Discernment in 2021: Biblical Principles for Selecting Sources

Read the series.

Where should discerning Christians get their information? Whom should we “trust”?

Arguably, Christians shouldn’t “trust” sources at all, other than the Bible. We should consult sources on different sides of an issue and always engage our critical thinking skills. But there’s a reality we have to grapple with: nobody has enough time to personally research every important topic. Even if we were never lazy, we’d end up with favorite information conduits we draw from on a regular basis.

We had better choose well.

The sources we consult regularly become our leaders and teachers to some degree, and we’ll tend to be like them.

He also told them a parable: “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? 40 A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher.” (Luke 6:39–40)

What we listen to, watch, or read on a regular basis influences our attitudes, assumptions, and biases.

Bad company corrupts good morals. (1 Cor 15:33)

Discernment depends on good sources of information, but, at the same time, choosing good sources requires discernment. This may seem paradoxical, but it’s really not. It’s like a spiral staircase you can enter at different points. No Christian begins the climb with zero discernment and zero good sources.

This article looks at using discernment to choose good sources and also at choosing good sources to grow in discernment.

First, some context.

What, why, how

The adult Sunday School class I began early in 2020 looked at Christian discernment under three headings that we cycled through repeatedly, adding and refining along the way:

  • What: better understanding what discernment is
  • Why: better understanding why it’s important and why we need to work at it
  • How: better understanding the skills, habits and attitudes of discernment

With a similar approach in mind, here’s a working definition of discernment.

Discernment is, at its core, seeing the differences between three sets of things:

  • Good/right vs. bad/wrong (Heb 5:14b, 1 Thess 5:21)
  • Truth vs. error (1 John 4:3-6)
  • More important vs. less important (e.g., Matt 23:23-24, 1 Cor 12:31)

In short, discernment is the skill of recognizing what’s good, right, true and most important. The ability to recognize what’s bad, wrong, false and of secondary importance is the flipside. Discernment is essentially the same thing as wisdom.

3 Biblical Qualities of Better Sources

1. Better sources are harder to find.

Proverbs is a platinum mine of insights into human nature, and one of the nuggets we find there is that humans have a built-in tendency to be distracted from where knowledge can truly be found. NIV’s rendering of Proverbs 17:24 is especially helpful:

A discerning person keeps wisdom in view, but a fool’s eyes wander to the ends of the earth. (Prov 17:24, emphasis added)

Wisdom can be found in many places (Prov 8:1-3), but foolishness can be found in many more! In Proverbs 17:24, the “fool” is simply someone failing to exercise source-discernment: he’s looking for smart in all the wrong places—the easy places.

Proverbs 2 pictures the principle as digging for treasure.

… if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, 4 if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, 5 then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. (Prov 2:3–5, emphasis added)

If we want to find truth in the daily cacophony of conflicting claims, we should expect to find it in places that take a little work. The more dazzling and passive a source is, the less likely we are to get good information from it.

Easier Sources

  • TV, Radio
  • Twitter, Facebook, Parler, etc.
  • Images, memes, video, soundbites
  • Viewing and listening

Harder Sources

  • Publications
  • In-depth news sites, analysis
  • Books, articles, conversations with informed people
  • Reading

Not every video is a lower quality source than every article, but in general, the easy stuff is the least fruitful stuff, so what we need is less passive viewing and listening vs. more mentally-active reading.

When it comes to sources, the lowest life form out there is undoubtedly the social media meme. If it’s in a meme on Facebook, it’s almost certainly untrue or true but misleading.

The more reliable sources don’t just fall in our laps. They’re hidden treasures that require effort to find and take in.

2. Better sources tell hard truths.

Proverbs reveals that the best sources are willing to tell us things we don’t want to hear—things that challenge us and make us uncomfortable about ourselves. The keyword is “reproof.”

The ear that listens to life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise. (Prov 15:31)

A scoffer does not like to be reproved; he will not go to the wise. (Prov 15:12)

Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid. (Prov 12:1)

“Reproof” includes the groups, ideologies, denominations, ministries, movements, or political parties we see ourselves as belonging to. Its target is first, me, and second, us.

But reproof is in short supply these days.

Imagine a ballgame. It’s a lot like many real ballgames, but more intensely polarized. Two teams are on the field, and everybody in the stands is a passionate fan of one of them. In response to the other team’s actions, they only jeer. In response to their own team’s actions, they only cheer. Their own team can do no wrong. The other team can do no right.

Reproof is the opposite of this jeer-and-cheer scene, but the media—social, as well as TV and radio—are full of sources that never do anything else. These sources exist at both ends of the social-political spectrum (rarely in the middle, not coincidentally). When the jeer-and-cheer sources on the right criticize conservatives or Republicans, they commonly cast their targets as actually playing for the other team.

