Online Conversation | Trust, Truth, and the Knowledge Crisis with Bonnie Kristian
The question “How do I know what’s true?” comes up with increasing frequency and urgency in our time of angry polarization, deliberately-stoked outrage, and earned distrust. There is money to be made and a growing market for the kind of misinformation that reinforces our views and confirms our preconceptions — as well as a large price to be paid. Our failure as a people to agree not only on matters of right and wrong, but more basic questions of truth and falsehood, or even reality versus fantasy, exacerbates our divisions and frustrations. So how do we learn to discern what is true and real amidst the din?
The Trinity Forum hosted an Online Conversation with Bonnie Kristian on Friday, October 21 at 1:30 p.m. ET to consider the causes, consequences, and hopes for understanding and responding to our knowledge crisis. Drawing on her experience as a journalist, Bonnie explores the sources that contribute to widespread confusion and conspiracy thinking and offers insight into ways to combat misinformation and pursue truth in our own lives, families, and church communities.
Thank you to our sponsors for their support of this event:
Online Conversation | Bonnie Kristian | October 21, 2022
Cherie Harder: On behalf of all of us at the Trinity Forum, I’d like to add my own welcome to you to join us for today’s Online Conversation with Bonnie Kristian on “Trust, Truth, and the Knowledge Crisis.” I’d also like to thank our sponsors, which Molly mentioned, American Values Coalition and Baker Publishing Group, for their support. We really appreciate it. And [I’m] delighted that so many of you are joining us today—believe we have around 1,200 registrants from at least 16 different countries that we know of. So hello from across the miles to all of you joining us from Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, France, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Slovenia, South Africa, and the UK. If you are joining us from overseas and did not hear your country mentioned just now, let us know where you’re joining us from in the chat box. We are always excited to welcome people from across the miles and time zones.
I’d also like to send a special thank you and welcome to the first-time registrants joining us today. We believe there’s over 100 of you and are just really glad that you found your way to us. If you are one of those new registrants or are otherwise new to the Trinity Forum, we seek to provide a space to engage the big questions of life in the context of faith, and to offer programs like this Online Conversation to do so, and to come to better know the Author of the answers.
Our discussion today will focus on one of those big questions, namely, how do we discern and know what is trustworthy and true? It’s a simple question, but a tall order. We are awash in misinformation, conspiracy thinking, partisan outrage, and alternative facts. And while conspiracy theories and conspiracy thinking are themselves nothing new, the power of our increasingly personalized, highly politicized, outrage-inducing and unrelenting social media channels is. The resulting echo-chamber amplification of misinformation has left us not only more confused in our thinking, but also certain in our judgments, disinclined to consider divergent data or new perspectives, and distrustful of those who disagree. The result is what our guest today has called a “knowledge crisis,” one that is, in her words, “breaking our brains, polluting our politics, and corrupting Christian community.”
So how do we learn to think well, to discern what is true amidst conflict and chaos, and to respond to confusion with both wisdom and charity? Joining me today to discuss that very question is Bonnie Kristian. Bonnie is a seasoned journalist, a frequent contributor to Reason magazine, a columnist at Christianity Today, a fellow at Defense Priorities, and previously served as the editor of The Week magazine. Her work has been featured in numerous outlets, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Daily Beast, CNN, and Politico. And she’s also the author of A Flexible Faith, as well as her new release, Untrustworthy: The Knowledge Crisis Breaking Our Brains, Polluting Our Politics, and Corrupting Christian Community, which we’ve invited her here today to discuss.
Bonnie Kristian: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.
Cherie Harder: It’s great to have you here. So as we start off, let’s just start at the very beginning with what is the knowledge crisis and how is it breaking our brains and corrupting our communities?
Bonnie Kristian: Well, the knowledge crisis, I think, is that very unfortunately familiar sense of unease or uncertainty that a lot of us feel these days as we attempt to engage in especially online media, social media—not exclusively, though—and especially—but again, not exclusively—political media. It’s that sense of wading into this onslaught of information and truth claims and not being certain what you can trust, what voices are reliable, what fact claims you should take seriously. And I think, you know, it’s easy to say, “Oh, well, that’s sort of like an intellectual thing. It’s something that’s happening just in our minds.” But in practice, this has very real relational effects, both at an interpersonal level where we’re having these very frustrating conversations with friends and loved ones where it doesn’t even feel like you’re looking at the same reality. And then also it has a very corrosive effect on community life, be that in a political sense—where all of the trends that you hear talked about all the time of negative partisanship and polarization, that’s all very much tied into this because it’s so concerned with any discussion we’re having, knowledge is going to be at the basis of that—and it’s also coming into church life to congregations. This is, I think, a matter of discipleship, and it’s something that I’ve heard from a lot of pastors. It’s something that they are increasingly focused on and that in many cases sort of caught them by surprise because it all happened pretty quickly. And if you went to seminary 10 or 15 years ago, this isn’t what you heard about. But now it’s very much here and affecting so many of us.
