Scientism and Secularism by J. P. Moreland, Free for CAPC Members
Christians need to grow in both the knowledge that science can provide us about God’s world, as well as the reasons why science isn’t the only path to knowledge.
On October 10, 2017, the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. While certainly a national travesty, I should be quick to point out that Blake Bortles has never failed to qualify for a World Cup. Obviously, Blake is better than the USMNT, except for one problem: he plays an entirely different sport.
Blake Bortles is the quarterback of the Jacksonville Jaguars, and they play in the National Football League, which is a different kind of football than what the USMNT plays. Even so, the news that Bortles had never failed to qualify for the World Cup was still one of the many “facts” tweeted by the “Blake Bortles Facts” account.
To let you in on the ruse just a bit, Bortles was once quarterback for the University of Central Florida (UCF), which is within walking distance of my house. Blake led UCF to arguably their best season of football to date, which included a stunning Fiesta Bowl win over Baylor. Bortles then entered the NFL Draft and was selected third overall by the Jaguars in 2014. And because we’re sharing Blake Bortles facts, you should know he grew up in Oviedo, Florida, which is where my wife grew up, and that she used to pick him up from football practice because he was friends with the boys she nannied for. (Also, he thought she was hot.)
If you’re keeping up with the NFL, however, you know things haven’t gone well in Jacksonville since then. Granted, they’re currently in first place. But historically, Bortles is not what you would consider an elite quarterback. Which makes “Blake Bortles Facts” all the more hilarious.
Bortles only had to attempt a single pass in the second half to beat the Steelers. He’s undefeated on Monday Night Football and on five continents. He’s combined with Tom Brady for five Super Bowl Titles, four Super Bowl MVP Awards, 12 Pro Bowls, and two NFL MVP Awards. Finally, no quarterback in the Pro Football Hall of Fame has defeated him.If we’re unfamiliar with the overall context, we can easily be led astray by statements that are true but still misleading.
However, you could just as easily tell the truth a different way. Bortles only attempted a single pass in the second half against the Steelers because the game was more or less won at that point; the defense had scored so many points. They ran the ball the whole half to avoid the possibility of Bortles making a mistake that would cost the game.
Yes he’s undefeated on five continents, but they’re the continents where NFL games aren’t played. And since Bortles has never played on Monday Night Football, he’s winless there, too. All the awards he’s combined with Brady for are all Brady’s. And those Hall of Fame quarterbacks? They all retired before Bortles was drafted.
All of this reminds me of how my dad explained propaganda to me. “Imagine the US and Russia in a car race,” he said. “The US finishes first and Russia finishes last. Of course, that’s the way our headline would read. In Russia, it would say ‘Russia finished second; US finishes second to last.’”
Notice the shift there. Both headlines are “factual.” However, one of them is rhetorically slanting facts in a way that obscures what really happened. This is made possible by leaving out key information. Everything that remains is still true but without that crucial piece of information, each headline suggests a different picture of reality.
In my dad’s example, all one needs to do is ask, “How many cars were in the race?” to instantly expose what’s going on. In many of the “Blake Bortles Facts” tweets, though, more detective work is required.
For instance, one tweet points out that Tom Brady has never defeated Blake Bortles in the Super Bowl. Given Brady’s career, that might seem impressive. But if you also know that the Patriots and Jaguars are in the same NFL conference, then you’d know it’s impossible for Brady and Bortles to face off in a Super Bowl. (Also, the Jaguars aren’t making it any time soon because, well, they’d have to beat the Patriots to get there.)
The more you know about the state of the NFL, the more ridiculous “Blake Bortles Facts” will strike you. On the other hand, if you’re mostly ignorant of pro football, the tweets make Bortles seem like one of the game’s most elite quarterbacks.
This illustrates a key problem in interpretation. Whether it’s the Bible, books in general, or information on the internet, we’re always interpreting the facts we encounter. In the process, context determines how we understand those facts. If we’re unfamiliar with the overall context, we can easily be led astray by statements that are true but still misleading. Set in the right context, those Blake Bortles facts end up being unremarkable.
The applications for this spread out across the internet. Statistics taken out of context are ubiquitous. I first became aware of this during one of my three undergrad statistics classes. I did some supplemental reading with Gerd Gigerenzer’s Calculated Risks: How to Know When Numbers Deceive You followed by Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions. Both books help readers make sense of statistical data and how it can be intentionally (or unintentionally) used to motivate decisions.
