Discernment in 2021: Tips for Better Use of Sources (Part 2)

I’ve written previously about the role of good sources in the exercise of discernment. To flesh them out, I’ve also offered some practical tips: closest is best, deprioritize opinion, and look past headlines.

Here we consider three more tips for better use of sources.

4. Understand “science” and studies.

a. What science is

Science is a really big deal these days. We encounter claims labeled “the science” every day, many of them contradictory.

If “the science” is contradictory, what should we think? Two options:

  • Science is pretty much useless.
  • “Science” is a misused term.

Unfortunately, many Christians lean toward the first view. Given what science really is, though, the second option is a far better explanation.

Science is nothing more than the work of figuring out the observable bits of how the material world works. Like most other kinds of work, it’s a blessing from God and does a lot of helpful things.

Also like other kinds of work, it …

  • is never done
  • is performed by mere humans
  • often fails to accomplish the intended goals
  • often “improves” things only to later discover unintended consequences
  • is performed by highly skilled people with specialized tools and easily misunderstood by outsiders
  • is also performed by some slackers, cheats and liars.

This could also describe farming, the practice of law, investing, carpentry, accounting, truck driving and any number of other vocations. So why are we so critical of science?

b. Researchers vs. popularizers

Sources often use the phrase, “the science” with no distinction between the specialized workers who do research and the popularizers who interpret it for general audiences.

Popularizers do a vital public service, but the role comes with pressure to distort or dramatize to promote a narrative or increase ad revenue. Being good consumers of science requires us to adjust our level of certainty in light of those realities.

If we’re going to form an emphatic opinion on an issue, we should go to the trouble to gather some background and see if we can get the gist of the primary source material—the work of researchers. We might at least get an idea of whether this or that popularizer is on the right track.

Some points to keep in mind:

  • Some popularizers are true subject matter experts skilled in analysis. Others have no clue. They’re handed a piece of research and they get it wrong, and it makes it into the headlines.
  • It’s easy to think we have more background than we really do, then misunderstand a study and oversimplify—especially when there’s a conclusion we already desire.
  • Look for popularizers that avoid or openly disdain politics. If we have to take somebody’s word for it, it only makes sense to seek someone who is driven by his or her field of study rather than some other agenda.

c. Probability

I often see broad dismissal of science based on the premise that science is always changing and often wrong. The premise is certainly true. The findings of science are always probabilistic. That doesn’t justify a broadly negative view of the work. Though the claims of science are only probable, it doesn’t follow that all claims are equally uncertain.

Say you’ve broken a drill bit and need to replace it. You consider where you can find another good one in a hurry. You might find one at Home Depot or Lowes. You might find one at the Goodwill Store. You might find one at the corner gas station.

If you approached the drill bit replacement problem the way many Christians approach science these days, you’d think, “Well, all these options are only probable, so I might as well just pick a store at random—or pick the one that better fits my politics.”

This is a waste of our God-given intellect, because some options are clearly far more probable than others.

The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight. (Prov 4:7)

d. Quality of evidence

The quality of evidence plays a key role here. Some evidence supports a claim because the evidence is difficult or impossible to explain any other way. But some evidence is only consistent with a claim—nothing about it contradicts the claim, but other explanations are possible, or likely. Finally, some “evidence” is dramatic but is irrelevant to the claim.

I perused a book once that was devoted to the idea that the NIV was an evil translation. One of the major claims in the book was that the NIV translators were guilty of “changing the Word of God.” The author then cataloged a long and seemingly dramatic list of differences between the KJV and the NIV.

  • If the claim had been, “The NIV and the KJV are different,” that list would have been supportive of the claim.
  • If the claim had been, “The NIV is too different from the KJV,” the list would have been consistent with the claim.
  • Since the claim was, effectively, “English versions should never change,” the list was irrelevant to the claim.

To make discerning use of allegedly scientific claims in our day, we need to approach science fairly, distinguish between research and popularizing, resist the impulse to flatten probability, and weigh the quality of evidence.

5. Compensate for Confirmation bias.

We’ve all got bias. We approach questions with points we want to believe or disbelieve already in place. Often, we think we’ve arrived at a conclusion through the use of reason and that the case is solid, when in reality we decided before we considered evidence, then reverse-engineered the case later.