To these people, there is never anything wrong with their own team. In the language of Proverbs 15:12, they’re scoffers who hate reproof. In the language of Proverbs 12:1, they’re stupid.

Scripture teaches that if we’re wise, we actively seek out voices that are willing to tell us uncomfortable truths about what we—or our movement or group—are lacking. The wise don’t behave as if their own team is perfect.

Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him. (Prov 26:12)

3. Better sources possess genuine expertise.

Expertise is just specialized knowledge. When we’re looking for good sources of information on a specific question, genuine experts are those who have put in substantial time and work focused on that subject area. They have learning, usually credentials, but they also have relevant experience. If they’re at the top of their areas of expertise, there will usually be evidence of widespread respect from people who disagree with them as well as those who agree.

Whenever people allow themselves to see it, they respect competence, hard work, skill, and accomplishment. For Christians, this respect is more than a positive human tendency due to common grace. For us, it’s a calling.

Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise, and apply your heart to my knowledge (Prov 22:17; see also Prov 13:20)

The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes than seven men who can answer sensibly. (Prov 26:16)

Who do these verses tell us to listen to? “The wise,” and “seven men who can answer sensibly.”

The latter is what we today might call a panel of experts.

Processing claims of expertise in our culture is a complex topic, and I’ll probably circle back to it. What’s clear, though, is that good source-discernment seeks out the views of people most likely to really know.

Usually, political pundits are only experts in punditry. The same is true of CEOs and business, athletes and their sports, entertainers and their acts.

We normally see this easily. When we need surgery, or legal representation, or new wiring in the house, we don’t ask a random person on Facebook. But, for lots of very frail, foolish, human reasons, we abandon sense when facing many of the hot-button issues of the day. Suddenly, we see random social media posters, relatives, or political pundits as experts on viruses, vaccines, voting machines, vote verification, state law, and constitutional law.

Christians should do better. There are at least “seven people” who actually know what they’re talking about, and these should top our source list.

Photo: Jainath Ponnala on Unsplash.

Aaron Blumer Bio


Aaron Blumer, SharperIron’s second publisher, is a Michigan native and graduate of Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC) and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). He and his family live in a small town in western Wisconsin, not far from where he pastored Grace Baptist Church for thirteen years. He is employed in customer service for UnitedHealth Group and teaches high school rhetoric (and sometimes logic and government) at Baldwin Christian School.

1756 reads
3437 reads

There are 21 Comments

Bert Perry's picture

Better sources don't expect to be taken seriously just because of their reputation.  They try, as often as is possible, to point to outside points of reference as they're making their argument.  You see this a lot with Paul as well--"does not the very nature of things teach you..." and so on.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Bert Perry wrote:

Better sources don't expect to be taken seriously just because of their reputation.  They try, as often as is possible, to point to outside points of reference as they're making their argument.  You see this a lot with Paul as well--"does not the very nature of things teach you..." and so on.

Solid point. "Because I say so" is always a bad sign, though there is sometimes a fine line between "here are my reasons, and by the way I should know, because I..." vs. "because I say so."

An appeal to genuine expertise is a valid argument, but the better experts don't think that should stand alone or that it's a substitute for "here's why..."

I was thinking Apostle Paul doesn't work all that well as an example, because he has a whole different kind of authority. It's an authority of doctrinal expertise, but it's also the authority of being a divinely appointed spokesman for Christ Himself. So, "becasue I say so," would be entirely valid for him.

But if we look at what he actually does in the epistles, he usually offers logical arguments and appeals to reasons beyond his authority. So, as Bert, pointed out, that's significant. For one thing, it's healthier for those on the receiving end, because instead of just saying "believe it because I said so," he's saying, "Think about it; believe it because you can see yourself that it's true." He's respecting the intelligence of his hearers/readers.

But there is a whole lot of implicit "because I said so." It's tacit. He doesn't say "believe X because I say so;" he just says "X is how it is." This is the same thing, but generally less annoying [to our pride] than tacking on "because I say so."

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Probably next in this series is a piece on practical tips for good source-discernment. There are more biblical principles, too, though... so it may be a mix.

But I want to write something practical enough that you could pass it on to your aunt or your grandkids or your deacon--or whoever else you know who seems to be having trouble filtering out all the attractive, true-sounding, true-feeling misinformation we're constantly showered with these days. A lot of that is going to better sources in the first place, or at least going to good sources to verify, in the second place.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Bert Perry's picture

.....is that Christ typically does not appeal to Himself as authority outside of a reference that people will understand.  That's what His parables are, after all.  That's what His references to the Torah, the Psalms, and the like are.

