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It happened during the Ebola crisis a few years ago. I was following the news coverage, praying for missionaries and hoping for a solution that would put a stop to the plague in Africa.

Frustrated with the mismanagement of the situation and concerned about the possibility of an outbreak in the United States, I made a snarky comment on Twitter about a governor who had said that panicking was ill advised because the Ebola virus was not easily contracted.

A friend of mine, Jeremy Writebol, called me out on Twitter for spreading misinformation. He told me there were only a few ways that Ebola could be contracted, and that the governor's statement was factually correct and desperately needed.

I wasn't about to argue with Jeremy. His mother is Nancy Writebol, one of the missionaries who, with Kent Brantly, contracted Ebola and survived. I figured he knew what he was talking about, and I was spreading misinformation. Busted!

Fake News and the Mainstream Media

This weekend, an advisor to President Trump claimed the White House spokesperson gave “alternative facts” regarding the size of the crowd at the inauguration. The “truth versus spin” debate happened furiously online, with “fact-checkers” trying to set the record straight while Trump supporters pointed to yet another example of the “lamestream media” promoting their own narrative.

This outburst is just the latest in a series of events where truth, facts, and spin are all confused. Late last year, much was made about the plague of "fake news" spreading online, through false websites, ridiculous email chains, and on social media. The mainstream media outlets are aghast at the irrelevance of "fact checking," and Oxford chose "post-truth" as the word of the year.

But many Christians believe the word "post-truth" has shown up late. We've been speaking out about postmodern philosophy in the university, biased media coverage, and "post-truth" tendencies for years. It's only now, after Election 2016 trafficked in post-truth news stories on the right that everyone seems to have woken up to the problem.

There are good reasons for Christian skepticism toward mainstream media outlets.

For example, Mollie Hemingway has painstakingly documented the ways journalists collude with the abortion industry in their coverage of Planned Parenthood controversies. And Marvin Olasky points out how false figures in the abortion debate (“alternative facts”) were used to shore up support for pro-choice policies:

The advent of penicillin led to a decline in abortion-related maternal deaths from 5,000 per year during the 1930s to perhaps 300 (officially, 160) in 1967. Yet 1960s pro-abortion leaders like Dr. Bernard Nathanson gave "5,000 to 10,000 deaths a year" as the current figure, and leading newspapers used that number to promote abortion legalization as a way to stop "back-alley abortions." Nathanson, after coming to Christ and opposition to abortion, said, "I knew the figures were totally false, but they were 'useful.'"

The NYT Narrative 

The New York Times displays liberal bias both in what their journalists write and what stories they choose to cover (and what they bury elsewhere). Michael Cieply, who recently left The Times after working there for twelve years, explains how the atmosphere differed from the Los Angeles Times:

By and large, talented reporters scrambled to match stories with what internally was often called "the narrative." We were occasionally asked to map a narrative for our various beats a year in advance, square the plan with editors, then generate stories that fit the pre-designated line. . . . The bigger shock came on being told, at least twice, by Times editors who were describing the paper's daily Page One meeting: "We set the agenda for the country in that room."

Conservative Christians have a right to be skeptical when it comes to mainstream media bias. But we are way too skeptical if we distrust any fact or figure from any mainstream site. And we are much too gullible if we easily believe stories that come from other sources, including the new administration.

Gullible Skeptics 

Too many Christians these days are "gullible skeptics." Skeptics toward establishment type media outlets, and gullible toward other websites or toward political spinmeisters who already line up with their preexisting beliefs or worldview.

What's the point in chiding the abortion industry for championing false, but "useful" numbers regarding abortion deaths in the 1960's if we are just as guilty for spreading misinformation because we find it useful or beneficial to our party?

On an episode of This American Life last year, host Ira Glass spoke with his Uncle Lenny who believed President Obama was bent on destroying America through illegal immigration and intentional disastrous policies. The misinformation came fast and furious:

  • Obama has played more rounds of golf than any president in history. (Untrue: Eisenhower played three times as much, and Woodrow Wilson four.)
  • Obama claims to have run the Harvard Law Review but never contributed an article for them. (Untrue. He did.)
  • Obama wants the borders of Canada and Mexico to be erased, and that is why he ignores all deportation laws. (Untrue. Obama deported 2.5 million people, more than any other president.)