Cherie Harder: You know, one thing that you mentioned in your book, which it was discouraging to read is, you know, we think about a lack of information as sort of fueling our mistaken notions—ignorance being at the basis of a lot of misinformation. But one of the things you pointed out in your book, it was actually often the more time people spent being informed by different media sources, the more likely they were to be misinformed as opposed to well informed. What’s going on there? That’s a counterintuitive link.
Bonnie Kristian: Yeah, that particular piece came from a 2019 study called “The Perception Gap.” And what they found was, as you said, people who were very up on politics, people who would consider themselves news junkies who were quite well-informed, [had] the most distorted perceptions, particularly of their political opponents. And frequently the way that those perceptions were distorted was they thought that other people were more extreme and more antagonistic than they actually are. And I think a lot of that has to do with the way that our media ecosystem functions right now, where there’s this intense competition for viewers because you have to get eyeballs on there to be able to just pay the bills. And that encourages a high output of content and encourages sensationalism. You know, the more exciting headline is going to get more clicks.
And it also, in the social media context, you know, outrageous things tend to travel farther. There’s some evidence that false claims will go viral further and more quickly than true claims will. And I think a lot of that is just because there’s a sort of a perverse freedom if you don’t have a regard for the truth. You can say whatever you want. You can exactly play into people’s outrage and their fears. And someone who is trying to be more ethical and actually tell the truth, tell the factual story, has constraints and isn’t so easily able to whip people up and get those eyeballs. And yeah, it’s a widespread problem. I think we would like to think, “Well, that’s the other side’s problem. You know, the people that I oppose, they’re the ones who are doing that.” But I think it’s very much across the political spectrum.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. You mentioned just how misinformation spreads so quickly on social media, and there have been certainly a lot of studies that have shown that. I think there was one study that showed that misinformation actually spreads six times as quickly on social media as that which was true and which was accurate. And another thing you point out in your book is that, not surprisingly, our trust in media is down, but our viewership and our consumption is way up. And, of course, the people who are spreading misinformation on social media, that’s not an outside institution. That’s us doing it. Nor can it be just attributed just to bots. So what is going on here and why have we come to love and consume more and more from outlets that we distrust?
Bonnie Kristian: Some of it I think is sort of tribalism and people will say, “Well, I don’t trust the media, but the stuff that I listen to is good.” And so people think that they’ve become an exception and they’ve found the true voices, which may or may not be correct. And some of it is that, as you said, we sort of all are invited to play pundit now. And so there’s that incentive when everyone is constantly being encouraged to share their opinion, you’ve got to have an opinion to share. You’ve got to take stuff in to be able to put stuff out. A lot of it, I think, though, is we like to tell ourselves that we’re consuming this political media because we’re going to be good citizens and we’re going to be well informed and have very rational opinions and all sorts of flattering things like that. But in practice, what our behavior suggests is that that’s not actually why we’re consuming this media. We’re consuming it because of how it affects us emotionally and how it makes us feel better about ourselves than other people, how it excites us, how it sort of inflames us. And so in that light, it makes sense that we would still be consuming more of media that we know in some sense isn’t worth our time because we’re not really there to become better informed. We’re there to be entertained for the most part.
Cherie Harder: In addition to the counterintuitive finding that your book talks about—whereas the more we consume, the more likely we’re being misinformed—there’s another sort of inversion of what one might expect, which is while our trust in different institutions and media, even in the information we receive, has gone down, that hasn’t led to a greater discernment. Or that kind of skepticism hasn’t necessarily always been applied in wise ways towards concentrations of power or the like, but has actually instead, the more distrustful we are, strangely, the more gullible we have become in terms of believing even stranger things. I would love to kind of hear you talk a little bit about that phenomenon and why that might be.
Bonnie Kristian: Yeah. So I’m a libertarian, as anyone who Googles me will find out. And I’m certainly not anti-skepticism. I think skepticism is one of the healthiest habits of American politics and one of our better inclinations. The problem that we have now is that it’s not a healthy skepticism in many cases. It’s much more cynical; it’s much more reflexive. It’s not really informed by anything so much as just a knee-jerk reaction. And when I was writing on that subject, I quoted from the philosopher Hannah Arendt, and she talks about a combination of gullibility and cynicism in which you think, and I believe the quote is, that “anything is possible and nothing is true.” I may be butchering that or reversing it or something. But “anything is possible, nothing is true”—it’s gullibility and cynicism at once.
And so the way it works is it’s a very convenient posture to take, I think, and it’s very conducive to motivated reasoning, where if someone presents you with a truth claim or a story that you don’t want to be true, you can simply dismiss it, right? Because, well, you can’t trust those people. That doesn’t make any sense. Like, why would why would you believe the media? It’s fake news. But if there’s some outlandish claim—or not outlandish—but in many cases some outlandish claim that makes sense to you, that paints people you oppose in a bad light, that you want it to be true, well, then you can sort of take a posture of “You can’t prove it. You can’t prove it’s not true. You weren’t there. You didn’t see this not happen. It’s possible.”
