Prebunking Disinformation

Prebunking Disinformation August 31, 2022

Prebunking Disinformation

The SST Alliance

Prebunking Disinformation

I propose fighting truth decay by prebunking disinformation. I propose that scientists, skeptics, and theologians ally with one another to prescribe evidence-based reason for the health of our common good. Let’s call it the SST Alliance.

Recently I found myself writing an editorial for the forthcoming final 2022 issue of Theology and Science. I ended up saying that theologians and scientists along with skeptics should form an alliance on behalf of evidence-based reasoning. This alliance could defend us against the intellectual plague now infecting the globe through digital social media. The symptoms of our infodemic include too much information,  misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, just plain lies, and profiteering off untruth such as perception management (PM) firms.

The forces of disinformation have become a threat to social cohesion, world peace, and even the fecundity of Planet Earth. “More than one million Americans have died of a pandemic disease that deniers have variously claimed to be a deliberate ‘pandemic’ or a nonexistent ‘media hoax’,” wails skeptic Daniel Loxton (Loxton 9-10/2022, 15). The very course of national, international, and planetary events is now being influenced by disinformation. “The climate crisis burns out of control, with necessary action having been delayed for decades by denialist pseudoscience” (Loxton 9-10/2022, 15).

Navigating Post-Truth and Alternative Facts

Post-truth, as the societal manifestation of a prolonged subclinical collective trauma response, is a reflection that society is profoundly wounded,” is the diagnosis of theologian Jennifer Baldwin (Baldwin 2018, 104).

Conspiracy theories and pseudoscience are no longer merely weird, crazy, or looney. They’re dangerous. Our defense against truth decay and promotion of the common good must include prebunking disinformation.

Prebunking is basically debunking as the avante-garde.

What is debunking and prebunking?

What is prebunking disinformation? Well, let’s call to mind debunking. It was the summer of 1952 when flying saucers buzzed the White House in Washington DC. The unknown aircraft were tracked by multiple radar screens. Scrambled pilots chased them, radioing their exploits to the control tower. The nation was in a state of alarm.

The Pentagon was in a pickle. Top military brass had determined that the Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) were not hostile or dangerous. But, the Soviet Union was. How could U.S. national defense officials discriminate between the non-hostile flying saucers and the lethal missiles that Russia might send to destroy North American cities?

The problem: too much information. How could the new U.S. Air Force filter through the whelming flood of UFO reports to find hostile Soviet threats? The solution: debunking. The U.S. Air Force set a policy of debunking citizen reports of unidentified aerial phenomena. By debunking—providing alternative natural explanations as well as discrediting the reputations of those who reported sightings—the military could reduce the net number of cases requiring thorough examination. The now famous astronomer, J. Allen Hynek, then at Ohio State, became the chief information debunker. The rest makes for quite a textured history down to the present time.

Prebunking Disinformation within Critical Thinking

It’s time now for critical thinking to expand with the speed of a California wildfire. To change our metaphor, let’s hone our critical thinking into a sharp sword to cut through the blur between truth and untruth.

So, just what does it mean to be a critical thinker? I’ve long contended that critical consciousness begins with holding two different accounts of the same subject in your mind at one time. These two differing accounts could be one’s own plus that of someone else. Only after weighing the merits of each account does the critical thinker then render a sound judgment.

Time. What is Truth?

Now, let me introduce Helen Lee Bouygues, founder of the Paris-based Reboot Foundation that promotes reflective forms of thought in schools. She was recently interviewed for Skeptical Inquirer. Bouygues describes critical consciousness as I understand it. “Being a good critical thinker means questioning your assumptions, walking through problems logically, and then reflecting on your thinking to better understand it” (Bouygues 9-10/2022, 18).

What about the sharp sword of critical thinking? Note Bouygues’ motto: “SHARP.” What does this stand for? “SHARP stands for: Stop, Hone, Accumulate, Reason, and Perspectivize” (Bouygues 9-10/2022, 18). By “accumulate,” she refers to accumulating evidence. Where Bouygues puts “perspectivize,” I would put something like, “render judgment.”