Rule of thumb: The more strongly we feel about the topic, the more aggressively we need to compensate for bias.

Bias takes many forms, but one of the most common in our instant-information and media-saturated age is confirmation bias. Wikipedia has a good definition drawn from Raymond Nickerson’s book on the topic.

Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values.

“Search for” covers source selection.

So what can we do to fight confirmation bias? We can’t erase our predispositions. We can identify them and compensate.

We used to have a scale at our house that worked pretty well for anything over 50 lbs. or so, but was pretty unresponsive for lighter items. So, to weigh luggage before a flight we had to step on the scale without the luggage, then step on it with the luggage, then figure the difference. We adjusted for bias by subtracted everything that was not luggage.

With ideas and points of view, this often involves an intentional exercise of the imagination: What would this evidence look like from the point of view of someone very different from me? What if my ideological opponent is actually a thoughtful, and “good” person—how might he be seeing the situation the way he does?

We all know what sources tend to affirm what we’ve already felt to be true, and we’re attracted to that sort of validation. So it’s a question of what we value more: certainty or truth? If we love truth, we have to welcome uncertainty and go to factual, well-reasoned sources that will challenge us. It’s the right thing to do.

6. Deprioritize unreliable sources.

There’s value in going to sources for different points of view, but that doesn’t mean everything that’s different is worth our attention.

Across the spectrum of ideas and perspectives, serious and thoughtful sources are always helpful, even when they’re wrong. Irrational, ignorant, fringe sources are a waste of time, no matter what their ideology. A “conservative” fruitcake is no better than a “progressive” one.

I’ve encountered two objections on this point:

  • Sometimes views seem extreme and nutty when they’re really not.
  • Ideological/political opponents often wrongly accuse each other of being extreme, insane or evil.

The gist of the argument seems to be that people are falsely characterized as lunatic fringe, so we shouldn’t dismiss this or that far-fetched conspiracy theory, etc.

This is a variation of probability flattening. We might call it sanity flattening. Yes, politicians and “the media” often unfairly label their opponents’ ideas extreme, insane or stupid.

It doesn’t follow that there are no extreme, insane, or stupid sources.

Folly is a joy to him who lacks sense, but a man of understanding walks straight ahead. (Prov 15:21)

Folly is a real thing, and there really are clueless people who think it’s great. They’re simply wrong.

Because everything is so politicized now, growing in discernment requires that we get better at differentiating the serious and thoughtful sources from the nutty, fringe sources, regardless of their position on the political-ideological spectrum.

We can loosely group sources into six categories:

These days, it’s probably best to sample the top left, major on the top middle for facts, and look to the top right for opinion (giving greater attention to facts than to opinion). The bottom row is a waste of time.

Caveat: Many sources don’t clearly fit in one of these boxes. But many clearly do. When looking for viewpoint diversity, it’s best to stick with the top row.

I’m often chagrined to see otherwise intelligent people continue to draw from sources that have proven themselves to be out on a limb over and over again. We’re called to do better.

The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly. (Prov 15:2)

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

Plans are established by counsel; by wise guidance wage war. (Prov 20:18)

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There are 6 Comments

dgszweda's picture

I would also state that science is always dealing with incomplete and inprecise data.  And that is primarily related to our shortcomings in how we observe and collect the data.  There are obviously degrees of how incomplete it can be.  Typically the passage of time of observation assists in the accuracy.  Something that has made COVID analysis challenging.  But data is also incomplete because of our limitations to observe the data, but also our inability to understand or grasps what needs to be observed.  Our desire towards science is part of what has been endowed to us, but it is tainted by the fall as well as our own mortality and limitations as created beings constrained by the creation that we are within.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Agree. There are many barriers, internal and external, to doing anything well--especially if doing it well involves clear thinking and truth-seeking. Because we're made in the image of God, we crave truth. Because we're sinners, we don't! So, even when we don't notice it, there's always both cognitive and spiritual dissonance going on inside us. We're a mess.

Blessedly, we're redeemable.