And so it’s when we have such a deluge of information coming at us all the time, I think it’s easy to fall into that sort of pick-and-choose mindset where you just sort of select things not based on any real careful assessment that you’ve done—because in many cases you can’t. There’s just too much to assess. And so you default into that more convenient approach of being cynical and overly skeptical about things you don’t want to be true and then being very trusting in a sense and to the point of gullibility about things you do want to be true.
Cherie Harder: One of the things you point out is just how closely trust and truth are related. And, you know, of course, there are good reasons why some institutions, as well as some media outlets, have earned the mistrust that they receive. And there have been conspiracy theories that were true; conspiracies that have happened. One thinks of Watergate and others. And so, of course, the big question becomes, how does one distinguish whom to trust? And would be curious, like, how does one choose wisely whom to trust, not only on a personal level, but more on an institutional level?
Bonnie Kristian: That’s a huge question and not sure one that I— not sure it’s one I can answer very succinctly. I think a lot of it has to do with developing sort of a feel for truth. An analogy I like to use is when you’re browsing in the store, can you sort of feel the difference between cotton and polyester? It’s something you get right away and that it might be sort of difficult to, if someone set you down and said, “okay, explain to me what feels different here,” you might have trouble verbalizing it, but you feel it. And so I think developing that feel for truth and also for untruth is really important. And that’s something that takes time and takes a context of good habits and good community and other wiser voices sort of to build upon and to guide us.
And so something I think that is really useful in that regard can be finding voices that you trust from maybe outside of our own time, where it’s not so wrapped up in the current debates, right? Because it’s someone who didn’t live during the current debates. And when we’re looking at reading or listening or what-have-you someone who’s not speaking about the fights that we are so wrapped up in, I think that can help make it easier to sort of figure out is this truthful? Does this make sense? Is this person reliable and trustworthy? And then to begin from there. That’s a good place, where it’s not so high stakes. It’s not so immediate. It’s not about anything that you need to do something about right now. Start there and start developing that feel for truth and do that hopefully in the context of a community. And then as you have that sense, maybe move out into more contemporary situations where it’s a little bit more urgent.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. Now you’ve talked about the knowledge crisis or the epistemic crisis that we are in as—we so often think of it as an intellectual problem primarily, or a political problem—but you’ve also argued that it is both an emotional and a spiritual problem. How so?
Bonnie Kristian: Well, I think it’s an emotional problem in the sense that, you know, I mentioned we like to think of ourselves as very rational. We’ve sort of just thought things through and we’re all little Sherlock Holmeses informing our political opinions, right? But in practice, that’s not how humans are. And there’s not that very tidy dividing line between emotion and reason. And so a lot of times when we’re dealing with especially relational conflicts related to this crisis, we have this idea that we’re going to argue someone out of their wrong beliefs. And we’re just going to sit down and we’re going to have this reasoned conversation, and they’re going to say, “I see now that I was wrong and you were right, and I now believe what you believe.” That doesn’t work in the vast majority of cases, because that’s not how those beliefs were formed. It’s much more about inclinations and instincts and what do your friends believe and what do people you dislike believe.
And so when we try to separate those things out, number one, we’re deluding ourselves about our own behavior. But we’re also setting ourselves up for more conflicts and more frustration and more difficulty in understanding why other people behave the way they do. And I think that in turn, when someone does something that you think is just unintelligible, that’s frightening to just not be able to fathom why someone would behave the way they would. And so then that— it becomes a very vicious cycle of we can’t understand one another, we can’t understand why someone else doesn’t think the way they do. And that encourages our fear and anger. And it goes on and on.
As far as a spiritual crisis, as Christians, it concerns truth. We think of ourselves as people of truth. And yet here we are having these often very intense debates, even within congregations. You know, there are stories of churches splitting over this stuff or of pastors leaving or being ousted over disagreements about this sort of thing. I don’t think that we can separate truth and love. Scripture connects those very frequently, truth and love, as things that interact with one another, and that how we’re pursuing truth will affect how we are loving one another. And so it is, I think, very much a spiritual crisis and a matter of discipleship—and a matter of discipleship that is quite new and that wasn’t on our radar relatively recently. And that intensifies the problem because it’s just not something that most of us anticipated needing to address in a church context. It’s a fresh problem that previous generations didn’t have the same technological context. And it’s pretty rare that there’s a discipleship problem that previous generations didn’t already struggle through. But here we do have something, I think, legitimately new.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. You mentioned fear and anger, and the anger part is quite obvious, but fear often seems to be the source of a lot of conspiracy theories. And there are a lot of studies out there showing that Americans in the aggregate have remarkably elevated fear levels around their fellow citizens. You know, if one looks at polls just of political partisans, more than 80 percent of partisans on either side believe that the other side is brainwashed and evil and out to get them. And of course, I’m sure there are folks out there with ill intent, but presumably it’s not half of the country out to get the other half. And, unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much difference in Christians versus the larger populace, at least by the polls. Why are we so convinced that our fellow citizens are intent upon our own destruction?