Bouygues employs the word, prebunk. I like that word. According to Bouygues, prebunking takes the form of educating ourselves about various disinformation techniques. Knowing the enemy is the best way to arm oneself in the battle for truth.

Now, I must admit, that I’ve not yet fully prebunked myself. I’m still a tad naïve. I’m still more gullible to misinformation and disinformation than I wish to be. Even so, I like that word, prebunk. I wonder if we might expand its meaning to include an aggressive skepticism regarding pseudoscientific claims and acerbic political rhetoric?

Prebunking Disinformation within a Global Crisis

Truth matters, says the theologian. “The danger of modern political lying is not merely that we will believe lies, but that we will lose the capacity to distinguish what is real from what we merely wish was real, and will stop thinking this difference even matters,” avers theologian Lisa Stenmark. “This kind of lying undermines the very foundation of public life and judgment, destroying the world itself, and this worldlessness undermines our sense of reality and of community” (Stenmark 2018, 5).

Truth matters, says the scientist. “Misinformation has reached crisis proportions,” say Jevin D. West and Carl T. Bergstrom, writing for the National Academy of Sciences. “It poses a risk to international peace, interferes with democratic decision making, endangers the well-being of the planet, and threatens public health” (West 4/2021).

Truth matters, says the skeptic. To combat truth decay, we need to prebunk disinformation by taking two doses of critical thinking. At least according to skeptic Daniel Loxton. First, we all must “accept that misinformation matters” (Loxton 9-10/2022, 16). The days when we could chuckle and dismiss conspiracy theories as looney are over. Truth is now a matter of life and death.

The second dose, again according to Loxton, is study the intricacies that go into manufacturing denial, misinformation, disinformation, conspiracy theories, deceit, and lies. “Disinformation Studies” is the discipline (Loxton 9-10/2022, 17). I recommend starting with websites such as “Tools that Fight Disinformation Online” along with “Catalogue of all projects working to solve Misinformation and Disinformation,” even though some links are not connecting.

SST Alliance for Evidence-Based Reason

The third dose of critical thinking in our fight against truth decay is this: create a spirited alliance between Scientists, Skeptics, and Theologians. I’m prescribing an SST Alliance defending and promoting evidence-based reasoning as a chief ingredient in public policy formulation.[1]

Now, we must acknowledge that scientific reason and theological reason, though overlapping, are not exhaustively identical. Systems biologist and philosopher of science Stuart A. Kauffman confesses that “Science is not the only pathway to truth” (Kauffman, 2008, p. xii). Reason can take us beyond the physical reality described by science. Or, perhaps more precisely, the theologian finds its meaning within a more comprehensive horizon that includes revelatory truth. Philosopher of science Kelly Smith shows how one can build on the other.

“Science is a very powerful heuristic for exploring the natural world, but it is not an ultimate arbiter of truth. If we are clear about that, then we are free to go beyond scientific evidence as long as we acknowledge what we are doing and take care not to damage science in the process. So, if one chooses to overlay the fact of increasing complexity with a faith claim that supports a sense of purpose and meaning, science should have nothing to say about this one way or another” (Smith 2020, 5).

In sum, theologians can just like the scientist in the lab next door hold up evidence-based reason regarding the world we live in as our culture’s desideratum.

Faith and Reason

Skeptics are skeptical about theologians

We should expect, nevertheless, that a few scientists and nearly all skeptics might be suspicious that theologians should be their allies in defending and promoting evidence-based reasoning.[2] Theologians are frequently dismissed for being superstitious, ideological, or just plain ignorant.[3] Therefore, a responsibility falls on the shoulders of the theologians to demonstrate their age-old commitment to the partnership of faith and reason (fides et ratio).

