The increasing problems of misinformation and disinformation (now intensified with the possibility of AI-generated deepfakes) has brought my work on information literacy and epistemic virtue to the forefront of many people’s minds. At the same time, my work is controversial for a number of reasons.
One reason my work is controversial is because I advocate bringing platforms like ChatGPT into the classroom to teach information literacy. At a time when teachers are (quite rightly) trying to restrict access to bots, this seems like a premature surrender to the dark side.
For another thing, some Christians feel that I put too much emphasis on the epistemic virtues in the development of information literacy at the expense of more “spiritual” tools like faith, prayer, and discernment.
These are all legitimate concerns, which I want to address in the present article. Let’s begin by defining the key terms.
What is Information Literacy?
The term “information literacy” emerged in the 1970s among scholars working in Library and Information Science research and practice. It refers to a person’s competency at retrieving, understanding, evaluating, and working with information. As with other forms of literacy, the term can refer both to an academic domain studying a phenomenon, as well as a topic that is taught.
Although there are many ways to gauge a person’s level of information literacy, one basic test is whether they can provide credible answers to questions like:
How do you know that a website or podcast is reliable?
- What steps would you perform to conduct due diligence on an information claim?
- What are some digital tools you could use for verifying or falsifying contested information claims you come across online?
- What type of information is more suited for an internet inquiry and what type is more suited for books?
- What are some of the laws of logic that can help us when evaluating claims we come across on YouTube?
- What are some methods for setting up an effective Google search?
Although these examples address information literacy within online contexts, the concept of information literacy is ancient and predates the internet by millenia. As long as humans have existed as a species, our flourishing has depended on wise acquisition, evaluation, understanding, and response to information. What changes over time is simply the type of information that is relevant for our flourishing, and the types of retrieval methods appropriate.
For example, in some societies in the past, as in parts of the world still today, flourishing depends on being able to distinguish between healthy and harmful plants, being able to identify footprints, or knowing who to trust when it comes to weather prediction.
Crucially, however, while the content of information changes, and while information retrieval skills will be culturally-specific, the virtues that enable us to be effective in our acquisition, evaluation, and use of information remain largely continuous through time. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We need to define epistemic virtue.
What Are Epistemic Virtues?
The concept of epistemic virtue draws on the classical Christian tradition in which virtue is rooted in the end or goal (Greek telos) appropriate to an organism or a person’s vocation. St. John Chrysostom discussed this concept of virtue in his famous “Treatise to Prove that no One Can Harm the Man Who Does Not Harm Himself.” He shows how the virtue of a horse is swiftness; the virtue of a vine is to produce fruit, etc.
On this understanding, the virtues that would be constitutive for a ship builder to flourish would be traits like industriousness and conscientiousness. A warrior would need dispositions like courage and fortitude in order to flourish. A mother would need virtues like kindness and patience to be a good mother.
To apply this framework to the vocation of a thinker, we want to ask, “What virtues are constitutive to flourishing as a good thinker and truth-finder?” Or, focusing the question on the type of right thinking relevant to contemporary digital environments, we might ask questions like:
- What character traits, attitudes, and dispositions are constitutive of wise habits of information retrieval and evaluation?
- What kind of person would I need to be to effectively conduct due diligence on an information source?
In attempting to answer these questions, we do not need to reinvent the wheel, but can draw on a tradition from the classical period through to the Christian era that highlights a set of epistemic virtues (also called intellectual virtues) that are constitutive of truth-acquisition and wise information use. When we add to these virtues the insights of contemporary psychology and neuroscience, we arrive at the following set of traits and attitudes:
Critical thinking, metacognition, fair-mindedness, confidence in reason and desire for consistency, truth-loving, inquisitiveness, intellectual humility, even-handedness, reflectiveness, tenacity, courage, prudence, tolerance for ambiguity, prayerful, non-dismissive consideration of arguments, charitable interpretation of opposing arguments, carefulness, curiosity, slowness when analyzing information, thoroughness, awareness of one’s own biases and potential for being mistaken, attentiveness, honesty, patience, cognitive empathy.
These virtues do not automatically entail that a person will be information literate in their particular context. We still need to be taught the skills appropriate to our particular environment. For example, someone who exercises all these virtues on the internet will not automatically know how to retrieve useful information in a hunter-gatherer society, while someone who exercises these virtues in a hunter-gatherer society will not suddenly have aptitude in evaluating whether a digital image is genuine or fabricated. But the same virtues that enable the hunger-gatherer to be effective in finding the right medicinal plant (virtues like prudence, critical thinking, ability to go slow when needed, curiosity, etc) will also assist the student who is evaluating podcasts or conducting a web search.