Bonnie Kristian: I think a lot of it is that inability to sort of fathom how the other side could come to the conclusions that they have reached. There’s this concept in psychology called “theory of mind,” and it’s basically, in a normal adult human brain, you should be able to sort of game out how someone reached their conclusions and understand, even if it’s not the conclusion that you would reach or the decision you would make, that they have different inputs, different experiences, different beliefs, different wants, etc. Little kids don’t have this all the way, and it can be very funny to watch them try to figure out, like, why would you do that? And I think in politics we are sort of losing that capacity in a lot of ways where we just truly can’t understand how the other side could come to the conclusion they come to. And we think in, like, foreign policy, we’ll talk about, like, “Is Kim Jong-un a madman?” Right? Because that’s frightening, that sense of we can’t parse out what— we can’t anticipate what he’s going to do next. And I think we sort of see ourselves, see each other, with that same mystification.
And I think a lot of that is exacerbated by just the loss of sort of normal community life, especially in institutional contexts, where you would see each other every week at church. You would see each other at some sort of like neighborhood club or volunteer association or bowling, to reference the famous book. Something where you didn’t have to have a multi-day text thread to coordinate everyone’s schedules. And losing that sort of regular access to other people really— you might have been having conversations where they could explain their thinking to you, and now we’re just not having that. And so it becomes self-perpetuating, right? Like if you’re afraid of these people, you don’t want to hang out with them. If you’re not hanging out with them, you become more afraid of them.
Cherie Harder: So what does one do then, just in terms of relating with the friend or the relative who does seem to have gone down a conspiracy rabbit hole where they talk of little else, but one wants to keep the relationship alive? How does one approach that?
Bonnie Kristian: You know, it’s never going to be easy. But I think the single biggest thing—and you mentioned they talk of little else—is to not talk about that. I argue for a living. I want to be able to argue someone out of something like that. But in practice, I don’t think those arguments—99 percent of the time—I don’t think those arguments succeed. And that’s for a lot of reasons. Some of it is just if you’re spending an hour a week with someone and you try to argue with them for 45 minutes of it, there’s not much of a relationship there. And no one is going to enjoy that. They’re not going to have much reason to listen to you. Some of it, a lot of it, though, is the way that a lot of conspiracy theories work, especially now, is they’re not a carefully reasoned thing. There’s not all these specific pieces of evidence that you could show are false. Right? It’s just sort of a mindset and a posture of that negative skepticism, that very cynical mindset that we’ve discussed already. And so an argument—maybe you do win the argument about one specific thing—it doesn’t matter. A new piece will rise up in its place.
And so, far more productive than arguing, I think, is to have conversations about other things. And those will function to remind that loved one about all of the good and indeed better things in the world that exist outside this framework into which they’ve gotten entangled. So you talk about your kids, your dog, your vacation, your jobs, whatever. Literally anything is better. And the time that you’re spending talking about those things and focusing on better things that are not just this sort of like self-consuming paranoia, all of that is a win. The fact of the conversation is a win, because it’s not time that they’re spending digging deeper into this mindset. And it’s a long game. It’s not— I think we sort of want to have a short timeline on “maybe I spend a couple of months really focused on this and then it’s all better.” It might be years, it might be a lifetime. But the more you can spend diverting their attention to other things, the better.
Cherie Harder: You know, you’ve argued that the likelihood of systemic reform of this new problem is relatively small. And if it comes, it probably won’t be all-encompassing, which means that we will need to change ourselves rather than waiting for systems to change. But of course, one of the problems is ourselves, and even those of us who very much want to think and live wisely and well and be discerning—it is so easy to get sucked into the echo chamber with feeds that reinforce all of our biases and confirm those who are villains. And, of course, blind spots are called that because we are blind to them, even if we are very inquisitive. Towards the end of your book, you mentioned different formational habits that help one both resist that mindset and be more discerning. What are some of those?
Bonnie Kristian: Yes. The analogy that I give is if you think about a Gothic cathedral—it’s got beautiful windows. Those windows are like the virtues that we need to develop, intellectual virtues, to be able to engage in this media environment well, or, in many cases, to disengage to a degree and actually be able to maintain that. But, of course, the windows don’t stand up by themselves. You need the stone walls. And these are habits. And these are things that we can much more directly affect and choose to adopt than virtues. Unfortunately, you can’t just decide “I have this virtue now.” It would be so nice if you could.