“It is clear from history, then, that Christian thinkers were critical in adopting philosophical thought” (Pope 1998, §39). These are the words of His Holiness, Pope and Saint John Paul II, issued Fides et Ratio in 1998. “This special activity of human reason,” the pontiff continued, yields indispensable and celebrated “results in the different fields of knowledge and fostering the development of culture and history” (Pope 1998, §5). Through reason the critical theologian becomes a public theologian, contributing positively to the “development of culture and history.”

Will the scientist let alone the skeptic welcome the theologian into a partnership for prebunking disinformation? Perhaps the theologian should be on his or her or their best behavior.

Our churches need to learn prebunking

We cannot take for granted that theologians or other religious leaders should be trusted when it comes to evidence-based reason. A quick surf of the internet uncovers many religious figures looking like the west end of a horse facing eastward.

Patriarch of Moscow and All of Rus, Kirill, with Vladimir Putin

Much to my chagrin, too many alliances have already been formed. Unhealthy alliances. There are soul-selling political alliances between evangelicals and the Republican Party. Correspondingly, the theology of liberal Protestants has become the Democratic Party’s platform with just a little prayer added. The Patriarch of Moscow and all Rus, Kirill, marches in Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine. One can only wonder: where did Jesus go? Where did reason go? It seems that our world’s Christian leaders are practicing soul abuse.

“Churches need to teach their members about discernment, now more than ever,” says progressive Patheos columnist, Jayson Bradley. “I believe that evangelical Christians are particularly susceptible to believing dangerous conspiracy theories, and they need to learn how to become more discerning.” Susceptible? Or responsible for our post-truth society?

Bradley is a progressive who blames evangelicals. Which is more difficult? An alliance binding theologian with scientist and skeptic? Or, an alliance binding evangelicals with progressives?

Perhaps today’s public theologian needs to convert the churches to evidence-based reasoning right along with converting the internet. This is a pretty tall order. Perhaps the theologian should seek allies. How about our scientists and our skeptics?[4]

Conclusion

Patheos columnist James McGrath aches when watching Christians contribute to the post-truth culture. “The problem of spreading rumors…has the potential to be deeply evil.” We must prescribe fighting truth decay within the church while, simultaneously, debunking disinformation in the digital media.

In the most recent issue of Skeptical Inquirer, editor Kendrick Frazier warns us to repent like the prophets warned ancient Israel to repent. “Suddenly,” says Frazier, “the things we skeptics have been warning about for decades—the dangers of a population unable or unwilling to discern truth from nontruth—have become a mainstream concern” (Frazier 9-10/2022).

If this were the 1960’s, theologians might call this the “secular work of the Holy Spirit.” If skeptics live up to their commitment to defend and promote evidence-based reason, then theologians as well as scientists might find them to be good allies. Would an SST Alliance be possible?

Ted Peters

Ted Peters pursues Public Theology at the intersection of science, religion, ethics, and public policy. Peters is an emeritus professor at the Graduate Theological Union, where he co-edits the journal, Theology and Science, on behalf of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, in Berkeley, California, USA. His book, God in Cosmic History, traces the rise of the Axial religions 2500 years ago. He previously authored Playing God? Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom? (Routledge, 2nd ed., 2002) as well as Science, Theology, and Ethics (Ashgate 2003). He is editor of AI and IA: Utopia or Extinction? (ATF 2019). Along with Arvin Gouw and Brian Patrick Green, he co-edited the new book, Religious Transhumanism and Its Critics hot off the press (Roman and Littlefield/Lexington, 2022). Soon he will publish The Voice of Christian Public Theology (ATF 2022). See his website: TedsTimelyTake.com.

 

This fictional spy thriller, Cyrus Twelve, follows the twists and turns of a transhumanist plot.

 

 

[1] Can we trust scientists? Not completely, complain West and Bergstrom. Scientists too contribute to the misinformation debacle. “Misinformation can travel within science due to misaligned incentives, out-of-date publishing norms, and sociotechnical systems that concentrate attention and credit on a small subset of the literature.” Even so, the self-policing of the scientific community offers the best form of institutional honesty we’ve got available.