We can debate about whether the fallacy is "appeal to authority" or "appeal to false authority", but from experience, my rule of thumb is that when someone just says "trust me, I'm the expert", but doesn't provide outside points of reference, I'm going to check his facts, even if there's a Nobel prize hanging on the wall.  Real experts are those skilled in making the argument.

Some examples from the Nobel; beyond the obvious fact that the Peace Prize has (Obama, Arafat, etc.) become a (rather bad) joke, you've got the fact that the Economics (Sveriges Riksbank) prize isn't being made proud by Paul Krugman, and really a bunch of others.  Chemistry and physics are OK, but then....literature.  Accolades and honor from others are not a sure sign that someone knows what they are doing.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

JDen's picture

Excellent, Aaron! One thing that I would add is the need to go to original or primary sources. In my history classes, they distinguished between primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources are the actual fragments of history (diaries, letters, and so forth), whereas secondary sources are what historians say. I think that a similar contrast could be made between primary and secondary news sources. Primary sources would be those that actually are the reason for the news (speeches, Court opinions, etc.), whereas secondary sources would be the regurgitation of that news (TV, newspaper, even social media).

I found this distinction to be important when I was researching Supreme Court opinions on California churches. The news websites made it sound as though California churches were free to meet much sooner than was actually the case. Only by reading the actual Court opinions could I get an accurate understanding.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Court opinions can be difficult to understand--or easy to misunderstand--but I don't disagree with your point. I steer people toward "almost primary" sources for a lot of these things... when the primary sources are too technical or too hard to access. But there's usually plenty between the beginning and the end of the info chain, and anything is better than starting at the end, where all of the analysis, and interpretation, and context are already done or assumed.

Which reminds me of the difference between news and opinion: when you get far enough from the primary sources, the difference disappears. It may be subtle, and pretend to be news, but you're getting mostly opinion at that point.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Kevin Subra's picture

Your article reminds me of books by Neil Postman: Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly. Both address the loss of discernment and the effects of technology (as opposed to reading).

Thanks, Aaron.

For the Shepherd and His sheep,
Kevin
Grateful husband of a Proverbs 31 wife, and the father of 15 blessings.
http://captive-thinker.blogspot.com

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

As worked up as he was about TV, I can't imagine what he'd say about Facebook and Twitter!

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Real experts are those skilled in making the argument.

I think we have to be careful on this point. Sometimes we're just paying attention to people who talk better. For example, the most expert mechanic isn't necessarily the one who is best at explaining to me what needs fixing. The latter is a better businessman, for sure, but he might not be the best mechanic.

Along similar lines, I've sat under some teachers over the years I believe knew their subject area better than some other teachers, but they had little or no teaching ability--which requires a good bit of empathetic imagination, to look through student's eyes and anticipate what they'll have difficulty with, what sort of language to use, etc.

The "not necessarily good at making logical arguments but definitely know their thing" phenomenon is broadly true, including medicine. I as going to say including law, but law is mostly about reasoning, so in that case, an exception. There are a few others.

So, while "because I said so and I know what I'm talking about" is always a red flag, it's often not a show stopper. We have to be careful that it's not our own arrogance that insists, "what you say has to include reasons that make sense to me or you're not an expert." That's just pride... and a real barrier to learning.

One other way this goes wrong...  Sometimes the reasons why are included and people simply don't see them. If I had a nickel for every time I provided a well reasoned argument and people responded with "Well, I disagree," and nothing more--as if I merely stated my opinion with no supportting facts and reasoning--I'd be up there with Bill Gates (and joining him in plotting to take over the world through chip-infused vaccines everyone takes in response to the disease I created (for the conspiracy-minded--that's a joke!)).

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Aaron Blumer wrote:

So, while "because I said so and I know what I'm talking about" is always a red flag, it's often not a show stopper. We have to be careful that it's not our own arrogance that insists, "what you say has to include reasons that make sense to me or you're not an expert." That's just pride... and a real barrier to learning.

It's actually the attitude that's the show stopper.  As soon as an expert takes the "because I said so and I know what I'm talking about" tack, and is not interested at all in supporting their argument, as you mention doing in your post, that is a big red flag that may indicate that he is hiding something or bluffing.  All of our nonsense detectors should be going off when that happens.  It doesn't mean that the expert doesn't know what he is talking about, but it sure leads to suspicion, and rightly so, in my opinion.

Quote:

I'd be up there with Bill Gates (and joining him in plotting to take over the world through chip-infused vaccines everyone takes in response to the disease I created (for the conspiracy-minded--that's a joke!)).

No need for fake conspiracies when the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation is actually supporting things like "A Pathway to Equitable Math Instruction."  That tells me most of what I need to know about what comes out of their charitable giving.