So a lot of the habits are very much concerned with how we’re spending our time, where we’re putting our attention, what voices are we habitually listening to? Something that I heard over and over again from pastors even before I started writing this book, and also in my research, was nearly verbatim: “You know, I get an hour a week with my congregants, but Facebook or Twitter or CNN or Fox News or what-have-you gets them for 15, 20, 30 hours.” And I think a big part of this is to not let that be true of us. To notice, you know, is my phone the first thing that I look at—and social media—is that the first thing I look at every morning and the last thing every night? Is that how I’m framing my days? Is my living room oriented around doing the classic two-screen, like the television and the phone at the same time? Is that how the most important room in your family life is physically arranged?
And so, being real—I think we need to be really honest. And this is very much me as well. We need to be really honest in assessing how we are spending our time like this, how we have arranged our homes and our schedules, and what is shaping you day in and day out. Because for so many of us, the answer has really become the podcast that I can’t do the dishes without or the TV show that I watch every night while I fold the laundry. And those voices are not having a neutral effect on us. They’re not having a neutral effect on the way we think and on the way that we’re able to use our attention. A really good, simple question is do you have to pick up your phone every time you get to the end of a chapter in a book? I think for a lot of us, the answer is we do. We do read like that. And so just making that assessment and then beginning to reorient our days in a more purposeful way so that this does not eat up our lives is, I think, a very concrete way to begin and something that all of us can—and again, myself included—should do.
Cherie Harder: In addition to a time audit or even a habit audit, you also mentioned a need for a more robust what you called “epistemology of love and hermeneutic of obedience.” What does that mean and what does it look like in the context of our tendency towards confusion?
Bonnie Kristian: So the epistemology of love is a phrase that I have stolen from the theologian N. T. Wright. And his argument is that a lot of times when we’re trying to acquire knowledge, we veer into sort of like trying to reach an impossible objectivity where you just want to sort of be like a blank slate and there’s going to be none of your own influence. You’re going to be an inhuman robot just picking up facts. Or, on the other hand, we sort of go into just complete subjectivity, saying, “I just want to find out what’s true for me, what seems right to me.” And so his idea of an epistemology of love is that you are striking sort of a virtuous mean between those, where you’re looking for the thing as it is and to enjoy it and respect it, to enjoy and respect the truth as it actually is—not as you want it to be, to avoid the subjectivity side, but also not trying to have that complete detachment where you are trying to know things as they are and follow your increasing knowledge to where it naturally leads and to be affected by that and not try to be a robot that you cannot be.
And the hermeneutic of obedience is, I think, closely related to that. It’s an idea that I encountered, at least, in the Mennonite tradition, which is—I have spent most of my adult life in a Mennonite church. And the idea is that when you’re coming to Scripture—though I think this applies more broadly as well—when you’re coming to Scripture, you will find it much easier to understand the text when you’re prepared to obey it. And so for me, for example, for a long time I thought, you know, it’s so confusing what Jesus says about, like, love your enemies and turn the other cheek. You know, what did he really mean? We’ve got to really figure this out. And having ended up in a Mennonite church, it probably won’t surprise you that I now think what he meant was love your enemies and turn the other cheek. And that being willing to countenance the possibility that the intended meaning was exactly as nonviolent, as much of a rejection of violence as it sounded, like, made it possible for me to consider that. That willingness to potentially obey brought clarity to my understanding. And I think that’s true in a lot of things, that we will struggle to understand the truth if we are not willing to submit to the truth. And so a lot of times what we might experience as confusion is actually an unwillingness for something or an unwillingness to recognize that something is true.
Cherie Harder: Well, Bonnie, thank you so much for that. We have a lot of questions from our viewers that are all stacked up. And if you’re new to us, just a reminder that you can not only ask a question, but you can also “like” a question. And that helps give us an idea of what some of the most popular questions are. So, wow—quite a list. A question from an anonymous viewer: “Alan Jacobs encourages people to allow themselves the luxury of not having an opinion on the latest scandal until they’ve had time to consider it. Is that an approach you’d encourage?”
Bonnie Kristian: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s excellent advice. In fact, I would even extend it and say sometimes you never have to consider it and reach an opinion at all because the world will be exactly no different whether you do or not, and because it is not possible for you to know about everything well. I think even as a journalist, there are a lot of really important topics that you will never find me writing on because I have no subject-matter expertise. I am not in a position to be airing my opinions on these questions. And I do this for a living. So how much more is that going to be the case for the average person? You just can’t know about everything in a responsible and in-depth way. And the sense that we have that we need to always be raising awareness and having awareness and sharing our views, I think that’s simply not true. And so, yes, absolutely to his quote, and then also, again, I think sometimes you don’t need to form an opinion and you certainly don’t need to air it.
Cherie Harder: So another question comes from Nathan Harter, and Nathan asks, “Paul Hollander documented intellectuals who fell for bad leaders, undermining the sense that they should have been trustworthy guardians of the truth, when in fact they seemed especially vulnerable. Yet we’re often told to trust the experts. Why is that?”
