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Fake News and Standards of Knowledge

Posted on: June 04, 2017

Category: Theology

Fake News and Standards of Knowledge

The Quest E-news has a wide distribution. Often, readers send questions and comments to the Quest Centre. From an American reader, the following question was asked, to which I'd like to make a response.

Q: When I read what you say about religion as a form of critical thinking, how can religion be used to address the present situation in the United States where the vocal alt-right community charges that progressives have "fake news" and that evidence-based science is propaganda? Are there standards of knowledge to be observed? What are they based on?

A: I confess that I may not be able adequately to answer this question. It's not because I do not have an answer for myself; it is because such a question involves a community of people and many different forms of knowledge: religious, psychological, legal, scientific, logical, and historical, to name a few. Knowledge, in the end, is a community achievement. A single individual can only go so far.

As I read your question, to me it amounts to distinguishing between relativity and relativism. Generally, relativity means that knowledge (perception) is a local phenomenon. What I perceive and think I know is related to where I live, what I've experienced, who I am, and how I have been taught. There are other, local, factors, too. Local refers to all the things that are in relation to me to form where I stand now.

Relativity, though, is not relativism. The mistake of the alt-right is to think relativity means relativism. The mistake is to think that relativity is naming a doctrine rather than a natural experience. Relativism means to understand and promote relativity as an unchanging and eternal truth even though "relativity" is actually very fluid and changing. The alt-right charges that the left sees everything as relative, and they mean that people on the left have no (standard, unchanging) morals or lack (standard, unchanging) principles. But this is not the case. Even in the scientific theory of relativity, there is a standard, which is the speed of light. In the moral and religious world, it's not so easy to name a standard, but there is indeed one. It is justice.

The mistake of the alt-right is actually to be overly zealous relativists and to succumb to the temptation of relativism. In relativism - the promotion of relativity as a doctrine or an unchanging truth - there is no standard except what I think is the standard. So, anything that is contrary to what I think is the standard is "fake" news that I don't have to listen to. In relativism, the truth is whatever I think is true. In the Trump-like universe of the alt-right, if I think vaccines cause autism, then they do; if I think climate change is a hoax, then it is; if I think there were innumerable people at my inauguration, then there were. The evidence is not necessary because my opinion is the evidence. This is how alt-right relativism works, but this is not relativity.

Even though religion is often thought to be obscure, backwards, and outmoded, the academic study of religion does stress the difference between relativity and relativism. The act of relativism in religion consists of believing something first and then going out to find evidence to support my belief. What the evidence is, even if it is far-fetched, does not matter as long as it supports my assumed belief. The academic study of religion requires relativity but must avoid relativism. Relativity stresses context. It upholds that the first requirement of any student is to understand context. This means to understand the relationship of ideas (the location) that forms the context out of which a writing emerged or in which an event happened. To seek to understand the context first requires that the student abandon his or her personal assumptions so that the original author or event can be heard or seen on its own terms. The effort to hear and understand something on its own terms is the effort of relativity.

The kind of evidence needed in relativity is called objective evidence. It is not objective because it is evidence free of prejudice. It is objective because it consists of the effort to establish a standard outside the opinions of the self or the community. Of course, we always struggle, and always will struggle, to achieve and to employ such a standard. True objectivity, as many people say, is a myth, but this does not mean that objectivity is useless. It means that it is a standard we must try to achieve in relation to the relativity of our knowledge. Even though "objectivity" has faced a lot of cynicism and undergone a lot of critique in postmodern times - and rightly so - it is still a necessary idea for relativity (not relativism) to work. Let's put it this way, when objectivity is used by the alt-right who cling to relativism, then it is not objectivity but doctrine and prejudice. When objectivity is used by those who understand relativity, then objectivity is the ideal of justice and the hope that we can approximate it in the relationships we hold.

We will never reach true objectivity, and I am comfortable to say that it is a myth, but it is a necessary myth by which to judge the relativity of our knowledge. The idea of objectivity forces us to understand another context without imposing our own prejudices and without assuming the truth of our own interpretation.

Objectivity allows us to function in relativity by allowing us to appreciate the context of experience and to struggle with the question, what is true? I regard this struggle as a religious act.

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