If you’ve read any of my blog, you know that I have had the opportunity to teach critical thinking. It has been one of my favorite classes to teach as it takes the most fundamental issues of philosophy and places them in the context of everyday life. How we know (epistemology), what we believe to be really real (metaphysics), what we believe in regard to morality (ethics)—all three divisions of philosophy come to bear on how we think through issues and beliefs, as well as converse with others through conversation or print.
One of the most important topics I addressed was the distinction between fact and inference (or opinion). Often disagreements or misunderstandings stem from one’s accepting an inference as fact. For example, let’s say Jane is in class and suddenly kicks back her chair, runs out the class, slamming the door behind her. As the class tries to figure out what just happened, Bobby suggests Jane had to go to the restroom because she has three empty Mountain Dew cans on her desk. Sara suggests that Jane had been checking her phone and must have received a troubling text.
In our example, what Bobby and Sara posit are inferences—their interpretation of the event that had just unfolded. The facts only are that 1) Jane got up from her desk, 2) kicked her chair, 3) ran out the room, and 4) slammed the door. These are all matters that are observable and verifiable. Bobby and Sara (and the remainder of the class) can only infer from these facts why Jane did what she did. It is only when Jane informs the class what happened that the class knows whose inference was correct, partially correct, or wrong (based on the reasons given by Jane).
This distinction between fact and inference is helpful, but when we get into current events and the like, the distinction is very difficult to make. Take for instance the current immigration debate, particularly the tragedy of children being separated from their parents at the border. A quick gander through social media illustrates that there are those who completely buy into the news coming out about these children, and those who view it as “selective hysteria” (i.e. it’s been going on before the current administration; news outlets are now raising the issue in opposition to Trump). So, one is either outraged over the news, or outraged over the news outlets.
The problem with current events such as the one just illustrated is complex. For instance:
- there tends to be truth on both sides (i.e. children are being separated from parents and this has occurred in other administrations). In the current immigration debate, outrage is the right response over how families are torn apart. However, this is not something new as this has occurred under previous administrations.
- the majority of American’s citizens are not in a place to have direct knowledge of current events. Most of the knowledge we have is indirect knowledge—we obtain information about issues from other sources. Thus, we are relying on others for the interpretation of facts and their application. For instance, most Americans are not at our southern border to verify what’s going on, so we have to trust others to give us the news.
- there is the reality that news outlets are not value-neutral (thus, what they value informs what and how they report). This is a given as most Americans are aware that news outlets are biased. While this awareness is good, it’s still problematic because there is a tendency to view news organizations of a particular bent as biased, and news organizations that favor one’s views as unbiased (liberals and conservatives are guilty of this).
What is more concerning, however, is the reality of how the way we receive our news can be easily manipulated without our being aware. Just note the Russian influence on the recent election. Further, technology is such that even pictures and videos—once indisputable in what they convey—can be easily manipulated (see this article on deepfake videos from Gizmodo) such that the general public is made to believe what they are seeing is real when it’s not. While the manipulation of news is nothing new, it much easier to accomplish with the prevalence of cheaper and more powerful technology.
Apparently, according to Pew Research Center, Americans are not good at distinguishing between the fact and inference because “both Republicans and Democrats tended to be swayed by party politics and were more likely to believe something to be accurate if it lined up with their diplomatic ideology.” So, how do we distinguish between fact and inference in the light of the three problems outlined above? One way, according to the Pew Research Center, is to broaden the sources of your news. Don’t just listen to the outlets with whom you agree.
But, another way is to do something that is almost antithetical to the American way of life—wait and listen. Too often we are quick to claim our knowledge on an issue and to correct (or berate) those we deem to be in error. Further, we quickly affirm those in our camps while drawing battle lines with those of opposing view. Yet, in issues that are complex, where the information we receive is filtered through bureaucracy, and we have little—if any—direct knowledge of the issue. Instead, we—like many others—operate on indirect knowledge and inferences drawn from prior beliefs and knowledge.
As such, we would do best to be slow to speak. And, when we do speak, to do so with humility. The Book of Proverbs has much to say to believers in how we handle current events and how we are to communicate about them.
- The lips of the righteous know what is appropriate, but the mouth of the wicked only what is perverse. Prov. 10:32
- The mind of the righteous person thinks before answering, but the mouth of the wicked blurts out evil things. Prov. 15:28
- The heart of a wise person instructs his mouth; it adds learning to his speech. Prov. 16:23
- To start a conflict is to release a flood; stop the dispute before it breaks out. Prov. 17:14
- A fool does not delight in understanding, but only wants to show off his opinions. Prov. 18:2
- The one who gives an answer before he listens—this is foolishness and disgrace for him. Prov. 18:13
While the author of Proverbs is contrasting the wise person (one who fears the Lord) and the fool (one who does not fear the Lord), it’s implied that even the wise person can act the fool at times (believers still battle against their sin nature!). As such, the author’s warning against the fool is something we need to consider carefully in our actions and speech:
- 10:32 – Is what we are saying appropriate regarding timing, what is known, in respect to others, etc.?
- 15:28 – Do we think about what we are saying? How much of what we seek to communicate is known through inference (and thus potentially incorrect), and how much is fact? Do we communicate with humility?
- 16:23 – Do we guard how we speak to others (believers or not)? Are our words “always gracious, seasoned with salt”?
- 17:14 & 18:2 – Why do we want to post something? Is it to stir the pot? To merely make our opinion known? Is it out of selfishness veiled in the desire to “communicate the truth”?
- 18:13 – Do we speak before we know enough details to speak with certainty? Do we speak as if we know all the relevant facts at hand?
A theme I see running through these verses is that there is wisdom in being slow to speak (or write) and quick to listen. And, when we do speak, to do so in a way that acknowledges there may be more to the picture we do not see. When encountering views with which we disagree, the same concept applies. Consider what presuppositions, prior experience, etc. impact their assertions. Is there a point of agreement that can establish common ground? Finally, though you disagree, is your own rebuttal based on your own inference (and open to correction), or is it factual (in this case, you know enough relevant facts to correct the other person).
As Christians, we are called to stand for truth. But, may we not do so foolishly, but in wisdom and humility.
 I’m not saying that truth is relative here. Rather, when it comes to current events, individuals are not all-knowing nor omnipresent, so two individuals on opposing sides of an issue can be partially correct in what they assert. The matter is what one knows or claims to know, not so much one of truth itself.
 I’ll leave this discussion here. This blog post is not the place to discuss the current debate over immigration. For what it’s worth, I find Trump’s actions abhorrent, but the real issue is our current immigration policy—it desperately needs fixed.
 Passages are from the CSV.