Ira's uncle refuses to believe that Obama deported that many people. It must be false. Exasperated after that last stat, Ira says, "Facts do not have a fighting chance against this right-wing fable."

Now, This American Life is a liberal-leaning radio show on NPR. I wish that Ira Glass were a little more skeptical of the mainstream media he trusts without question.

But he's right to point out how easily people fall for false information when it comes from the sources that affirm their preexisting worldview. In fact, this happens on both the right and the left.

Facts don’t have a fighting chance against “left-wing fables” either. Entire books have been written about how the religious right is on the verge of setting up a theocracy through secret gatherings and meetings that are planning sessions of solidifying power. (Trust me. I flipped through one of these left-wing books in an airport and chuckled my way through it, at both the unfamiliarity with common Christian terminology and the suspicious motives toward any conservative Christian involved in politics. A left-wing fable, indeed.)

No, the plague of misinformation infects conservatives and liberals alike, and Christians and non-Christians as well. But surely Christians are called to show a better way.

Sarah Pulliam Bailey, a friend who writes for The Washington Post, urges Christians to carefully consider what our gullibility and skepticism may communicate:

As a reporter who also happens to be a Christian, I believe that truth exists and can be ascertained, even if imperfectly and the fact that we understand it imperfectly heightens our duty to pursue it diligently. And I believe journalism is the one of the best practical pursuits of truth in earthly life, one that allows us to reveal and explain the truth to others. Many religions seek a truth that is beyond the scope of journalism, yet if people of faith no longer accept the veracity of factual truth, then they threaten to undermine their own pursuit of ultimate questions.

Abandoning mainstream media sites for opinion sites you already agree with is not the answer. The "mainstream media" is collectively valuable because it presents a range of information and viewpoints, while the Breitbarts of the world present a singular voice to a targeted group of people.

Way Forward 

In This Is Our Time, I build on Frank Luntz's point that news today has become less about information and more about affirmation. It's about affirming what we already believe to be true. And the "everywhere at all times available" culture created by our smartphones gives us regular doses of news that tells us "You are right."

If we are to be faithful in a world of "fake news," “alternative facts,” and biased sources, we are going to need to be more careful with the statistics we share, the news stories we read, and the sources we trust. Gullible skeptics, either on the right or left, don't stand out from the world. And what we need today is for Christians to care about getting the facts straight, whether or not they're useful or beneficial to “the party line,” because we believe in a God who tells the truth.


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Comments:


24 thoughts on “‘Alternative Facts’ and Christians as Gullible Skeptics”

  1. Mark H. says:

    Don’t get caught up in left or right nonsense and look at everything through gospel lens.

    1. Jeff Cornette says:

      You are correct about viewing everything through the gospel lens. This is not about whether we should or should not believe the media. It is about glorifying God by making disciples who advance the gospel. Jesus said He was the way, the truth and he life. Our message/mission is Jesus redeems sinners not whether a media story can or cannot be trusted. Let’s keep the Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the orher. The Bible can always be trusted. Politicians not so much.

  2. Adam Shields says:

    It seems to me that there is a lot of blurring of the lines between, fact, opinion, analysis and simple difference of perspective. Much of the post modern critique has been over the way that our differences in perspective and life experience impact the way we understand and interpret.

    That is not really different or even disputed by this post. The problem is that there is a move past the critique of how perspective and experience impacts analysis and conflates it with the way that cognitive bias works. We all have cognitive biases.

    The problem is when we don’t work to get past the cognitive biases and/or when those in power particularly aim to create distrust of institutions or particular people by intentionally using cognitive bias through outright lies.

    Christians I think are less capable of dealing with intentional lies because we are primed by our cognitive biases to trust those in leadership.

  3. Curt Day says:

    After reading or listening to all of the different media sources out there, one is tempted to want to escape the world by avoiding all news because it is all fake anyway. But that is not our option and Christians were warned against that by Francis Schaeffer when Schaeffer alerted us of the perils of escaping when he spoke against seeking personal peace and prosperity.