More recently, I read Daniel J. Levitin’s Weaponized Lies: How to Think Critically in the Post-Truth Era. While the original hardback edition was simply called A Field Guide to Lies: Critical Thinking in the Information Age, the more recently published paperback edition speaks to the political rhetoric that has kicked things up a notch, so to speak.
In the introduction, Levitin explains why:
I started writing this book in 2001, while teaching a college course on critical thinking. I worked on it in earnest during 2014-2016, and published it with a different introduction and the title A Field Guide to Lies. Since then, the dangerousness and reach of lies has become overwhelming. They are no longer just things that people can snark at or giggle over — they have become weapons. This danger may get worse, it may lead to troubles that we have not witnessed for generations. Or it may pass without such drastic consequences. In any case the tools offered here are the same as in the first edition; they are necessary tools, irrespective of the political, social, and economic winds. (xix)
He goes on to explain why he thinks we’ve reached this state of affairs before offering the aforementioned tools. The book’s first part helps readers evaluate numbers. The second helps readers evaluate arguments and is a crash course in practical epistemology. The final part delves into science and logic before offering four case studies to test your progress in learning.
Twitter accounts like “Blake Bortles Facts” fall into the category of “things that people can snark at or giggle over” that Levitin mentions. But the viability of such things derives from a larger cultural milieu in which truth is not always obvious and critical thinking is required. We rarely ever encounter a place online or in print that presents “just the facts,” like Joe Friday was looking for. Instead, we need to be cautious and critical in our reading skills. The truth is out there, but sometimes it’s not as obvious as it might seem.
White nationalist Richard Spencer spoke at the University of Florida on October 19. At the national level, I don’t think it became news until it was about to happen. But because we live in Orlando, it was local news more than 6 weeks ago because UF had rejected Spencer’s request to speak on campus after Charlottesville.
As these things go, UF had two options: either allow Spencer to speak on campus or face legal action. Because it’s a public, taxpayer-funded university, UF has a very high bar set for who it can actively deny the right for on-campus events. Regardless of UF’s decision, the event would’ve been costly. UF would’ve had to pay for additional campus security to maintain safety or pay additional legal fees (and then maybe additional security costs anyway).
Knowing this, when you see Eugene Scott, a political reporter for the Washington Post tweet, “The Univ of Florida president just said they’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to accommodate Richard Spencer coming to their campus,” it should give one pause.
One could easily read Scott’s tweet about “accommodating” Richard Spencer as if UF was rolling out the red carpet to make him feel welcome. You could also look at it as wasteful spending in light of other pressing concerns. But one could also read it in light of this interview with UF’s president. There, he says:
It really was Charlottesville that changed everything. Without that occurring, we would not have the law enforcement here. It was those images of assault weapons and the clubs and the death with the car. It changed all our our perspectives. So I worry about all of our campus, and their physical and mental well-being.
And then I do worry about the image of our institution. We don’t want to be associated with any of his message. Our message is absolutely the opposite of his white supremacist message.
If all one had to go on was Scott’s tweets, it would be easy to think that UF was somehow endorsing Richard Spencer’s speaking on campus. But set in the proper context, one can see an entirely different picture emerge.
That example illustrates the importance of knowing all the facts of a current situation. However, it’s also important to be up to date on historical context as well. Mark Jones draws attention to this in light of a recent article by John Piper. If one has read authors like Thomas Goodwin, who had significant influence on the documents like the Westminster Confession of Faith, then what Piper said about being saved by faith alone is unremarkable.
This shouldn’t imply that we all need to get degrees in historical theology. But if one is familiar with the Church’s creeds and confessions and truly understands them, then one is better able to assess what current authors are saying. Given that we’re on the eve of the Reformation’s 500th anniversary, we ought to know what we’re protesting and why if we’re truly Protestants. But to do that, one needs basic familiarity with Church doctrine and history.
Much like the “truth” about Blake Bortles, interpretation and context is needed to make sense of reality. And just like a puzzle can be assembled if you look closely to see how the pieces fit, you can read the internet well — if you’re willing to take the time to do so.
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