While the epistemic virtues are necessary conditions for information literacy, they are not sufficient conditions. A wise monk living in a cave might exhibit epistemic virtues like love of truth, or charitable interpretation of opposing arguments, yet know nothing about how to employ site limiters on a web search or how to integrate information into schemas of knowledge, etc.. Thus, while there cannot be information literacy without the epistemic virtues, the reverse is not the case.
(For more information on the epistemic virtues and their relation to information literacy, see my Powerpoint Presentation on critical thinking.)
Why the Controversy?
The current confusion is best summarized by a text message I received from a reader and friend.
You have epistemic virtues as the foundation for information literacy. Why not our Faith in Christ? If Christ is Truth (I am the Way, the Truth and the Life…) why not make Him and Holy Scripture the foundation for our information literacy/conditions or criteria for discernment and critical thinking?
Later the reader suggested that because “all goodness derives from God” it follows that “epistemic virtues would seem to be Fruits of the Spirit, therefore originating in Christ.”
Partly the question is a category mistake. Since all virtue originates in God, the statement “epistemic virtues are the foundation for information literacy” entails that God is necessarily the foundation. Virtue, even when practiced by unbelievers, is never separate from the Logos, who is both the origin and telos of all virtue.
But that answer is too easy, because what I suspect is really going on is not theological but practical and pastoral. Here again, a little more inside baseball is necessary. There is a growing debate within Orthodox churches right now on whether the epistemic virtues should be taught, or whether wise engagement with information will simply happen organically as a result of the church’s sacramental activity, sound catechesis, holy living, and the centrality of prayer. Those taking the latter position will normally emphasize the “spiritual” tool of discernment over the “intellectualist” approach of critical thinking and epistemic virtues.
We can best understand the divergence between these two positions by looking at a couple hypothetical parishes. These parishes are not based on any parishes that I have been involved with, but form a thought experiment to more usefully contrast two perspectives.
A Tale of Two Parishes
Consider the case of one priest, Fr. Nectarios, who has become increasingly concerned when members of his Colorado-based congregation started becoming radicalized by an “internet priest” who, though lacking an actual parish and not under any particular bishop, nevertheless shepherds large numbers of the faithful through his online forums. Rather than merely telling people not to watch videos from this influencer, Fr. Nectarios decided to offer instruction on epistemic virtue and information literacy. For example, Fr. Nectarios asked a professor in the congregation to spend ten minutes at the beginning of every catechism class going through different skills for effective information retrieval and evaluation. Last week the professor explained about browser plugins that can help in determining if an image is genuine.
Fr. Nectarios also sends out occasional emails with links to articles or videos on epistemic virtue and/or information literacy, such as the 10 Step Process for Evaluating Information Online. For example, one email he sent out gave tips on breathing exercises a person could do before going online in order to slow down the heart rate, which is conducive to exercising the epistemic virtue of metacognition and care when evaluating information. He is also preparing to tackle epistemic vice head-on with a series of Sunday school classes on the theme of foolishness in Proverbs. He even hopes one day to start a classical Christian school where virtues like critical thinking can be fostered in children from a young age. Fr. Nectarios does not deny the importance of prayer when working with information, but he believes prayer goes hand in hand with critical thinking.
On the other hand, consider the case of a parish in Texas. This church is also being radicalized by “Orthodox influencers.” But the priest of this church, Fr. Tom, believes the solution is generally to avoid talking about anything controversial, and not to get embroiled with the things of this world. Rather, Fr. Tom believes that as long as his flock is directed to Christ, and encouraged to go deeper into prayer life, the Holy Spirit will deal with problems of misinformation in an organic way. Fr. Tom doesn’t dismiss the importance of critical thinking, but he sees it as a pragmatic tool to use in employment and business, and not so relevant when it comes to reading Orthodox websites, for example. When it comes to being wise with information, what is needed is not critical thinking but the type of discernment that emerges organically from a vibrant spiritual life. If one is living a spiritual life and steeped in the teachings of the church, that is sufficient defense against lies on the internet, not some overly intellectualist training in epistemic virtue and information literacy.
When we compare these two churches, we have to distinguish between their practical approaches, on the one hand, and the explanations/defenses of those approaches, on the other. As far as the approaches themselves are concerned, we can’t say one is right and the other wrong. Both approaches have value, and both have potential negative side-effects. Ultimately, the spiritual needs of the congregation, and the resources available in the parish, will influence the best pastoral strategies to adopt.