Bonnie Kristian: Oh, that’s a big one. So I think the society that we live in, a society as complex as ours, cannot function without expertise. I mean, all of us every day are relying on expertise of people we have never met, will never meet. We have no way of assessing their credentials. Every time you drive across a bridge, you are trusting the expertise of the people who engineered it, the people who built it. And that is just simply how we have to live. So we can’t not have experts. And I include in “experts”—I don’t just mean academic experts. There’s a lot of work—many of us are experts in lots of things, some of which are not academic. So we have to have experts.
But it is also true that there are dangers in being considered an expert and especially an expert in a public sense. And part of what’s happened with the rise of social media and sort of the broader media environment that we have now is that people are much more likely to be asked to be experts in public. And that can be a very tricky position to be in. Number one, communicating in public well is its own expertise. And so someone may be quite good in their actual field and a garbage communicator, but they’re expected to, like, be on Twitter or go comment on cable news or something. They don’t necessarily have both kinds of expertise.
And then another thing is that someone who actually is good at communicating, they gain a reputation for being so good at talking, and then they start to be asked to comment on things outside their actual primary area of expertise. And perhaps they do it because it’s very flattering. And I think that points to some of what’s going on in this question, which is that, you know, anyone who finds themselves in a position of being honored as an expert is going to always have to be on guard against an arrogance and inflated sense of their own discernment, their own knowledge. It can be, I think, easy to assume that if you have expert knowledge in one area that you’ll be a good judge in these other areas. And that pride goeth before fall, right? And that sets you up to be susceptible in a way that someone who does not consider themselves an expert and has a greater posture of humility maybe wouldn’t be so confused.
Cherie Harder: So a question from Mary Theresa Webb, and Mary asks, “Our culture says that ‘my truth is different from your truth.’ How do we address this reality?”
Bonnie Kristian: Well, going back to not arguing, I don’t know that you’ll argue specific people who believe that out of that perspective. But, you know, I would say that that’s false. There is objective truth. Where we get into trouble if you believe objective truth exists, is that we can start to think that, once we’ve acknowledged that reality, that we know it. And what I would suggest is that objective truth is out there, we are capable of grasping it, but that does not mean that at any given moment, I have actually figured it out on any particular subject. And so I think when people talk about, you know, “there’s my truth and there’s your truth,” in some sense there’s a good impulse there. There’s an attempt to sort of have that humility and to recognize that things look different from different angles and that we don’t all have complete knowledge. But I think that we can strike that better balance of saying, “There is objective truth. I don’t necessarily have all of it all the time, but it does exist out there.” And so I think for someone who has that “my truth and your truth” thinking, that relativism, understanding that you can believe in objective truth without claiming to be the unparalleled possessor of it can be a useful reframe and a way to make the idea of objective truth more—I don’t want to say appealing—but more sensible, perhaps is the word.
Cherie Harder: So there’s a number of questions around this general topic, and I’ll choose one from Larry Bridge-Smith. And it’s a related topic. Larry asks, “I agree we are confronted with a knowledge crisis. Other than argument and debate, which change no one’s mind, how do we engage with others with whom we disagree to explore truth mutually?”
Bonnie Kristian: I don’t know that it changes no one’s mind, right? I think it depends on the context of the conversation. So a lot of times when I’m saying “don’t argue with someone,” what I have in mind is someone who has not invited that conversation, someone who has not said, “let’s sit down and talk this out and maybe your mind will end up changed and maybe my mind will end up changed. We’re going to sort of put it all on the table and see where we land.” I mean, if I thought that argument never worked, I couldn’t do my job. I primarily write opinion pieces, right? And so there’s a big difference between someone coming to an article I’ve written, coming to it and thinking, “All right, I’m going to see what she has to say about this. Maybe I’ll agree, maybe I won’t agree.” There are definitely circumstances in which argument, and not in a negative sense, but like arguing something through, thinking it through together, can work.
And I think a lot of that goes back to—a lot of that being possible—goes back to what manner and what sort of person are you coming to those conversations, not just in terms of your mindset for the immediate conversation, because it’s good, certainly, to come and say “maybe my mind will changed.” But you can’t just say that. It has to be backed up, I think, by those better habits and habits reinforcing intellectual virtues, because, I mean, if we’re coming to such a conversation without virtues like intellectual honesty and wisdom and studiousness, it’s like going to the gym and thinking you’re going to do a bunch of weight lifting. You’re not actually prepared for it, no matter how much you want to lift those weights.
So I think— I don’t want to suggest that it’s never going to be possible for us to have the sort of conversation that you’re envisioning. I think that it is possible. But maybe it’s not going to happen on social media. Probably it’s almost never going to happen on social media. And it also has to be between, I think, willing participants. A lot of the negative effects that social media has in this area is that it sets us up to think that people want us to just come blast our opinions at them. And most people don’t actually want that. It needs to be a mutual thing.
Cherie Harder: A question from Richard Scurry, who asks, “What is the larger problem, misinformation or the growing loss of free speech and our right to be wrong?”