I've struggled to put my finger on what it is that makes me feel like I'm an outsider when some Christians start talking about science. One theory is that they just haven't interacted with it enough--and so it's too easy to lose a sense of the humanity of the people who do science. I don't know. I just get the feeling, quite often, that people think scientists are somehow not real people.... because, if we saw them as real people, we'd be much more supportive and forgiving. This is especially the case with COVID related science. People wanted--and still want--fast answers with high levels of accuracy. But those rarely go together.

So, when I think about the medical science and the professionals working on various aspects of COVID--and infectious disease in general--what I feel is empathy, while what others so often seem to feel is only suspicion and hostility.

By "empathy" (since the term seems to be confusing to some) I mean I feel a sense of how hard it must be to be them and be trying to hard to get good results as quickly as possible and not overstate the probability of positive outcomes, but also not discourage people from taking the best guess, etc.

Sure, some scientists are arrogant, condescending, fame-hungry and all that. Replace the word scientist in that sentence with anything else you want (pastors, athletes, actors--OK, maybe not undertakers, but you get the point); it's not a science thing. It's a human thing--and it's no reason to be dismissive of a vocation.

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.

G. N. Barkman's picture

At my annual physical today, the primary care physician said, "Medicine is an art, not a science."  I've never thought of it that way before, and I'm still pondering that assertion.  I think he means that there are few absolute scientific certainties in the practice of medicine, only probabilities.    A doctor must weigh known factors, along with unknown possibilities, and then make a judgment call based upon his professional opinion. (Which often turns out to be his best guess.)  Nobody can be right all the time, even the most excellent doctor.  Getting things right most of the time is more an art than a science.  That should remind us that our lives our in God's hands, not the doctor's.  I thank God that I can trust Him to guide my doctors.

G. N. Barkman

Don Johnson's picture

My dear departed dad used to say, "All doctors know how to do is cut, burn, and poison."

he tended to keep his own counsel medically. He managed to survive a while

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

https://www.today.com/health/new-paper-shows-overeating-does-not-drive-o...

An example of the work of a popularizer. Of course they're all over the place but I just came across this one. The tone of the piece is very much 'we've been wrong all along and science now knows better.' I haven't dug into the research yet, but if I were a betting man I'd be tempted to put money on the original research turning out to be written with far less certainty and a narrower scope.

If I had a nickel for every time I've seen something in popular form declared to be science that was really a very tentative, narrow-scope conclusion from a very small study... 

About trusting God versus trusting doctors... Or trusting God versus trusting science.

God uses secondary causes, and he certainly uses people. So, really, the only way we can trust God is to trust that he is working in and through the secondary causes. I could duck tape my mouth and nose and trust God to oxygenate my blood. He'd most likely let me die. But if somebody with that either-or thinking wanted to be logically consistent, they could tell me that by trusting the muscles of my diaphragm I'm not trusting God. I'm "trusting in my own strength." 

The biblical truth is that apart from miracles, God uses secondary causes, and trusting him or failing to trust him is a state of mind and heart in how we view those causes and the invisible realities behind them.

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

Doing a news check at work, I came across another update about the MQL, and it occured to me: how many people have even heard of the MQL?

I’d encourage folks to read the whole post. The MQL (a PDF on this page) is too lengthy for a quick read, but anyone who wants to have strong (and well informed) opinions about COVID-related matters should spend some time there. I think this kind of reading helps people better understand what “the government” is really about most of the time, once you get past the politics and posturing.

“The MQL is important for us because it identifies what we don’t know. And with finite lab resources, it ensures we don’t duplicate something that is already being studied elsewhere,” said Dr. Lloyd Hough, director of S&T’s Hazard Awareness and Characterization Technology Center, in S&T’s previous ‘Here’s What We’ve Learned About COVID-19’ article. “It’s really a matter of identifying the highest priority gaps—the things that are most impactful for better understanding the disease and helping us to respond to it.”

….

If you’d like to learn more about any of the science presented here, check out the MQL or the new Delta Variant SR. You can find comprehensive public health guidance on the CDC website. For related media requests, contact STMedia@hq.dhs.gov

The MQL is a project of the Department of Homeland Security’s Science & Technology Directorate.

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.

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