P.S. Thinking back, I noticed that back when I was in school, the professors that knew what they were talking about didn't have to toot their own horn, or tell us that they were experts and knew what they were talking about, or even list out their qualifications and degrees.  They simply let their competence and expertise speak for itself.  I can't think of even one that pulled the "I'm the expert" card that was a professor that earned respect from any of the students for their expertise.

Dave Barnhart

Bert Perry's picture

Having been in a graduate level engineering program myself, and having written a few papers myself, the thing that comes to mind is that every scholar who earns an advanced degree needs to be skilled in communicating those facts to his thesis committee.  Now that doesn't mean that what he does ought to be easily understood by the common man, but it does mean that any real expert is skilled at pointing to outside references that make his point for him.  

Really, what Dave says.  If an "expert" presents nothing besides his own opinion, that is a big warning sign.  The experts I work with don't do that--or if they do, they quickly find themselves on the outs in their organization.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Don't disagree about academic experts. Communication and reasoning are part of the expertise.

Not all expertise is academic, though... and I'm not really talking about academics. Most people interact with experts in the popular literature/media.

We have a lot of farmers around here. Some of them are very good at explaining why they do things a certain way. Many are not. I don't for a minute second guess them on their methods. I know I know nothing about it.

For reasons I've already noted, expertise in A may not correlate with ability to communicate A or explain the reasoning for A.

I really think that frequently we're just anti-authority on some of these things. Love our individualism and self-sufficiency too much.

So... these statements are both true:

  • Experts should provide reasons in understandable language to help persuade the uninformed (if they don't, reality is that people are too proud to take their word for it)
  • The uninformed should be humble and accept that they will not always understand (only fools think they know better than a person with years of achievement in a field just because that person hasn't provided a satisfying explanation)

If my doctor looks at a mole and says "It's either A or B and neither are anything to worry about... unless it grows or changes color, then we'll know I was wrong."  I'm absolutely taking his word on that, because I'm not arrogant enough to think I know better. He looks at more moles in a month than I have in my entire life.

It's another full length post, but humility is one of the cardinal attitudes of discernment. It's not "check your critical thinking at the door." It's know how much you don't know and respect those who do.

Having been in a graduate level engineering program myself, and having written a few papers myself, the thing that comes to mind is that every scholar who earns an advanced degree needs to be skilled in...

Did you notice what you did there? You made a claim to expertise on what good scholarship looks like, based on your experience. It's a valid claim. I'm just pointing out that you expect people to you believe you based on your experience. We all do. We're often right, but it also goes the other way in fields we lack experience in.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Aaron Blumer wrote:

We have a lot of farmers around here. Some of them are very good at explaining why they do things a certain way. Many are not. I don't for a minute second guess them on their methods. I know I know nothing about it.

I wouldn't know anything either, and I wouldn't presume to tell them how to take care of their farms.  If, however, I was starting out in farming, and a farmer told me "you must do it this way," but couldn't or wouldn't explain it to me, I wouldn't just accept his word for it, at least not without substantial research of my own that indicates he might be right, even if there are competing experts.  I'm not 4 any more, and treating me like I am isn't a matter of the "correct amount of humility."

We think it's a great thing if someone asks a 4-year old, "Why are you doing that?" and the answer is "My daddy said so."  There's no reason for the dad to try to give a 4-year-old all the reasons something is done.  If that's the answer a 14-year old gives (and that's all his dad would give him), there's a problem.

Quote:

So... these statements are both true:

  • Experts should provide reasons in understandable language to help persuade the uninformed (if they don't, reality is that people are too proud to take their word for it)
  • The uninformed should be humble and accept that they will not always understand (only fools think they know better than a person with years of achievement in a field just because that person hasn't provided a satisfying explanation)

I'd agree.  But if the supposed expert refuses to give any reasons, whether he is a farmer, doctor, or theoretical physicist, then I believe I am on solid ground finding another expert in the field to listen to who is credible.  That doesn't mean I think I would know more than any of those three, but with that attitude, I still wouldn't be inclined to trust them any longer.

Quote:

Did you notice what you did there? You made a claim to expertise on what good scholarship looks like, based on your experience. It's a valid claim. I'm just pointing out that you expect people to you believe you based on your experience. We all do. We're often right, but it also goes the other way in fields we lack experience in.

I can't speak for Bert, but I sometimes use that construct too.  However, I have no expectation that people automatically believe me or take my advice.  What I do think is that the reference to my experience will give them a reason to not dismiss what I say out of hand.  I'm fairly expert in my sub-field of networking in Computer Science, and I suspect I know more than most of the general populace I meet on that topic.  That doesn't mean that what I say is always 100% correct (especially when there is more than 1 good answer), and I would have no issue with someone listening to my advice, doing their research/thinking on the matter, and then making a different decision.  I still might not agree, but my ego is also not so fragile that I think my "expertise" MUST be believed simply because I have >30 years of experience in a field that they don't.

