Audio Version

 

Word Version

Detrital: adjective. Disintegration, destruction, or wearing away.

Soup: noun. A liquid food…; an unfortunate predicament.

                                                                                                                        (Merriam-webster.com)

At a public meeting, the woman defiantly read out the warning that the government was plotting to monitor its citizens with microchips. Without irony, she read her statement from a cell phone – presumably one with a microchip.

Humans have an instinct to compile and assimilate the information that fits our values and beliefs. We tend to believe information that confirms what we already think and are surprisingly ignorant of other facts. That is true of you, me, them.

A famous example of this is the list of similarities between Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. At first glance it seems like the two presidents share such a curious list of facts that there has to be some hidden meaning. Of course the point of the exercise is to show that we are very good at seeing what we want to see. (Someone took up a further challenge and found comparable lists between 21 other presidents).

We naturally have more interest in patterns than we do in randomness. It’s called confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is our instinct to look for patterns of information that confirm what we already believe.

For example:

  • Eyewitnesses who saw the same event will inevitably retell it with very different facts.
  • There have been many instances of police detectives who initially believe they know who the criminal is and gather evidence that confirms their hunch – only to discover the evidence is wrong.
  • When bad things happen, people can feel like they are being singled out. “Why do bad things always happen to me?”

 

From today’s headlines:

  • When there is violence during a demonstration, one side sees ‘Law and order’; the other side sees ‘Police brutality!’
  • ‘Black lives matter’ was created to draw attention to the risks that confront black men. Some of the population heard it as a threat and ‘All lives matter’ was born.
  • When confederate statues are torn down, one side sees it as rejecting a racist past while the other side sees it as erasing history.

 

For people of faith, there is a lot to be unpacked as well. For instance:

  • Through much of history, slave owners and abolitionists read the same Bible yet held very different ideas about slavery.
  • Christians in our culture believe their rights are being taken away while others see christian influences everywhere.
  • Christians often look at random events and assume God is healing or protecting, while in other instances random events are called God’s will or judgement.
  • Fundamentalists often long for ‘old time religion’ but our understandings of ‘old’ can vary by a couple thousand years.
  • Through our entire history, christians have repeatedly seen indisputable signs that Jesus is returning ‘very soon’.

 

The point of the above is that there is always a way to find evidence for what we already believe. If we look hard enough, we can find patterns and proof lurking behind every activity we disagree with or don’t understand. But more often than not, random facts are just that … random.

Confirmation bias is very handy because it feeds two common human weaknesses – pride and inadequacy – allowing us to elevate ourselves and diminish others at the same time. Think about it, when we push a conspiracy, we are proud because we believe we possess a unique, little-known ‘truth’. At the same time, conspiracies externalize blame (also known as finger-pointing) and belittles those who disagree with us and are ‘wrong’.

As children of God we are invited to be both humble and loving. That suggests we are responsible for how we receive information as well as for what we do with it. We should be humble and selfless in how we manage our words.

“Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be associated with them. For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.”          – Ephesians 5:6-10 NRSV

We are to live as ‘children of light’. What should that look like in a world of conspiracies?

A few days ago a black person was saying that he had never experienced racism and so he felt that the subject was exaggerated. It was characterized in social media as, “Aha, racism is being over exaggerated!” But of course common sense tells us that being black doesn’t mean he speaks truth for all blacks any more than my opinion speaks for all whites. So why repost it?

Twice in the last couple of days I have seen social media posts that seemed strangely skewed. How did I react? First, I chose not to respond with snark (against my instincts), then I did a simple search (on the same device I was using) and confirmed that the  post was not true. I then blocked the original source and kept on scrolling. Why is that so difficult?

Dear brothers and sisters, I close my letter with these last words: Be joyful. Grow to maturity. Encourage each other. Live in harmony and peace. Then the God of love and peace will be with you.”          – 2 Cor. 13:11

Watch out for confirmation bias. It is the basic stock for the detrital soup of conspiracy theories but it still doesn’t explain why evangelicals are especially likely to spread and believe conspiracies. So next time we will start adding ingredients and heating up the pot because there is nothing worse than simple, boring, or lukewarm.