Bonnie Kristian: I mean, I think these are— I would say these are both pieces of sort of this larger crisis of our distrust of one another and our declining capacity to talk with one another well and to pursue knowledge with one another. You hear a lot about misinformation and the quality of the information we’re encountering certainly does matter. I tend to think the term in some senses gets overused, right? Because if you find something you don’t like, you can dismiss it as just misinformation. And if we have a disproportionate concern, I think, for misinformation, it can lead us to supporting unrealistic and often counterproductive moderation or even in some cases a censorship project.
On the other hand, I think if we are misunderstanding the extent to which our free speech rights are threatened—and, you know, I understand the case for saying, like, “Twitter moderation is censorship.” As a libertarian, I think they’re a private company; you know, they’re not bound by the First Amendment. And so while I do want strong free speech norms, the actions of a particular company I think are not identical with that. But when we become— if we’re unrealistically worried about loss of free speech rights, then I think in some cases, some people their reaction will be to sort of gravitate towards lower-quality information as sort of like a thumb in the eye of the censors.
So I think these are related. I think there are risks in both directions. I don’t know if I would rank one or the other as the greater problem. I think they’re both serious. I think the technological aspects mean that both have really escalated and come to the forefront in a dramatic way where you always had the tabloids at the supermarket saying, like, “Hillary Clinton eloped with that boy.” There’s always been misinformation. And the way it spreads now is on a much larger scale. And then on the free speech side, it is remarkable the extent to which the liberalism and the declining norms of free speech have just wildly accelerated in the past decade or so. And so I think that’s difficult to overstate the dangers of that, though certainly the overstating does happen, I think.
Cherie Harder: Yeah. There’s a related question from Richard Myles, who asks, “How much of our current predicament is tied to declining standards in journalism? Reporters who substitute an ideological agenda instead of corroborating sources or verifying data and seeking comments from opposing viewpoints seem to bear much of the blame.”
Bonnie Kristian: So I would say that that perspective is super common. We have polling on this actually. When you ask Americans what’s wrong with the media, they overwhelmingly say the problem is people or journalists deliberately lying, doing it for a political agenda so that their side can win. I would push back on that to some degree. If you read Untrustworthy, you’ll find that I am quite critical of the modern-day journalism industry in a lot of ways. But I think that these sources of the problems that are evident tend to be a little bit more mundane and, in that regard, more difficult to notice and to stamp out. And so you can certainly find cases of journalists deliberately lying. Often they’re exposed by other journalists. But I would point more to things like how do we make money?
So before the internet, journalism was a cash cow. If you had a local paper, you were where people ran classifieds, right? You wanted to sell a car, you wanted to hire someone, you paid to put it in the classifieds. Now, you do that for free on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace or what have you. Journalism used to make a lot of money off ads. And because there was so much money coming in and there was so little competition—you might be the only paper; you might be one of just three national news stations—because there was so much money and so little competition that gave the newsroom a lot of leeway. You didn’t have to sensationalize if you didn’t want to to get eyeballs because there was nowhere else for the eyeballs to go. Like, there’s no alternative. So now the advertising model is destroyed. There’s a million places you can advertise, Google ad networks, Facebook ads. You don’t need to do classifieds anymore. There’s also far more competition, right? And in some cases, in some ways, this is a very good thing. The internet has allowed a lot more voices to come into play, but that increases the competition. And the subscription model isn’t really working the way it used to, right? Like how many of us have jumped a paywall? Nobody wants to pay for online content. There’s this perception that, like, if a story is online, I am entitled to it by right. It must be free to me. So this is very much an open question of where is the money going to come from? And competing in that marketplace, having to compete for just, like, pennies of ad revenue means you want to get a huge volume of views in most cases. This is what outlets are going for.
And so how do you get that? You’ve got to pump out content constantly. So speed is a huge thing. And when you’re working on such a tight deadline—like one day I wrote 18 short news articles in a day. Eighteen! That’s not that uncommon, especially for a young early-career journalist. That’s not an outlandish thing. And so when you have to just pump out story after story after story—and I was doing more aggregation and analysis, not original reporting, but in either case—you only have so much time to do so many things. If you need to interview sources, who are you going to go to? You’re going to go to people who you know will be easily reached. Who’s easily reached? Government officials, people from big businesses, people who have like a PR office where you can easily find their number, you can call them up, you know they’ll answer. So that’s who you call. There’s a strong incentive when you’re under such a tight deadline to reach out to those very familiar voices.
So speed is a big part of it. And entertainment is a big part of it. If you have 1,000 headlines on the same story, how do you stand out? How do you get the clicks? The incentive is to sensationalize. So that’s a big part of it as well. Just because of this need to— journalists need to have salaries, right? We need to be able to pay the bills. That’s not very exciting, right? That’s not as exciting as the political story.
