July 26, 2020 | David F. Coppedge

Fact-Checking Requires Biblical Morality

How does a materialist gain the right to combat misinformation from a Darwinian process?

There’s a lot of talk about vaccines right now as medical researchers race to test one that works against SARS-CoV-2. Gayathri Vaidyanathan, speaking in a news feature in PNAS, is looking for another vaccine: “Finding a vaccine for misinformation.”

It’s a worthy goal to combat lies. Vaidyanathan, a science writer who specializes in sustainability science, distinguishes between mis-information, which involves not knowing the truth, and dis-information, which involves the intentional spreading of falsehoods. In this age of rapid social media, both are certainly problems. Readers must be on guard everywhere.

Vaidyanathan expresses pessimism that she and the scientific experts can get people to change their minds. She calls on Damon Centola, a network analyst from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Valerie Reyna, a psychologist at Cornell University, and Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Bristol in the UK, for help in delineating the “psychology of misinformation.” They decide that the key ingredients involve social contagion, framing and worldview—”none of them having much to do with objective truth.” (Sock that away; she seems to acknowledge that “objective truth” is a thing.)

  • Social contagion means that some types of misinformation spread like wildfire among friends, or “go viral” without much checking.
  • Framing involves “how messages are framed to evoke deeper narratives that already exist in the listeners’ minds,” drawing on emotions that cohere and reinforce one another.
  • Worldview is the third factor behind the spread of misinformation:

But which gists resonate with us and which do we encode? Some scientists say that depends on the third factor: our “worldview”—what Reyna describes as preexisting internal stories based on our mental tapestry of culture, knowledge, beliefs, and life experiences. For example, a news article that states, “Flu shot induces 4.4-fold increase in nonflu acute respiratory infections” might lead a nonbeliever to store the gist “don’t get the flu shot,” whereas an expert might store something like, “there are problems with reporting bias in the data collection, and the report is not trustworthy.”

But which worldview is correct? How does one judge worldview? Either Vaidyanathan has to admit that she herself is operating from a “mental tapestry of culture, knowledge, beliefs and life experiences” that biases her own views, or that she has found an objective way to extricate herself from that bias and “see” truth for what it is. Oddly, neither she or the experts she calls on seem to acknowledge their own biases. She only uses the word “bias” one time, and that’s against people she feels are misinformed. She seems to think that she and her friends just “know” what constitutes misinformation, but the peasants out there don’t. They have a bad case of the Yoda Complex.

“Tackling Misinformation”

Fully equipped with their own delusions, they proceed on their mission, pretending to be benevolent angels uncontaminated with human biases, to vaccinate the rest of Homo sapiens against misinformation. Here we get a taste of Vaidyanathan’s own worldview, biases, and priorities.

Lewandowsky and van der Linden are trying to deploy a similar kind of “cognitive inoculation” in much more controversial arenas, such as climate denial. In work published in 2017, Lewandowsky and colleagues exposed people to a message that detailed misleading arguments used by the tobacco industry to sow confusion about the health effects of tobacco—corporate messaging tactics that resemble those of climate deniers. The researchers explained why these arguments are flawed, and then they gave the subjects a false news story stating that some researchers doubt humans cause climate change. They found that participants exposed to this sort of “cognitive vaccine” were more skeptical of the false claim.

Regardless of how one feels about climate change, we see these “experts” committing the logical fallacy of association, saying that tobacco companies are like climate deniers. We see them using loaded words, like “climate-change denialism.” Gayathri may feel it unnecessary to give reasons for her views, having written on climate change for years. But here she is not in any way open to debate about it. Her view is “information”; other views constitute “misinformation.” So rather than encourage rational debate with minority scientists with PhDs who doubt anthropogenic global warming based on the facts, she wants to stick a needle in them and inoculate them against what she considers a pack of lies. What gives her the right to do that? Is it just because she is on the majority side at the present time in political history?

The Great Unmasking

Looking at some of her previous writings, we find that Vaidyanathan has accepted human evolution (“How have hominids adapted to past climate change?”, Scientific American 13 April 2010). We don’t know her current views other than to assume that PNAS would probably not print the views of a Darwin doubter. If that is the case, then Vaidyanathan has just shot her credibility. Any mutation in a hominid brain would be selected for survival, not for truth. Information and misinformation are meaningless; they devolve into strategies for power.

It gets worse; evolutionary psychologists frequently invoke “game theory” to explain human behaviors like cooperation, cheating and punishment (see recent example from the Max Planck Institute). In this very article, Vaidyanathan advocates various psychological games to inoculate other hominins (a term which encompasses living modern humans) to cooperate with her views. She could only advocate these, not because they promote truth, but because they would increase her evolutionary fitness. What else could she be doing? “Truth” is not found in the Darwin Dictionary.

In fact, her entire presentation about “vaccinating people against misinformation” is all about strategy, not truth! That plays right into a criticism that undermines her whole point. Her Yoda-complex strategies are exercises in evolutionary fitness that have nothing to do with the truth or falsity of controversial views. She just wants to increase the number of hominins on her side. Whether or not some of her interventions seem noble to the reader, they are not about objective truth. They are about strategy in a Darwinian fitness game.

When you see a Darwinian psychologist with a needle, therefore, coming to inoculate you against misinformation (whatever that is in a Darwinian world), run! To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, the scariest words you can hear are, “I’m from the evolutionary psychology lab, and I’m here to help you.”

The key to defeating the Darwinian hegemony is to help people like this poor lady see their own self-refuting predicament. I have no reason to think that Gayathri Vaidyanathan is not a nice lady in person. After all, she is a daughter of Eve, made in the image of God, and probably retains a certain degree of the kindness bequeathed to individuals living in the fading legacy of western civilization with its Christian values. But she is blind to her delusions. If she really subscribes to Darwinism—as seems apparent from her writings—she cannot claim to be anything but a female hominin trying to score in the fitness game. Truth has no meaning to a Darwinian. It is just a word to toss out there to gain an advantage against other hominins. How could she possibly comprehend “truth” – a concept that is immaterial, if her worldview is entirely described by particles and forces?

It is futile to argue with people like Vaidyanathan and her favored ‘experts’ about the facts of climate, evolution or any other subject without getting them to acknowledge this point: without a Judeo-Christian understanding of truth and morality, they have nothing to say! According to their own worldview, their highfalutin words mean no more than glorified monkey chatter, and the more sophisticated they pretend to be at it, the more they just chatter louder. With compassion, we have to unmask these dear deluded people. To do that, we have to play both roles in the operation, painful as it may be: We must treat them like they think they are (hominins engaged in fitness strategies), but also treat them like what we know they are (creatures in the image of God, but fallen into sin). Greg Koukl calls the former role “taking the roof off” to show the vulnerability of their position. The latter role will then work, because any appeals to truth or morals that they use on you (look for the word “should”) exposes the fact that they are really created souls after all, who believe in these eternal values. They cannot work up those values from evolution. In a real sense, they are guilty of plagiarizing the Christian worldview without paying the price.

Once the roof comes off and the sunshine shines in, then we can talk face to face. We still may not agree on climate change and political parties and such, but we can start conversing on the common ground that truth matters, and it does not evolve.



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