Embrace Your Inner Skeptic 5: Evaluating information in the internet age


This is a partial transcript of the talk I gave at St. Charles Community College on December 2, 2014.

  1. Amazing news!
  2. Nobody loves a critic
  3. Why skepticism is healthy
  4. What about religion?
  5. Evaluating information in the internet age
  6. Is Skepticism Right For YOU?
  7. Some advice on community building
  8. Q&A

To discover a solid truth, you need careful investigation and analysis. Believing something just because of blind trust takes no time at all. Mark Twain once said: “A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” Urban legends and rumors appeal to people. Claims that speak to our secret prejudices, that confirm things we want to be true, spread quickly and efficiently through gossip, and at any given time there are thousands of things that “everybody knows” which aren’t actually true.

We live in an interesting time. It’s only since I was a computer science undergraduate that the internet stopped being a weird hobby for mega nerds, and started being used by everyone everywhere, to transmit information as fast as we can think about it. We all carry magic boxes in our pockets that we can use to immediately tap into the largest repository of knowledge in human history.

But a lot of it is lies.

If you have a set of beliefs about politics, you can choose to mostly read and listen to sources that you already agree with. If you do that, you’ll never have to find out if you’re wrong. If you’re a creationist you can read creationist web sites and listen to creationist talk radio and encase yourself in a little bubble of filters that mostly guarantees that you will only hear creationist points of view.

If that’s not bad enough, we also have web sites that lie to you on purpose. Check out this story:

 

Harry Potter Books Spark Rise In Satanism Among Children

Like many of her school friends, 9 year old Ashley Daniels was captivated enough by the strange occult doings at the Hogwarts School Of Witchcraft And Wizardry to pursue the Left-Hand Path, determined to become as adept at the black arts as Harry and his pals.

“I used to believe in what they taught us at Sunday School,” said Ashley, conjuring up an ancient spell to summon Cerebus, the three-headed hound of hell. “But the Harry Potter books showed me that magic is real, something I can learn and use right now, and that the Bible is nothing but boring lies.”

 

 

We’ve got a lot of Internet savvy young adults here, and I’m sure that that logo at the bottom provides a big clue: this is a fake news story from a well known comedy newspaper called “The Onion.” But even if it’s obvious to you, a whole bunch of Christians started passing around this article as if it were true, punctuating it with comments like “This is the most evil thing I have laid my eyes on in 10 years … and no one seems to understand its threat.” and “DOES THIS GET YOUR ATTENTION?” (in all caps, of course).

 

I love making fun of gullible people, and I wish I could tell you that atheists would never fall for such an easy joke. But it wouldn’t be true! It seems like every few months, I get forwarded this thing. Oh look! Here’s grumpy old Mr. Gruff the Atheist Goat, saying “Bah! I don’t believe in anything! I’m staying home on Sundays!” Then it says, “If you find an Atheist in your neighborhood, TELL A PARENT OR PASTOR RIGHT AWAY!” “AVOID TALKING TO THEM!” “Atheists are often very grumpy and bitter and will lash out at children or they may even try to trick you into neglecting God’s word.”

So all these atheists write in and say “Can you believe what these annoying Christians are saying about us?” Except, they’re not saying it. “Objective Ministries” is a joke website. It was made by atheists pretending to be Christian in order to make Christians look bad and get a laugh. But, when you pass something along without taking the time to properly confirm it, you’re the one who looks bad.

On one hand, the internet makes it easier and more efficient to fool people. There are all these fake news sites pretending to give real information, and fake opinion sites pretending to represent other people’s points of view. On the other hand, the internet has also provided a massive forum where people can discuss things they saw and get information that they might not otherwise have access to.

If you have the kind of grandparents who would email you the Harry Potter Satanism story, and I bet some of you do, all you have to do is check snopes.com, it’s a great resource. Snopes will quickly let you know that, sorry, that story is intentionally fake. It also has subsections for looking up and debunking scary urban legends you heard at summer camp, financial scams, conspiracy theories, political propaganda, stories about atheist professors who were allegedly humiliated by clever Christian students… the list goes on and on.

Snopes is just the tip of the iceberg here. For every person who makes up a story denying some critical aspect of science, there are concerned scientists who use blogs and websites to explain the real story behind from an informed point of view.