Now, I will say I think there are two things that are a little bit more political. One is, yes, it is well established—and you can look at this through campaign donations—that sort of the average journalist does lean left. That’s very true. A lot of journalists don’t donate to campaigns on principle, but of those who do like 90 percent of donations go to Democrats. And so that is sort of the state of the industry. There’s also, the way that works is many people who are more right leaning don’t even ever consider going into journalism. So they’re not even available to be hired. And so what happens is, even among very well-intended journalists who are trying to be fair, trying to not bias their stories for their political side, they don’t know what they don’t know. And I think you see this a lot in religion reporting, especially, where you can have a whole newsroom of people who nobody was raised in church. They’re just unfamiliar, and they’re not trying to be malicious. They just are clueless. And so that’s a big problem. But it is, like, simple ignorance. It’s not—and it’s ignorance that should be noticed and should be rectified and should be hiring more diverse staff—but it’s not the same as political deception and malice.
And then finally, I would just say there is an internal industry debate going on right now about objectivity and what is the best way to tell the truth? Should you sort of strive for that old standard of neutrality and objectivity and being sort of that blank slate, always quoting a Republican and a Democrat together? And there’s a case for that. There’s a case for objectivity. I tend to think that that is certainly the way you should lean when you’re on the reporting side. I write opinion, so that’s not me.
But there’s a strong impulse among younger generations of journalists especially to say, “Well, you know, we have biases. We think we know what is true. Why can’t we say what we believe to be true?” Like a classic example of this would be somebody makes a racist comment; in the headline do you say “he made a racist comment” or do you say “he made a racialized comment”? So the older model would be say, call it “racialized.” The younger model says, no, we know it was racist. Why can’t we say it was racist? And I think, again, I lean a little bit more towards, for the reporting side, for the objectivity thing. But I also think that it is true that humans are not robots, we’re not neutral. No one who works, whose job is to look at politics all day, is going to not have political opinions. And I think it often is better to be transparent about that, to tell readers what you think, to tell readers, in fact, where your bias is. And that is something that sort of the industry at large is trying to figure out how to do that.
Cherie Harder: Bonnie, thank you very much. In just a moment, we’re going to give you the last word. But before that, a few thoughts for all of you who are joining us. Immediately after we conclude, we’ll be sending around an online feedback form. We’d love to have your thoughts. We’d read every one of these. We really appreciate the input and try to incorporate them to make this program ever more valuable to you all. And as a small incentive for you to give your feedback, we’d like to offer anyone who does so to have, we’ll give you a code for the free Trinity Forum Reading of your choice. There’s a lot of Readings that we have that kind of bear very directly to today’s discussion, including “Brave New World,” selections from Hannah Arendt’s “Origins of Totalitarianism,” and many others. So I hope you’ll take advantage of that.
In addition, tomorrow we’ll be sending around an email with a video link to this conversation, which you can share with your friends. We’d love for you to share it with your friends. We’ll have a whole list of additional resources if you’d like to go further into the conversation, including a number of our Readings that bear directly on some of the authors that Bonnie has mentioned in her book, as well as some of our other Online Conversations that have tackled this topic from different angles, too.
In addition, I’d like to invite everyone who is watching us to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people who help advance the mission of the Trinity Forum to cultivate, curate, and disseminate the best of Christian thought in the public square for the common good. There are many advantages to being a member of the Trinity Forum Society, including a subscription to our quarterly Readings, a subscription to our daily “What We’re Reading” list of curated reading recommendations, and, as a special incentive for joining, if you join for the first time or with your gift of $100 or more to support this kind of programing, we will send you a signed copy of Bonnie’s book, Untrustworthy. So really hope that you will take advantage of that.
In terms of new events coming up, our next Online Conversation will be on Friday, November 4th, the Friday before the election, where we’re going to get to hear from Richard Mouw and Paul Miller on the topic “How to be a Patriotic Christian.” And for those of you who are in or near the D.C. area this Monday, we’re actually going to be hosting an in-person Evening Conversation at the National Press Club in downtown Washington, D.C., with Andy Crouch and David Bailey on the topic “Can our culture be remade?” So we would love for you to join us, either for our in-person Evening Conversations or our Online Conversations. And there should be an opportunity to register for both of those in the chat feature coming up right now.
Finally, as promised, Bonnie, the last word is yours.
Bonnie Kristian: All right. So I wanted to share a prayer written by Saint Thomas Aquinas, which I encountered at some point relatively recently, but I started praying it daily while I was working on this book, sort of to set my intentions, I guess, for the day of writing and to think about what sort of writer did I want to be. And I think you’ll understand why it seems so apt for this project as I read it. So this is called “The Prayer Before Study”:
“Creator of all things, true source of light and wisdom, lofty origin of all being, graciously let a ray of your brilliance penetrate into the darkness of my understanding and take from me the double darkness in which I have been born, an obscurity of both sin and ignorance. Give me a sharp sense of understanding and retentive memory and the ability to grasp things correctly and fundamentally. Grant me the talent of being exact in my explanations and the ability to express myself with thoroughness and charm. Point out the beginning, direct the progress, and help in completion, through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Cherie Harder: Thank you, Bonnie. Thank you to all of you for joining us.