the virus that causes Ebola. Religious leaders of all traditions support people in living abundantly by fighting unfounded fears and promoting courageous living.

Second, positive thinking can enhance one's quality of life but is no substitute for hard work, perseverance, skill, or knowledge. Hope is one expression of positive thinking. If a person has no hope of a better future (or better performance, or positive change – depending upon the specific hope), then the person is unlikely to change, improve, grow, etc. Hope is essential. I have repeatedly witnessed the power of hope to transform life. Among the transformations I have observed are a sick person who believed that they were dying recover hope for healing and return to health, persons in relationships they thought were dead revitalize self and the relationship, and persons who had given up on self experience renewal.

The Bible is an anthology of stories about the power of hope – positive thinking – transforming life, an anthology of windows through which the light of God shines and illuminates our lives. This is not a matter of science, but like science, I have seen the evidence of my thesis (positive thoughts as one walks in God's light) in the lives of changed people.


All Saints Day, celebrated annually on November 1 (many churches may celebrate this year on Sunday, November 5), is set aside, in part, to recall the lives of the countless people in whose lives we can observe God's transformative love and power at work. Who is your hero in the faith? In whom do you see, or have you seen, the light of God shining?