But even assuming that Fr. Tom’s approach is appropriate for the specific pastoral needs of his flock, are his explanations and truth-claims correct? Consider Fr. Tom’s view that critical thinking is a pragmatic tool to use in employment and business, but not so helpful when it comes to distinguishing truth and falsehood online. Or consider his view that discernment with information will emerges organically from a vibrant spiritual life. Consider also the way he assumes a bifurcation between critical thinking and discernment. Are these perspectives correct?
Discernment Not Critical Thinking?
To steelman the position taken by Fr. Tom, I want to engage with comments made this week in the podcast “Counterflow with Buck Johnson,” not least because one of the guests on this episode actually wrote to me and requested feedback or critique.
I sought permission from Buck to share my disagreements here and he kindly gave his blessing. This was important because I don’t consider him or his guests to be adversaries (indeed, one of his guests made some very positive observations about my work during the episode in question), nor do they represent the dark side of internet Orthodoxy. What I have to share is definitely in the spirit of iron sharpening iron.
In the Counterflow episode, “The Peaks & Valleys of Online Orthodoxy Part 1 with Fr Turbo, George Michalopulos & Alex Braszko” the panel of participants took a deep dive into the role discernment plays when engaging with online information.
To frame the discussion, Colonel Alex Brasko shared a string of statistics on the increased flow of misinformation and disinformation that floods our wires. At 36:54 into the show, the Colonel read something written by myself in which I lamented what I called “naïve consumption of information coupled with resistance to performing due diligence on information being consumed and circulated.” Then Colonel Brasko asked,
My question becomes this. Is critical thinking – due diligence – important as Orthodox Christians as we listen to online Orthodoxy or online sources for information about Orthodox on the internet?
Fr. Turbo answered this question by suggesting that what is actually needed is not critical thinking but discernment. As he said at 41:57 into it,
“Critical thinking doesn’t really do much in this area. What’s needed is discernment. You get discernment by having the mind of Christ. And you get the mind of Christ by being purified. And you get purified by being obedient to the tenants of the church. That’s the process…. You have a map, and the map is the tradition of the church – what the Fathers have taught, what the Scriptures have given us, what the ecumenical councils have ratified, the experience of the saints. That is the map to get to the destination which is the kingdom of God…. We have to navigate this life living in a fractured and hostile territory. And if you do not understand that, then it becomes really easy to feel you have to figure it out on your own. And that’s why I would say, making the distinction between just critical thinking and discernment because they’re not the same.”
Later, at 46:13, Fr. Turbo made clear that he is not rejecting critical thinking per se. Rather, he would like to see critical thinking confined to its proper sphere: the workplace and economic activity:
We’re all called to employ critical thinking because we all have jobs. We have families we have to provide for. But with regards to the big picture – the why – critical thinking doesn’t help you understand the why – only discernment does.
So how does the not-critical-thinking-but-discernment framework play out among Orthodox influencers who make decisions every week about what information to pass on? The question is relevant since three of the people on the podcast (Buck Johnson, George Michalopulos, Fr. Turbo), are themselves Orthodox influencers with enormous reach in deciding what information gets out there into the world of “internet Orthodoxy.” Colonel Alex asked Johnson and Michalopulos to explain their process of performing due diligence on information prior to passing it on.
Both Michalopulos and Johnson said they do “research,” but they never explained what discernment-based research looks like in practice. Johnson explained that his content choices are like preferences in music – either you like it or you don’t. Johnson also said he gets advice about information claims from his spiritual father, while Michalopulos mentioned that he relies on the “female intuition” of his website partner. And throughout the discussion, they appealed to the concept of “discernment.”
A Theological Plea for Epistemic Virtue and Information Literacy
I want to address the question of discernment head-on, but first let’s return to the question I shared from a reader, who wanted to know if Christ could simply be the foundation of information literacy.
In some evangelical sects where I’ve shared about the importance of the church fathers, they will retort, “But Christ is enough. If you have a strong relationship with Jesus, you don’t need all that other stuff you’re talking about, because you’ll spiritually flourish whatever you do.” It is easy to recognize how this type of hyper Protestant reductionism creates a false dilemma in how it frames important questions. But I would argue that it is equally reductionistic to ask, “can’t faith in Christ simply be the foundation for information literacy?” This is reductionist because the very matter under debate is precisely how our faith fleshes itself out into the world in which we live.
Consider the case of heresy. We recognize that good teaching about theology helps buffer us against the temptation of heresy. Similarly, education in the epistemic virtues can buffer us from the temptation of misinformation and disinformation, especially misinformation coming from the more dangerous Orthodox influencers (I will name no names).
