Friday, July 06, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: Facts and Opinions

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

The Pew Research Center — a moderately reputable outfit as these things go — just released study data that indicates three quarters of Americans are incapable of distinguishing fact from opinion. When given a series of statements like “Spending on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid make up the largest portion of the U.S. federal budget” (fact, supposedly), and “Democracy is the greatest form of government” (opinion, surely), most participants were unable to determine which were which.

Tom: Somebody’s responsible for that, IC. Want to hazard a guess who it might be?

A Combination of Causes

Immanuel Can: Sure. I think it’s a combination of causes. One, obviously, is the ideological relativism of our age, which is promoted very aggressively in a deliberately indoctrinatory way in both education and the media.

Tom: I’m no expert on education, but where media is concerned, the term “op-ed” should officially be declared redundant. Every “news item” today is to some degree slanted toward the official editorial position of a paper or network. When journalists demonstrate themselves unable to distinguish between facts and political spin, I’m not at all surprised their audiences are stumped.

IC: Well, those are the obvious problems. But I think they would have limited effect if it were not for the Information Revolution. Today, we all feel ourselves to be awash in an infinite sea of information: we all feel that we believe today may be rendered foolish or obsolete by something that appears in the next wave of new information. And we’ve all had the experience of being caught out by something we didn’t know, because nobody can keep up with it all. So, in a self-protective spirit, we all tend to adopt a position of “I’ll wait and see”, rather than of commitment. But living like that blurs the distinction between what we actually know and what we only think we know, or what we believe at the moment. So facts and opinions don’t look greatly different to us; and it is this that lends experiential plausibility to the ideology of relativism.

Opining About Opinions

Tom: Two other interesting factoids from Pew’s research: (1) once people have (possibly incorrectly) labeled a statement as ‘factual’, they overwhelmingly believe it is accurate; and (2) people tend to disagree with factual statements they incorrectly label as opinions.

IC: Right. I’ve found that too. But “opinion” is a double-edged term for people these days. When you say, “That’s just your opinion,” it means something completely dismissive — and especially, that since your claim fails to correspond to any common truth, I have no need to care what you say. But when it’s in the phrase, “That’s my opinion,” it often implies, “You have absolutely no justification for denying me my freedom to believe whatever I want or find congenial to believe, you Neo-Nazi.”

Tom: That’s quite true, and it may be related to the weird willingness of many young people today to tolerate every possible form of diversity EXCEPT diversity of opinion. In their way of thinking, your opinion and mine are malleable things which they may bend by force of law into whatever shapes they consider reasonable, while their own opinions are sacrosanct. It has more to do with wielding power than with holding a coherent intellectual position.

Strong Convictions, Completely Misinformed

Anyway, that willingness Pew observes to quickly agree or disagree (rather than to reserve judgment, which used to be thought prudent back in the day) would not be a problem except that they’ve already established that three out of four people are incapable of correctly categorizing fact and opinion in the first place. So you’ve got great numbers of people walking around with very strong opinions that are, in all likelihood, completely misinformed.

IC: Oh, yes. In fact, the whole point of the second use of “opinion” — as in “That’s my opinion” — is to put up a wall against the idea that facts from the real world are relevant to the quality of the speaker’s viewpoint. The fact that my opinion is gratuitous, unsupported by reality, or even foolish is fended off with the claim, “Well, it’s mine,” as if the speaker were somehow supremely important to the justification of the statement, or even as if the speaker’s having taken personal ownership of his own stupidity could suddenly make it dignified.

I can’t count the number of people I’ve talked to who, when faced with an uncomfortable but easily verifiable truth, simply resort to a defiant, “Well, my opinion is …”

Opinion as Imposition

Tom: And I’ll go you one further, though Pew doesn’t demonstrate it, and that is that I’m pretty sure there’s a significant overlap between the sort of person who is incapable of distinguishing fact and opinion and the sort of person who defiantly wishes to impose their own views on others without the slightest sense of humility or acceptance of the possibility that they might just be wrong. I can’t prove that, of course, but it’s certainly my experience that there is no reliable correlation between intensity of conviction and the amount of real information backing it. Some very convinced people are quite well informed; many others are equally opinionated but appallingly ignorant.

So it looks to me like Pew has now established with data something we’ve been observing for a while, and something that has been having an increasingly profound effect on our society and on our interactions with one another.

Bifurcating Faith and Reason

But here’s the obvious question: Are Christians immune to this sort of ignorant dogmatism?

IC: No, of course not. Because they’re human beings, and it’s one of the things human beings do. Faced with the angst caused by so many cynical and indifferent voices in the world around them, Christians have also (sometimes, and in some places) resorted to asserting their opinion as if it were the best defense against facts. One of the key areas in which this is expressed is in the bifurcated view of faith and reason, wherein faith is said not to be comparable to reason, so reason can no longer pose any threat to faith, and faith is not permitted to speak into matters deemed to deal exclusively with reason, such as science, logic or even factual daily life.

Tom: That’s certainly true, but our faith at its core is rational and logical. It doesn’t require us to leap to its defense with unsupportable dogma, and it is our daily lives it was designed to transform, not just our imaginations, emotions and intellects. That’s provided we are prepared to seek out the truth for ourselves in scripture rather than absorb it second-hand, either via “The Church”, as many have done through the centuries, and as many more do today within evangelicalism by throwing themselves lock, stock and barrel behind big-name Bible teachers without continually evaluating their teaching against the word of God.

So, yeah, if we were to do a walk through church history, I bet we could find our share of ignorant dogmatists.

An Epidemic of Assertive Cluelessness

But I’m wondering whether we might have an epidemic of that sort of assertive cluelessness in our churches today, maybe even approaching the numbers in the general population?

IC: I’m not as sure about the Christian population as about the general one. But I don’t know of a reason they wouldn’t be fairly typical. If the majority of today’s Christians were well-informed of their Bibles, were astute philosophers, or were noted as above the general population in rationality, then we’d have reason to assume they had an advantage. Conservatism of disposition might make people slower to buy into relativism, but it also might not. But it's obvious that believing in the objective reality of the creator God, and in the stability of his character, would certainly incline one to believe strongly in objective truth — that much we can say.

Tom: Yeah, that’s the thing: I’m wondering if objective truth might be unusually hard to locate these days. I’m seeing an awfully large number of nominal Christians genuflecting to the spirit of the age.

The Warm Bath of Practical Atheism

IC: That’s always the trap of being in a secular society that is still strongly shaped by Christian suppositions, values and ethics: the danger of accommodation to the spirit of the age. When we stop examining scriptures to reform our lives, we slide comfortably into a warm bath of practical atheism — talking as if we believe in God, but in practice acting as if he does not exist, or as if his existence were not relevant — right alongside all the unbelievers. And because they share our history and have suppositions that are similar to some Christian values, we don’t even notice we’ve settled in with them. If the strongest form of opposition to God is not hatred but indifference, then to be “average” and apathetic is actually worse than to be willfully wicked. At least the willfully wicked are paying attention — the indifferent don’t even care.

Tom: So “spit you out of my mouth” is not rhetorical?

IC: I don’t suspect so. Hostility to God is bad, but at least shows one is taking God seriously enough to regard him as a force to be contended with. But apathy, well, that’s just complete dismissal of the Supreme Being as irrelevant to anything. Should that perhaps cause us to rethink, if we’ve assumed that apathetic (pseudo-) Christianity was better than nothing?

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