Dave Barnhart

Bert Perry's picture

Aaron, what I'm saying is beyond just my own experience.  It's simply how earned doctorates and masters' degrees work.  If you don't have outside references, you can forget about that advanced degree.  For that matter, freshman rhetoric papers in reputable schools work the exact same way.  No references, big fat F on the front.  Even people majoring in things with the word "studies" in the name of their degree use outside references that can be tracked.  Go to work in the professions, and you will likewise need to back up your assertions with outside references.  

So to argue that there are real experts out there who don't know how to make their case simply ignores how experts are created and nurtured.  And in that context, the person who simply comes in and says "listen to me, I'm the expert" is essentially showing first off that he's ignoring all the training he received.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

So to argue that there are real experts out there who don't know how to make their case simply ignores how experts are created and nurtured.  And in that context, the person who simply comes in and says "listen to me, I'm the expert" is essentially showing first off that he's ignoring all the training he received.  

I've already answered this argument. See farmers vs. academic experts. Not all experts are academics.... thank God!

I'm not disagreeing with the idea that "because I said so" is a red flag. But I'm pushing back on overly broad dismissal of appeals to authority because I'm convinced our cultural imbalance is in the other direction. Egalitarianism has made us all overconfident of our ability to outthink people with experience and achievement in their fields. We frequently are too ignorant to even know how much we don't know.

It's a very Western and American way to think, but it's not a particularly Christian way to think.

But let me get back to the concrete level: should we never take someone's word for it when they say "just trust me, I'm an expert" and you know they really are extensively experienced and respected in their field?

Here's why I say can't support that position, in addition to what I've already said:

  • This is how we all grow up: our parents tell us things are true and we survive because we take their word for it (and/or because they back their instructions with consequences). Because we're stubborn fools at heart, mom and dad have to use coercion quite a bit (see Proverbs on that).
    • Here's the argument: if I needed to trust experts at 1 yr old, because there was so much I didn't know about the world and didn't know enough to judge the good and bad in my sources, did I never need to do this at age 12? How about age 22? 52?  Are we qualitatively different at middle age than we were as babes in arms, or just quantitatively different? It's not obvious to me that being middle aged means I'm now capable of always judging for myself whether an expert is right or wrong in his claims... and that he is never entitled to expect me to simply believe him.
  • It depends on what's at stake: in many situations, there is little to lose by trusting someone. Plus, in some situations, there is no time to do analysis.
    • In November an expert told me I had melanoma and that I should have it removed along with a bunch of surrounding skin. Since this kind of cancer can spread to organs, I didn't want to take the time to obtain first hand knowledge of whether he was right. (I did read up on melanoma... with sudden intense interest... but not because I doubted the doc's assessment)
    • Truth: I didn't even hesitate. All I had to lose was some skin. I wasn't going to ask the doc to prove to me that the sample he looked at had melanoma cells in it or what his reasons were for thinking so. (It helps that the procedure was also cheap... so there weren't finances at stake either.)
    • So, if there is a lot of time to think about the matter and there is a lot at stake, sure dismiss the experts who give you the "because I said so." Otherwise, maybe not.
  • Third argument: I'm going back to arrogance. Are humans capable of wrongly insisting that experts make their case in language, and using reasoning, they personally find acceptable? As a school teacher, I saw teens do this all the time, sometimes in response to me, sometimes in response to sources on topics we were debating. The sophomoric perspective is, "if you can't make it sound convincing to me, it's hogwash." Truth: Sometimes we just don't understand the reasons why because we lack the background. If you've ever watched high schoolers debate predestination and free will, for example, you know what I mean!
    • If anyone can make this error, why not me? Why not all of us?
    • If we could all make this error as kids, why should we think more years of life renders us impervious to proud stubborn stupidity?
  • A fourth argument: we all actually trust experts without knowing specific reasons all the time.
    • I take my car in for brake work. Mechanic says it's fixed. He might say this or that was damaged and he replaced it, etc., but I'm totally taking his word for the central claim: that they now work. I even get in the car and pull into traffic without knowing exactly why that's safe. I'm mostly taking his word for it. People do this sort of thing daily with...
      • making lasagna: there's a recipe; the creator says it's yummy... usually that's about all there is to it. We decided to give it a try.
      • lawn weed management: the packages says if I spray this on my lawn in the spring, I won't have so many dandelions.
      • we all believe that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but have any of us asked "how do we know it wasn't 1490 or 1480 or 1499?"
      • the weather widget says the temp is 45 and likelihood of rain today is 90%. We don't absolutely believe it's going to rain or that it's necessarily 45 degrees out, but we're confident it's not 75 or 25 and that the probability of rain is high.
      • tax guy or tax software says tax liability for 2020 adds up to X and a W2 says we paid Y and that we're entitled to refund Z. Great. Transmit. Done. (OK, some years my taxes have been complicated enough that I read several IRS publications (pure joy!) to see if the software got it right... very rarely. Who usually does that?)
      • local internet provider says if I drill a 1" hole and mount a 24" x 24" piece of plywood inside by house near the hole, I can save 100$ on fiber installation. Hole drilled, wood mounted. Never asked how they know that.
      • dentist says tooth has decay and needs drilling; nowadays he probably shows you an xray (though they didn't used to do that, interestingly), but you still have to trust him that the decay is bad enough to need to drilling out and that the xray machine is working, and that he has the skills to do the job.... and we generally do all that without hesitation.
      • worker at the greenhouse tells me a good plant for my low-light basement office is a ZZ plant. I'm not going to stake my life on it or anything, but I believe her enough to buy it and give it a try.
      • a Greek scholar says this particular genitive construction has this grammatical nuance... (OK, sometimes you can dig into that and see if it makes sense, but usually the data and arguments are so esoteric, it might as well be... well, Greek)
      • I could multiply examples all day. We live trusting people without asking how they know what they implicitly or explicitly claim is true.
  • Finally (I didn't realize I had so much to say on this topic!)... trusting experts isn't actually binary. We don't either trust them or don't trust them. There's always a "trust for what?" as well as a degree of trust. In a way, I do sort of stake my life on my mechanic being right about my brakes. But not really. There's lots of metadata that supports that decision: you rarely hear stories of people getting killed on the highway due to brake failure right after having their brakes fixed; and I do get to test them a little in the parking lot on the way out of the shop.... and he's not going to survive as a mechanic if he's wrong about that sort of thing... etc.  
    • So... there is always metadata that informs a decision to trust. If an expert says "take my word for it" he's really saying "take my word for it in light of all this metadata that suggests you should."
    • There is also a degree of trust: in most of the daily examples above, I wouldn't stake my life on their being right. The level of certainty isn't that high.
    • Which dovetails with the contingency factor: trust for what? I trust the expertise of my mechanic for the purposes of driving my car. I trust my dermatologist the the purposes of making a decision about minor surgery. If a doc wants to take out an organ, we'd all get a second opinion if we have time to do that. So there's both degree and contingency in that situation.
    • I trust the consensus of experts on masks vs. coronavirus for what? For making the decision whether to wear a mask or not for that purpose. Very little is at stake in that decision. The trust is an easy one.
      • If the exact same experts told me I could enter a room full of people infected with megadeathvirus-21 with a 99% fatality rate, and the mask would protect me, would I trust them enough to mask up and enter the room? Not if I didn't have to!

