How to Read the Internet

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, May 11, 2020

How to Read the Internet

Did you know that the spread of the coronavirus is connected to the expanding 5G network? You can read about it online. Just google it. 

Actually, don’t. Yes, it’s a theory you can read about, but no, it’s not true.

In this internet age, heightened by the pandemic, there is an avalanche of information and a painful absence of wisdom. Many very smart people are accepting unsubstantiated ideas, out-of-context or simply false information, and then spreading them with evangelistic zeal through their various social media channels.

Of course, this was happening before the pandemic as well.

As a professor, working with my graduate students, I have often recommended Mortimer Adler’s classic How to Read a Book. The subtitle is telling: “The classic guide to intelligent reading.” That is the key—to read intelligently. 

Adler poses four questions that every reader should ask:

1. What is the book about as a whole?

2. What is being said in detail?

3. Is the book true, in whole or part?

4. What of it?

The same four questions can be posed for any website, podcast, blog or post. Of particular importance is the third question. Yes, a case is clearly being made. Yes, it sounds convincing based on the presentation. Yes, it may offer up “facts” or even “statistics.” Yes, it may play to your own predilections. 

But that does not mean it is true. 

And truth is not subjective—we cannot say, “What’s true for you is true for you, and what’s true for me is true for me.” If I say “It is raining,” it’s not a matter of opinion, not a question of whether someone feels it should be raining, nor that they want it to be raining. Step outside your door and see: it either is or is not currently raining.

This is the nature of objective truth and it matters. Even a skeptic as hardened as Sigmund Freud had to maintain that if “it were really a matter of indifference what we believed, then we might just as well build our bridges of cardboard as of stone, or inject a tenth of a gramme of morphia into a patient instead of a hundredth, or take teargas as a narcotic instead of ether.”  

But how do you determine what is true?

When it comes to reading the internet, there are three very important principles to follow:

Principle #1: Discern the Agenda

This is low-hanging fruit. If a case is being made for or against something, it’s usually clear. What is important is remembering the agenda. If someone is making a case for something, they are doing just that—presenting their case. But just like in a court of law, it can be convincing until you hear the case made against it. Why? Because whoever is making their “case” is not going to bring forward evidence that might contradict it or call it into question. If they are wanting you to do something, believe something or avoid something, you must realize what it is they are wanting you to do. As with any sales pitch, don’t forget they are very much wanting you to buy what they are selling.

Principle #2: Consider the Source

We live in a day of suspicions. Some mistrust the government, others the medical establishment, others educational institutions, others the media. So when someone says, “consider the source,” the first instinct might be to immediately dismiss those you hold suspect. In a deeply divided, deeply partisan world, this is almost instinctual.

But it would also be playing to emotions as opposed to intellect. The truth is that there are clearly people and institutions that have dedicated themselves to areas of knowledge or research, who have conducted careful science or testing, who have devoted their lives to a particular subject or field. And then there are those who haven’t. 

Strongly consider the ones with the education, experience, credentials and background that best speak to the issue at hand. Yes, there may be a “mainstream” view that you are wanting to dismiss in light of a minority report, but don’t forget that mainstream views on various issues became mainstream for a reason.

The seduction of so-called “fringe” views is that you know something the world doesn’t, or that this is information that is being “covered up.” The attraction of a conspiracy is strong, particularly during times when you feel powerless. But again, this is emotion at work more than intellect.     

Principle #3: Avoid the Silo

Let’s be honest. If we want to believe something, or want to do something, we will look for anything and everything to affirm that “want.” We gather the voices that affirm our choice and we dismiss those that do not. The internet caters to this, allowing you to find an affirming and enabling set of sites to reinforce your desire to do or believe almost anything.

This creates what University of Chicago professor Cass Sunstein has called the “Daily Me”—a self-created world where we see only the sports highlights of our favorite team, read only the issues that address our interests and engage only the op-ed pieces that we agree with. The highly lauded personalization of information protects us from exposure to anything that might challenge our thinking or make us uncomfortable. Left unchecked we begin to follow only the echo of our own voice.

So take advantage of the internet and all that it has to offer. Just remember one thing:

Don’t check your brains at the door.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Ben Macintyre, “The 5G Coronavirus Conspiracy: These Spasms of Superstitious Terror Are as Old as Time,” The Times of London, May 1, 2020, read online.

Mortimer Adler, How to Read a Book.

Sigmund Freud, cited in “Truth,” in The Great Ideas: A Syntopicon of Great Books of the Western World.

Cass Sunstein, Republic.com.


About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His newest book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is now available on Amazon or at your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.