How to Evaluate Truth Claims

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Learning how to evaluate truth claims has never been more important than in the 21st century.

COVID-19 may be on the wane but theories of its origin, purpose and composition are still circulating as fast as airborne viruses. In the past, we only had to contend with flat-earth poppycock, faked moon landings, and so on. Now we are faced with conspiracy theories and misinformation that would make Joseph Geobbels envious.

It would be OK if the tidal waves of misinformation washing through our brains via social media were just entertaining distractions, but they aren’t. They confuse, increase insecurity, raise tension levels and can cause both physical and mental harm.

In May 2020 I wrote an article titled So Pass It On where I gave some advice on what information not to pass on to others, and why we shouldn’t. Since then I have been obliged to view dozens and dozens of posts and videos covering such things as why all COVID-19 vaccines are actually deadly venom injections, how a cabal of all-powerful people are taking over the entire world, how the end of the world will come in a matter of months, and so on. During a recent discussion regarding these matters, I was asked why ‘the church’ had not taught us how to evaluate such claims. Now, I am not ‘the church’, but I accepted the challenge to write something on evaluating truth claims … so here it is.

Logic versus Emotion

If it were only a matter of applying logic then it would be relatively easy to filter out the, well you know what, from the media posts, but it isn’t.

Emotions play a big role in whether a person will accept disinformation as valid and unfounded theories as truth.

There is an interesting article on sciencefocus.com where the author sets out a few researched emotional reasons why some people are more prone than others to conspiracy theories. I think that the prime culprit is fear, specifically the fear of not being in control and of being helpless in the face of impending catastrophe. Ironically, the thing that eases the fear of not being in control comes from buying into the idea that a shadowy elite group is in control. They then find a sense of worth and validation by passing on information to like-minded people and warning sceptical friends of the impending doom. Of course, this just increases the general level of stress and anxiety and fails miserably in providing practical help and solutions.

Emotions aside, what we all can and should be doing is applying critical thinking to truth claims that come our way.

Critical Thinking Skills

Two essential preliminary steps to take when exposed to new information are;

  1. Test the premises: A premise is the base of an argument or theory and a good way to identify it is to a work backwards to a previous statement or proposition from which it is inferred. What you are doing here is checking the validity and connectedness of the statements made. i.e. If this is true then that would also probably be true. For example, I recently read a claim that an un-named ‘Spanish lab’ had tested the Pfizer vaccine and found that it was 99% Graphine Oxide. The person spreading this ‘fact’ across the world went on to state that this particular chemical was lethal. So the ‘logic’ is that Pfizer is attempting to kill off millions of people by injecting them with deadly venom. There is reliable evidence that Graphine Oxide in substantial doses can be harmful, so the main premise in this media post is not the claim that it can be toxic, but the claim that it is a major component of Pfizer vaccines. This premise can be tested by scanning the list of contents on a vaccine label, consulting the Food and Drug Administration list, or accessing the research of an accredited laboratory that has analysed the vaccine (not an un-named Spanish lab).

However, here is the problem for us ordinary mortals:

To adequately check the validity of a false truth claim such as the one I have just presented requires both access to the right kind of information and a level of expertise that most of us do not possess.

So, we refer to time-honoured reliable sources such as reports by well-known medical faculties at major universities available on the internet, or to articles in accredited news or fact-checking sources such as Reuters , Associated Press , Factcheck , and so on. But here comes the rub – the advocates of the theories we are testing immediately claim that our ‘reliable’ sources are not reliable at all because they have sold out to big pharma, big tech, or a shadowy cabal of supermen … and so the conspiracy deepens and widens and presents itself as unfalsifiable.

  1. Evaluate the argument logically:
    1. Falsifiable: Is there enough valid evidence to prove it wrong or are the claims made too general, vague or unsubstantiated to find against them. The idea here is that new truth claims must earn their right to be accepted by demonstrating that they can be tested, evaluated, and found to be truthful.
    2. Probable: What are the chances of this being true? For instance, most of the world conspiracy theories require that almost every authority and expertise source in the world is in cahoots – The British government colluding with the Iranian leaders, the American with the Chinese, The North Koreans with Japan, and subject matter experts all singing off the same out-of-tune hymn sheet.
    3. Generalisable: To use an old example, spotting three dogs that are black does not mean that all dogs are black. Some adverse reactions to a vaccine do not mean that everyone will experience adverse effects.
    4. Convergent: Are there several lines of research and reasoning that are all coming to similar conclusions or is the evidence emanating from just a small number of similar-minded people?
    5. Credible: Is the source of the information credible? Does it come from a well-known and generally well-regarded institution? Is the person promoting the ideas suitably qualified and experienced in that field?