So, no, in these matters, "never" just trust the expert is not a good word. Sometimes we should. And there's always metadata anyway, so it's never purely trust in "because I said so" (except when we're little kids and don't even have any metadata).

Given our obsessive individualism/resentment of achievement as a culture, I don't even want to emphasize distrust. What I want to emphasize is critical thinking skills + humility (and community)... both-and, not either-or.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Too much in your last post to deal with at once, but I'll hit some highlights.

Are we qualitatively different at age 12, 22, and 52?  I'd say absolutely yes, and the difference is wisdom, not just amount of knowledge (quantitatively different).  Someone who is 1 (maybe even through 4-5, although there are massive changes there as well) has no way to be able to judge the quality of the information they are receiving.  Those that have gained more wisdom and experience do, and often with a fair amount of accuracy.

Does our judgment of someone's expertise depend on what's at stake?  Absolutely, but there's often more than one factor.  If the risk is just a little skin, as you put it, then there's not much risk in trusting what the doctor says about the melanoma and having it immediately removed.  If he told you you were going to lose your whole nose, for example, you might want a 2nd (or even 3rd) opinion on just immediately removing what he claims is the affected area.

Arrogance.  Will we always recognize when something seems off from what we are being told?  No, of course not, but again, the decision not to trust something that sounds wrong is not just arrogance -- the little voice telling us that something is wrong is something that most of us have learned to listen to over long years of experience.  And yes, that works differently for someone our age as opposed to a 1-year old with no experience.  But listening to that voice and making a different decision from the expert is not necessarily just arrogance.

We trust experts all the time.  Yes we do, but again I'd argue it's similar to the doctor with the melanoma.  If I take my car in to a shop I usually use and all of a sudden they tell me that a repair I had spec'd out at say, $1000, is actually going to be $5000, they'd better do some detailed explanation or I'm going to check with more than one expert before I necessarily take what they say at face value.  If the yard guy wants to treat my yard for dandelions, but in return, I'm going to have at least a year of dead grass, I'm going to want to weigh the different factors.