    Why is their fake news? One reason is because some want to persuade others to agree. There are multiple reasons for that. One reason for that is evangelical in the sense that one is trying to gain more adherents to whatever ideologies, or even theologies, they align themselves with. Another reason for persuasion is to try to keep believers in the fold. For much of the corporate media, it is mixed between what was just mentioned to trying to inform and trying to get or keep people in the mood to buy products from sponsors. We should also note that fake news can be suggested by how emphasis, such as seen in headlines, is used. We might also want to note that just as people use news to persuade others to their cause, they also use news to discredit competing viewpoints.

    Another reason is that some just want to instigate anger.

    But whatever the reason, facts are rarely presented in ways so that people can be informed with no other intended result. It doesn’t always make the news fake, but it can shade the precision of the reporting.

    From what I see, it is easy for us religiously conservative Christians to retreat to their favorite news sources. Unfortunately, this produces an insularity that dishonors the Gospel when outsiders see how ignorant we’ve become with some issues.

    So we have to go out and read from and listen to a wide variety of sources and be willing to suspend judgment in order to do a better job at filtering out the fake news while becoming better informed. The above quote from Bailey is important advice.

  4. Geoff says:

    Editorial comment and abstract and adversarial advocacy is interwoven with information (without best evidence or reliability of source) to present a particular case is frequently presented as fact, when it isn’t.

    Statistics can be presented as alternative facts, if not thoroughly interpreted.

    But, is not a fact in itself truth, a correspondence with reality?

  5. Unfortunately, the “fake news” argument cannot be won though force. We should look at anything the state tries to “cover up” as something worth investigating. When someone calls something “fake news” we should ask why they think that, instead of also writing it off ourselves. I mean I follow LewRockwell, ZeroHedge, RonPaulLibertyReport, etc. and they are all considered “Russian News” or “Fake News” from “Official” Sources. Sometimes we need to be different than the culture, and I think this is a very understandable time. Remember 90% of the media is owned by just 6 corporations. http://www.frugaldad.com/media-consolidation-infographic/

    1. Adam Shields says:

      So anytime someone has evidence that your sources are wrong, that is proof that something is trying to be covered up?

    2. Mark Filin says:

      Patrick, you are spot on. Media owned by 6 corporations serving their globalist agenda, lately got caught red handed with blatant lies (fake news). To spin it the other way, they started to call on alternative media for ‘fake news’ quite unsuccessfully. This article is a vague spin to say there is a balance. No there is not! Just because 80% of truth is on CNN, doesn’t make it true at all. They spin, lie and continue to spin. They even spread lies via controlled alternative media to discredit them. Like you I follow alternative news carefully. With Trump, Brexit, next if France and Germany to follow we have a chance to change this satanic push for New World Order. Sadly most of the church is confused or a sleep. But many pastors especially in US like Franklin Graham, Rodney Howard Browne, Lance Wallnau aware of this. Australia and others need to wake up.

      1. john allcott says:

        I think Graham might be embarrassed to be grouped with Wallnau.
        “An evil king did a good thing 2500 years ago, so we should vote for Trump!”
        *shakes head*
        I don’t know about Browne. I don’t want to know about him if he’s like Wallnau.

    3. Gary Shogren says:

      Actually, this is how Christians get sucked into false news: we believe in an alternative interpretation of reality; therefore, when someone comes along with “alternative facts” we assume that they too are the truth.

      You know, don’t you, that Christians are also supposed to not be taken in by conservative political culture?

      I have read the sources you mention, and checked on their facts, and found them wanting. I don’t need leftwing media to tell me so! The sources you read are ALSO “official sources” of the right or the libertarians.

  6. Love this. It’s so hard to try to decipher truth in the news from a culture that rejects the idea of absolute truth.

  7. Emily Lightner says:

    I loved reading this! In fact, I came to the realization last night that my news sources are actually changing my convictions and worldview instead of allowing the Scriptures to change it. I don’t recommend everyone take a break from news, but I need to for now.