But granted that misinformation and disinformation are a challenge, should this be seen as a spiritual problem? I would argue yes, because low levels of epistemic virtue and information literacy are correlated with growing rise in demoralization, relativism, skepticism, cynicism, hive-mindedness, and even heresies like operational donatism. If you think I’m being dramatic to invoke such a long list of consequences of information illiteracy and epistemic vice, I would refer you to some of the links in the final section of this article.
Epistemic Virtue in Action
An example on the relation between epistemic virtue and wise use of information comes from the apocryphal 13th chapter of Daniel, which is included in the Catholic and Orthodox Bible.
In this story we read about the virtuous Jewish maiden Susanna, who is approached by two community elders while bathing. When Susanna refuses the elders’ advances they take revenge by claiming to have seen her having sex with a young man. Both elders are judges, and so the people trust their testimony over Susanna’s claims of innocence. Consequently, Susanna is sentenced to death. At a superficial glance, the elders’ testimony was trustworthy because they were both judges and well respected; but Daniel, inspired by God to look beyond mere surface appearances, condemns the people for their lack of due diligence. He exclaims, “Are you such fools, you Israelites, to condemn a daughter of Israel without investigation and without clear evidence?” (13:8) Daniel then insists on questioning both elders separately, and he asks them to point to the tree under which this crime allegedly occurred. As both elders give different reports, their testimony is shown to be false and Susanna is vindicated.
This story shows how epistemic virtues correlate with wise information-use. In this incident there was a lot of information to work with, including the fact that there was agreement in the testimony of two witnesses, the fact that these witnesses were both judges, the fact that Susanna claimed to be innocent yet had no evidence, etc. The entire assembly was content to jump to a hasty conclusion based merely on appearances, to take shortcuts when interpreting the data, and to never move beyond an unthinking appeal to authority (i.e., the men are judges so they must be correct). Only Daniel was willing to take a step back and pursue due diligence. In the entire exchange, Daniel acted slowly, reflectively, and strategically. His skill moving slowly when analyzing information was likely the result of prior habits of learning, listening, and curiosity. His wisdom culminated in knowing the right question to ask, and the right conditions in which to frame his questions. These questions showed confidence in reason, and consequently a high premium on the necessity for consistency.
The epistemic virtues exercised by Daniel are the same virtues we can exercise when evaluating information in digital contexts. Using mental habits like reflectiveness, slowness when analyzing information, and openness to learning, we also can be strategic in asking effective questions. Is this website selling a product? What does the top-level domain tell me about these pages? How might I go about testing the claims in this podcast? What do the people who disagree with this say and why?
But it is also possible to engage with online information in a way that follows the pattern of the assembly, who made a hasty judgment about Susanna based on mere surface appearances. How often do we absorb and pass on information from YouTube or a website merely because it feels right even if we haven’t investigated the veracity of the information?
What is Discernment?
Let’s return to Buck Johnson’s podcast mentioned earlier. One of the recurring motifs that concerned me was the separation of critical thinking from discernment. This bifurcation breaks down if we attend to how discernment is treated in the book of Proverbs.
Throughout Proverbs, a recurring feature of the wise man is his attentiveness to the way things are. The wise are astute observers and reflect on what they see in both the natural and social worlds, including the types of patterns, habits, and competencies that lead to success in a particular society. This involves more than mere knowledge; rather, Proverbs outlines traits, attitudes, and dispositions constitutive of prudent interaction with the information with which one is confronted.
The text shows that wisdom involves a lifelong formation in disciplined and responsible reflection on the art of living well. Wisdom is associated with a type of pragmatic and empirical prudence in which a range of epistemic virtues are operative and become the defining characteristic of the effective thinker. Through these virtues of the mind—dispositions like prudence, reflectiveness, carefulness, etc.—a wise man or woman achieves competency in working with available materials, including intellectual, natural, and social resources.
The king is the one who has mastered this task of judgment. The wise king is not the universal expert. Rather he is a master in the task of judgment. And he exercises such judgment well through his skill at discretion, taking and weighing of expert counsel, and discernment. But such discernment is not some quasi-mystical message from the spiritual realm, but a highly honed competency that emerges from a life of searching matters out, debating, and attending to the patterns of the natural world (habits of animals, seasons, regularities of nature, etc.) and the patterns in the social realm (ways of men, relation between means and ends, consequences of certain behaviors, etc.).