Finally, consensus on masks.  I shouldn't even have to say this since it's been obvious in the news over the past year, but the direction has been contradictory, and we now have a year's worth of numbers to see that Covid is not what was originally predicted, and that lockdown and forced mask policies haven't made the difference that was claimed.  Seeing actual evidence should make anyone old enough to have learned how to think start questioning when 2.2 million U.S. deaths were predicted and we now have 500,000, that something is really off.  Is 500,000 still bad?  Sure, so we then look at risk categories.  I'm no disease expert, but I can see the numbers for the past year, and I can make my own judgment about how much risk I wish to take.  It's that simple.  Honestly right now, I wish I did live in SD, since it's clear that not implementing all the worst case precautions has not turned that state into a Covid Armageddon, and they've kept their economy alive.  Obviously, there are differences, like population density, between SD and NY, but that's just more information for me to consider.  Where I live now is in between those two extremes, so I am making some different personal decisions about being careful than I would make should I live in either NY or SD.

You're absolutely right that sometimes we should trust the experts.  However, contrary to your point of view, both human nature and what I see in our culture now makes the default setting for me to be distrust, not trust.  When I was little, I often heard the expression "In God we trust, all others pay cash."  I didn't really understand that then, but now, I understand it more each year.

 

Dave Barnhart

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

BTW, your example of lawn weed management is an interesting one for me personally.  At my previous home, we used a lawn maintenance company.  They were one with an excellent reputation, and a lot of very happy customers.  I chose to use them for my yard.  For about 5 years, I got great service from them, and my yard looked great.  One year, something they did killed my entire yard.  And it wasn't just me.  About 10-15 other homes in my neighborhood had the exact same thing happen.  I never found out if it was an idiot who did the yard servicing, or wrongly marked chemicals (my theory), or what.  However, something had happened to put a dent in my trust.

They took good care of me, and for over a year did everything to restore my lawn without cost to me.  However, it was almost 1.5 years before my lawn looked good again.  After that, my wife and I always asked them about what they were putting on the yard when they called to let us know that service was coming.  Did we understand any more about what each specific chemical did to the yard?  No, not at all.  However, we no longer had the same amount of trust, and we hoped that them telling us and giving more explanation might make them be more careful.

Since then, we've moved, and I chose to use them again at my new home.  However, I still want to know exactly what is going in to each application, and I've already once called them out to do an evaluation after something didn't look right following an application.  I'm still not an expert in yard chemicals, nor do I play one on TV, but I stay much more in tune with what is happening and question more.  Is that arrogance?  I don't think so.  It's just that experience has taught me to not just simply trust.

I could give further personal examples from medical treatment, car repair, bad sermons, etc.  And I'm sure I'm not the only one that has learned to trust less after being burned.

Dave Barnhart

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

We're mostly saying the same thing, I think.

We trust experts all the time.  Yes we do, but again I'd argue it's similar to the doctor with the melanoma.  If I take my car in to a shop I usually use and all of a sudden they tell me that a repair I had spec'd out at say, $1000, is actually going to be $5000, they'd better do some detailed explanation or I'm going to check with more than one expert before I necessarily take what they say at face value.  If the yard guy wants to treat my yard for dandelions, but in return, I'm going to have at least a year of dead grass, I'm going to want to weigh the different factors.

This is exactly the point I was trying to make on that. Trust is not binary.

You're absolutely right that sometimes we should trust the experts.  However, contrary to your point of view, both human nature and what I see in our culture now makes the default setting for me to be distrust, not trust.  When I was little, I often heard the expression "In God we trust, all others pay cash."  I didn't really understand that then, but now, I understand it more each year.

I don't disagree with this either... much.

The default I was trying to make a case for in that overly long comment was neither trust or distrust but critical thinking skills + humility and community. I suppose that adds up to "distrust," but I think the nuance matters because "distrust" so easily morphs into the sort of secrecy/skepticism/hyper-individualism blend I'm seeing way too much of over the last year.

I'm still struggling to fully understand it and find words for it, but I'm reacting to two mindsets that seem to quite often go together:

  • The attitude that the truth is always a hidden, sectret thing that only a few are wise enough to get at by rejecting whatever they perceive to be the mainstream narrative ("Oh yeah? That's what They want you to think!"... the implication being "But I/we few know better!")
  • The attitude that I don't need to depend on anybody. This one is tricky because I know too many people who never seem to do their own thinking. For these, everything is "Who do I trust?" then they just lock in to their chosen authority. I'm not for that. But I also see the polar opposite: "I am qualified to judge the truth of any claim, no matter how specialized the claim might be." And this is the arrogance part I'm pushing back on.