To these five criteria I would add the matter of Rhetorical Malpractice:

  • Does the source attack the opposition to the idea and not the ideas themselves?
  • Does it capitalize on the fear of possible adverse consequences?
  • Does it beg the question by assuming that the conclusion is true without proving it to be true?
  • Is it peppered with inconsistent and self-contradictory statements?
  • Does it argue that because it happened after X it must have been caused by X? Does it exclude any other reasonable proposition other than the one it is promoting?
The Bottom Line

All well and good, but at the heart of the issue are some fundamental choices we all have to make:

  1. Are we prepared to do the hard work of researching and evaluating truth claims?
  2. Are we determined to allow logic and careful thinking to prevail over emotional and sensational appeal?
  3. Are we committed to refusing to pass on fear and confusion-inducing theories until we have personally verified them and satisfied ourselves that the recipients can do something positive with the information?
    Do they encourage, hearten, and fill us and others with faith. Do they point us to Jesus?
  4. Are we prepared to abide by the scriptural principles that we can easily deduce from the Word of God? For example:
  • Exodus 23:1 ‘Do not spread false reports. Do not help a wicked man by being a malicious witness’.
  • 2 Timothy 2:16-17 ‘Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene.
  • 2 Timothy 4:3-4 ‘For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.
  • 2 Timothy 1:7 ‘For God has not given us a spirit of fearfulness, but one of power, love, and sound judgment’ HCSB.
Conclusion

I am convinced that most of us have the mental capability and basic skills to test truth claims, but I am not convinced that most of us are prepared to do the time-consuming and mentally challenging work that this requires. I am equally sure that some people find comfort in emotional validation rather than logical deduction. I also believe that most disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ want to help others, but some do not appreciate that the way to do this is not through imbibing and passing on conspiracy sewerage but by drinking and sharing the pure water of Jesus and his word.

 

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Christopher Peppler

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2 thoughts on “How to Evaluate Truth Claims”

  1. This is one of the most interesting articles I’ve read recently. After reading it, I feel a bit like I have visited an episode of The Twilight Zone. The reason is, the bizarre irony. This article is about evaluating truth claims using proper evidence, logic, and reason. It very well explains how to reasonably recognize truth and untruth. Yet the very same article that asks the question, “Are we prepared to do the hard work of researching and evaluating truth claims?” also speaks of Jesus Christ as Lord and Christianity as The Truth. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Right? There is hardly anymore extraordinary claim than that of the existence of the supernatural. Why is not the same reason that is recommended for application to Covid truth claims also applied to religious claims? The 100,000 lb. gorilla (It’s a BIG one!) in the room is all too apparent here.

    1. Christopher Peppler

      Dear Jeffrey. You seem to assume that I have not applied the principles of truth determination to the foundational propositions that God exists, that Jesus Christ is God incarnate, that the spiritual dimension exists and interfaces with the physical dimension, and so on. Well, of course I have. I have no idea of your qualifications or publications and so I cannot assess whether or not you too have laboured persistently on these most important issues of life and eternity. There are a vast number of published books, videos, podcasts etc. that you could access on the internet in one form or another. However, I have found Dr William Lane Craig an excellent go-to scholar in matters like this. Here is a link to one of his articles that you might find helpful, and his site is rich in research material. Have a look at his CV while you are at it to assess the kind of man behind the ideas.
      https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/existence-nature-of-god/does-god-exist

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About Me

My name is Christopher Peppler and I was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1947. While working in the financial sector I achieved a number of business qualifications from the Institute of Bankers, Damelin Management School, and The University of the Witwatersrand Business School. After over 20 years as a banker, I followed God’s calling and joined the ministry full time. After becoming a pastor of what is now a quite considerable church, I  earned an undergraduate theological qualification from the Baptist Theological College of Southern Africa and post-graduate degrees from two United States institutions. I was also awarded the Doctor of Theology in Systematic Theology from the University of Zululand in 2000.

Four years before that I established the South African Theological Seminary (SATS), which today is represented in over 70 countries and has more than 2 500 active students enrolled with it. I presently play an role supervising Masters and Doctoral students.

I am a passionate champion of the Christocentric or Christ-centred Principle, an approach to biblical interpretation and theological construction that emphasises the centrality of Jesus

I have been happily married to Patricia since the age of 20, have two children, Lance and Karen, a daughter-in-law Tracey, and granddaughters Jessica and Kirsten. I have now retired from both church and seminary leadership and devote my time to writing, discipling, and the classical guitar.

If you would like to read my testimony to Jesus then click HERE.