 

[2[ Can we trust skeptics? Skeptics predominantly tout their commitment to the methods and content of the sciences as the arbiter of truth. However, many skeptics are ideologically naturalists who embrace scientism. “Scientism,” says His Holiness John Paul II in Fides et Ratio, “is the philosophical notion which refuses to admit the validity of forms of knowledge other than those of the positive sciences; and it relegates religious, theological, ethical and aesthetic knowledge to the realm of mere fantasy” (Pope 1998, §88). When the skeptic sticks to evidence-based reason and avoids importing ideological scientism, the skeptic can be trusted.

 

[3] To combat ignorance and misunderstanding within our churches, brave advocates of science-religion dialogue have launched education programs. See especially the work of Gregory Cootsona, “Science for the Church.”

 

[4] “Better public judgment will need a better public understanding of science,” states Lisa Stenmark (Stenmark 2018, 14). Perhaps our churches need both a better understanding of science and better judgment for prebunking disinformation.

References

Baldwin, Jennifer. 2018. “Knowledge, Power, and Fear: The Role of Religion and Science in Populism and Our Shared Public Life.” In Navigating Post-Truth and Alternaive Facts, by ed Jennifer Baldwin, 97-112. Lanham MA: Lexington.

Bouygues, Helen Lee. 9-10/2022. “Rebooting Critical Thinking by Julia Lavarnway.” Skeptical Inquirer 46:5 18-19.

Frazier, Kendrick. 9-10/2022. “Skepticism’s Newly Recognized Relevance.” Skeptical Inquirer 46:5 4.

Kauffman, Stuart A. 2008. Reinventing the Sacred: A New View of Science, Reason, and Religion. New York: Basic Books.

Loxton, Daniel. 9-10/2022. “Critical Study of Nonsense Finally a Mainstream Concern.” Skeptical Inquirer 46:5 14-17.

Peters, Ted. 2018. “Public Theology: Its Pastoral, Apologetic, Scientific, Politial, and Prophetic Tasks.” International Journal of Public Theology 12:2 153-177; https://brill.com/abstract/journals/ijpt/12/1/ijpt.12.issue-1.xml.

Pope, John Paul II. 1998. Fides et Ratio. Vatican: http://web.archive.org/web/20131001225220/http://www.vatican.va/edocs/ESL0036/_INDEX.HTM.

Smith, Kelly C. 2020. “Cosmogenesis, Complexity, and Neo-Natural Faith in the Context of Astrobiology.” Religions 11 (12): 1-10.

Stenmark, Lisa. 2018. “Modern Political Lying: Science and Religion Critical Discourse in a Post-Truth World.” In Navigating Post-Truth and Alternative Facts, by ed Jennifer Baldwin, 3-18. Lanham MA: Lexington.

West, Jevin, and Carl Bergstrom. 4/2021. “Misinformation in and about science.” PNAS 115:15 https://www.pnas.org/doi/full/10.1073/pnas.1912444117.

 

About Ted Peters
Ted Peters pursues Public Theology at the intersection of science, religion, ethics, and public policy. Peters is an emeritus professor at the Graduate Theological Union, where he co-edits the journal, Theology and Science, on behalf of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, in Berkeley, California, USA. His book, God in Cosmic History, traces the rise of the Axial religions 2500 years ago. He previously authored Playing God? Genetic Determinism and Human Freedom? (Routledge, 2nd ed., 2002) as well as Science, Theology, and Ethics (Ashgate 2003). He is editor of AI and IA: Utopia or Extinction? (ATF 2019). Along with Arvin Gouw and Brian Patrick Green, he co-edited the new book, Religious Transhumanism and Its Critics hot off the press (Roman and Littlefield/Lexington, 2022). Soon he will publish The Voice of Christian Public Theology (ATF 2022). See his website: TedsTimelyTake.com. This fictional spy thriller, Cyrus Twelve, follows the twists and turns of a transhumanist plot. You can read more about the author here.

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