Maybe the truth to focus on is that discernment requires that we reject the idea that trust is all or nothing. I appreciated what Snoeberger had to say on that recently.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

dcbii's picture

EditorModerator

Aaron Blumer wrote:

We're mostly saying the same thing, I think.

[...]

The attitude that I don't need to depend on anybody.  [...]  "I am qualified to judge the truth of any claim, no matter how specialized the claim might be." And this is the arrogance part I'm pushing back on.

I guess this is where the core of our disagreement, such as it is, lies.  While I don't feel I'm necessarily qualified to "judge the truth of any claim...," I'm still responsible for judging the truth of every claim that affects me, nonetheless, unless I am willing to do as your opposite person does -- pick an authority and just do what they say.  When the logical result of trusting that expert causes really consequential and/or expensive changes (like cutting off a major body part to stop cancer, or shutting down massive amounts of business in an attempt to stop an illness), I can't simply just throw up my hands, and say "Well, I'm not an expert, and he claims to be, so..."

So what do we do when we are unqualified, but it's a topic we need to at least partially understand?  We find other experts, research what we can find written about the topic, talk with others who have also had to do this judgment, etc.  In short, we try to find a way to give us enough information, even though we won't be expert, to be able to make some kind of judgment.

To use the current Covid mess as an example, back last year, I was pretty much OK with getting behind the "two weeks to flatten the curve" initiative, as I think most people were.  The idea wasn't that the virus could be stopped, but that we would accept some temporary restrictions in order to let hospitals and medical professionals prepare so we wouldn't be overrun.  For such a relatively inexpensive and reasonable-sounding restriction, with pretty large benefits, I didn't need to do more than trust the experts recommending such.

As a deacon in my church, however, tasked with helping to keep our church functioning during all this, when all of a sudden those "two weeks" turned into something indefinite, with no endgame in sight, for a disease that while deadly, was not the death sentence of an airborne rabies or ebola, and a supposed goal (stopping everything that could result in even a single death) that seemed frankly both utopian and authoritarian, I had to start educating myself.  When stores started restricting certain items but not others, and big box stores could stay open, but mom and pop shops could not, and churches could not meet for any reason, even though AA and similar were OK, I had to start considering whether what we were facing was a result of "expertise" or whether it was something else.  My suspicions were heightened when doctors started recommending different treatment regimens to help slow or mitigate the disease, and their recommendations were not just countered by the "experts," but deleted from the internet wherever possible, so they could not be heard.  This was no longer doing science, where many options and solutions to a problem were tried and considered, and contrary evidence is considered and discarded if shown to be wrong, not just "disappeared" as if it never existed.  This was something else completely.  I was expected to trust those "experts" who still had a voice, and completely disregard those out of favor with Pravda.

To your point -- am I qualified to judge medical treatments for Covid?  No, of course not, and I recognize that.  Am I qualified to make judgments about actions to take for myself when experts disagree (like about school reopening) after seeing months (and now a year) of actual numbers?  Yes, I believe I am.  And so are most other adults.  They just have to exercise the skills and knowledge they do have, and not just trust that whatever comes from the authorities MUST be correct.  And when they can see the active suppression of competing points of view, everyone's nonsense detectors should be going into overdrive.

Dave Barnhart

Bert Perry's picture

For the past couple of decades, I've noticed what seems to be an increasing rate at which "the experts" say and do things which are not simply contested by other experts in the field, but are contested by more basic principles accessible to all of us.  For example, around 2005, a MN study purporting to "prove" that abstinence based sex ed didn't work did not even contain a statistical test or any attempt at a control.  In short, it wasn't a comparison at all, but rather a measurement with no attempt to put it into perspective.

When I put together an admittedly imperfect control, I found about 98% confidence of the opposite conclusion.  (hey, it's what I've done a lot for a living, Six Sigma is not just for factories and businesses)

Along the same lines, when "experts" like Dr. Fauci don't seem to have anything to say about the practice of sending COVID infectees back into nursing homes before they're cleared, I've got to wonder what else he really doesn't understand.  You miss the basics, please don't expect me to trust you on things that are more complex.

And that's why I come down very hard on the side of "real experts provide outside evidence for their claims." That's how academia works, and quite frankly, that's how Aaron's example of farming works.  Someone tells me that they need to plow 9" deep for such and such a crop or some such thing, I can ask them how they know that, and by and large, they've got a bulletin from the county ag extension, quite possibly a degree in agricultural management and references from that, and very likely counsel from a crop management service that provides certain capital like planters and combines.  Then they've got their state farming magazine and the like.  Lots of outside resources are used by the people who actually manage to stay in the business.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.