    1. Vicki Ring says:

      To Emily,
      I have thought of taking a break from the news myself, recently. I’ve been getting tired of having to wade through the opinion of the reporter to get to what is being reported. I really don’t need the media to try to tell me what to think about the news. I just want the news and I can make up my own mind what it means. This morning, I got the following idea- if I want to know what President Trump has done, then go to the Whitehouse website and see for myself.

  8. Aaron Wright says:

    THANK you for this article; balanced and intellectually honest, a rarity these days. Again. thank you, Mr. Wax and keep up the good work Sir.

  9. john allcott says:

    So true.
    Most disturbing is the increase of personal attacks that are ridiculously false, but are also eagerly believed & spread like wildfire.
    If only I had a dollar for every time I saw one of these pathetic lies:
    “Obama is a Kenyan!”
    “His wife is really a man!”
    “Obamacare provides for 666 chips to be planted under our skin!”
    The last one I actually saw again about an hour ago, posted by a Filipino Christian (I’m a missionary in Davao City).
    Like the old saying goes, “A lie makes it halfway around the world before the truth even has a chance to put its shoes on.”

    1. Gary Shogren says:

      The Obama microchip thing has been circulating for a good seven years. Also, the narrative that he is going to institute Shariah in the USA. He’d better get busy. Like all subjects of conspiracy theories, people attribute omniscience and omnipotence to their enemies; and spooky outfits like the Zionists or the Illuminati or the Masons seem to need centuries to pull off any of their supposed goals!

  10. edward says:

    Any fan of scientific method, as I am – which we know to have its own limitations – will quickly advise that one critical component of our communications to speak truthfully must be to discover and discuss limitations of what we know from data/facts, the limitations and possible biases of sources of data/facts, and our own biases or POSSIBLE biases in how we came by the data/facts, biases or POSSIBLE biases in our interpretation of the data/facts, and biases or POSSIBLE biases in our communications about them. That is the rigor of scientific method. This formal rigor translated into the virtues of caution, humility, and care when we communicate with others. And, in fact, when Apostle Paul discussed the vexing issues of eating food from pagan temples (or from pagans) caution, humility, and care might fairly characterize the tone of his discussion.

  11. Kim says:

    Thank you!!! My sentiments exactly!!

  12. Dorothy Pilgrim says:

    A bit of fake news in your article: the definition of “deportation” was changed under the Obama administration which would inflate his numbers over past administrations. You might need to apologize to Uncle Ira.

    1. Dorothy Pilgrim says:

      *Uncle Lenny

  13. March Bell says:

    this is a helpful article but makes an important mistake which actually proves the point of the article: As a Chirstian lawyer in the Department of Justice many of us were shocked when the Obama changed the definition of “deported” to include turnbacks at the border, Deported means an adjudicated removal of a person from the USA. A turn back is a person caught crossing the border who is simply loaded into a vehicle and taken back WITHOUT ADJUDICATION. To Count turnbacks as deportation is a lie and everyone knew it — but it is easy to be gullible on such an esoteric matter.

    1. Anthon says:

      This post on it’s on should have caused the author (Trevin) to post a retraction or an amended and edited article… At keast it would have demonstrated some intellectual honesty and discernment.

      How anyone can still maintain that the sins of the right are as aggregious or in the same category as the sins on the left is beyond me…

      The left are the direct descendants of the communist party and their entire playbook is based on deception, the manipulation of facts, and outright lies.

      Those who claim to represent “The Church” better get their head out of the sand and their backsides up on the walls of the city so that they can be the watchmen they are called to be and not apologists for their knuckle-dragging laity…

      It is a very sad state we are in when so many are so deluded and blind to the truth.

  14. Cornfed says:

    All people should be more careful with the “truth” than what we see in the media these days. I find it a little strange to single out Christians as somehow bearing more of a burden in this regard. There is nothing new under the sun. The tendency to cherry pick facts to affirm our beliefs is ingrained in our brains as deeply as any any instinct. It just seems worse because all “news” is amplified by cable news and the internet.

  15. Great article. Posted this on the FB page, Truth Over Tribe, where we are calling all Americans to cross political party lines and discern Truth, regardless of political “tribe”. We are all susceptible to Confirmation Bias. #TruthOverTribe

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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