Young Earth Creationists used to tell this story where NASA scientists calculated that the moon must have billions of years of dust accumulated, and the moon landing would fail because the space shuttle lunar lander would sink into all those feet of moon dust. It didn’t, so that must prove that the universe is only 6000 years old instead of billions. If you were just a layperson who didn’t know the science very well before the internet existed, you would be stuck either taking their word for it, rejecting it without a good reason, or doing long tedious research in peer reviewed scientific journals. Today there is a handy web page at talkorigins.org where you can learn that no scientists ever took that moon dust claim seriously. The moon dust argument is so bad that the another site called Creation Ministries International actually created their own page, titled “Arguments we think creationists should NOT use,” where they beg fellow creationists to stay away from making such dumb statements.

There’s no end of crazy on the internet. Believe it or not, there are websites dedicated to proving the claim that every single president of the United States has secretly been a member of a race of alien lizard people!

Reptilian Hillary

Reptilian Bush Sr.

Reptilian Obama

 

…And of course, there are YouTube videos dedicated to debunking alien lizard people.

So while the internet helps spread lies more effectively than any other form of communication, I like to think that it also helps the truth put its shoes on a little faster.

The Internet encourages skepticism in a way that can be toxic to many religions, and that can obviously be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you look at it. Even if you’re a believer in the audience today, I’d like you to ponder the fact that skepticism of other religions can actually benefit you overall. I mentioned earlier that, even if it’s possible to talk to the dead, it would still be wise to remain skeptical of individuals who claim they are talking to the dead, because they could still be lying.

Likewise, you Christians realize that there are literally thousands of competing religious claims out there, and most of them are obviously wrong.

I’m assuming you know that many Muslims are firm young earth creationists, but they also believe that Jesus was a prophet who was an ordinary human, and was never even crucified. That’s downright blasphemous!

Mormons believe that God lives near a star called Kolob, and if you die after living a good Mormon life, you have a chance to ascend and become the God of your own planet. Scientologists believe that all the trouble on earth is caused by a galactic overlord named Xenu, and all your personal and psychological problems are caused by immortal spirits in your body called thetans.

All these beliefs have been thoroughly analyzed and debunked on Christian websites with names like Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, and the Institute for Creation Research. So the good news is that you can get a handy reference guide from your own religious leaders, arming you against the lies of other religions.

Which is great, but on the whole, I’d still have to say that the easy access to information is more of a liability to faith than an asset. In the last few years I’ve seen a growing number of stories on mainstream news sites about how various people are finding their long held faith in crisis because of information they found on the internet. I won’t go into too much detail here, but I have a New York Times story of Hans Mattsson, a Mormon church elder in Sweden, who had no idea that the founder Joseph Smith was a polygamist, and other examples of what he called “anti-Mormon propaganda.” After reading more online, he said “Everything I’d been taught, everything I’d been proud to preach about and witness about just crumbled under my feet.”

I have a story from Slate about F. Vizel, a Hasidic Jew living in a sheltered community, who discovered the internet for the first time on her husband’s laptop when she was 19. She realized for the first time that she had been subjected to what she termed as a “lifetime of indoctrination and being taught not to think.” Community leaders responded by trying to force her to hand over the laptop.

This sudden outbreak of critical thinking is becoming so commonplace it’s a regular point of discussion for professional Evangelical Christians like Josh McDowell, author of Evidence That Demands a Verdict.

 

Josh wrote in the Christian Post:

“The Internet has given atheists, agnostics, skeptics, the people who like to destroy everything that you and I believe, the almost equal access to your kids as your youth pastor and you have, whether you like it or not. …This abundance [of information] has led to skepticism. And then the Internet has leveled the playing field.”

So sure, evangelists are eager to share their view of the world with everyone who will listen. But on some level, shoring up the religious troops relies on maintaining ignorance, either intentionally through secrecy, or by never having your views challenged.


Continued

Comments

  1. Robert, not Bob says

    Just to pick a nit, it’s the lunar module that would have sunk into the Moon’s dust, not the space shuttle. Are people using “space shuttle” as a generic term for spacecraft now? There was some concern about moondust-that’s why the LM had such wide landing legs and big footpads. I doubt anybody thought the thing would sink out of sight though, and certainly the worry that it might prove the Moon young is pure Creationist fantasy. In fact if the Moon were that young, its surface would still be molten!

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