This challenges much modern Christian discourse on discernment, in which the concept has become a proxy for feelings, hunches, and intuitive impressions – all of which are sanctified merely because the person prayed before, during, or after getting those impressions. Indeed, in the modern church the concept of discernment is often weaponized for a sort of pious anti-intellectualism by those wishing to minimize the need for critical thinking online. Within Eastern Orthodoxy, a similar anti-intellectualism often finds expression in the idea that someone who has a vibrant prayer life and is steeped in “the mind of the church,” will be given a “sense” of whether information is correct or not. Accordingly, while critical thinking may have a role to play in our secular lives (for example, making money), when it comes to distinguishing truth and falsehood online, what we need is not critical thinking but discernment.
Part of the problem here is that as Americans we like to put things in an either/or relationship. This leads to extreme positions. But Biblically speaking, discernment and critical thinking cannot be situated in this type of either/or relationship. Critical thinking is just as much a part of discernment as prayer. We get a glimpse of the relationship between discernment and critical thinking in the etymology for the English noun “discernment,” and its associated verb “to discern,” both of which are derived from the Latin discernere, which means to separate, distinguish, set apart, divide. As with its Greek counterpart (διάκριση / diákrisi), discernere is very much a discursive act of the intellect in separating the true from the false, the logical from the illogical. It involves parsing things out and bringing to any topic the type of intellectual clarity that is a precursor to effective judgment. Accordingly, there can be no discernment without critical thinking.
But discernment, like wisdom, is broader than mere logical calculation, and even broader than critical thinking. The book of Proverbs (especially chapters one through nine) teaches that discernment encompasses the type of holistic insight accessible to one in whom experience, education, understanding, and virtue have been holistically integrated. For a spiritual person, such virtue will also include a prayerful disposition and, consequently, an openness to the type of spiritual perception (what is sometimes referred to as “the still small voice”) that goes beyond purely discursive reason. But while discernment involves more than critical thinking, it does not involve less. Moreover, while discernment can sometimes involve feelings (for example, when reading a website or listening to a podcast, it is possible to get a check in one’s spirit without always being able to pinpoint why), the whole message of Proverbs is that our feelings can be trained through education in the habits of mind and heart constitutive of epistemic virtue, just as our feelings can be corrupted by environments constitutive to epistemic vice. And not even the wise king ever reaches the point where he becomes so good at the task of discernment that he can begin taking shortcuts and leave behind the virtues from which effective discernment derived. So yes, prayer and even feelings are an important part of discernment, but they are only part of the picture, and they do not nullify the need for epistemic virtues like critical thinking.
There are a number of reasons why I think we misunderstand the synergy between critical thinking and prayer. One factor may well be that faulty concepts about the nous have helped to fuel certain strain of anti-intellectualism in modern Orthodoxy. I have written about that in my Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy article, “How “Nous” Became a Trojan Horse For Secularism, and Why it is So Difficult to Translate.”
Another reason I think we misunderstand the synergistic relationship between critical thinking and prayerful discernment is that we don’t want to inadvertently deny that God can supply truth to someone directly, independent of education in epistemic virtues like critical thinking. Imagine a peasant in Russia who comes across truth on social media and is transformed through the encounter. The peasant is exposed to “Online Orthodoxy” and, as a result, gets plugged back into the church. Is such a scenario possible according to my framework? Of course it is. But let’s remember our Theology 101: the fact that God can work through extraordinary means does not negate our role in working with God synergistically to foster the ordinary means of His work. For example, the ordinary means by which Providence extends the church from one generation to the next is the sacramental life of the church, including as that life finds expression in faithful parenting and catechesis (including education in the most general sense). The fact that some Christian children rebel and then experience a miracle that brings them back to the Church later in life, is something we can rejoice in, even while recognizing that this pattern should not be held up as normative. Similarly, I said earlier that the ordinary means by which we exercise discernment involves both prayer and critical thinking. If there are situations where, through God’s grace, a person achieves sufficient discernment only through prayer without critical thinking, then we can rejoice in this without holding it up as normative. But there will always remain temptations that the “simpleton” (to use the language of Proverbs) is vulnerable to, just as there are particular temptations that educated people are vulnerable to. In the normal economy of God’s work, prayerful discernment involves critical thinking, and critical thinking involves prayerful discernment. Let’s look at a hypothetical example of this synergy in practice.
Examples of Synergy Between Prayer and Critical Thinking
During the COVID crisis, a friend whom I will call Bob sent me a message on Monday claiming that the pandemic originated as a Chinese bioweapon. By Monday afternoon he had sent me a YouTube video claiming that the pandemic was engineered by Bill Gates in order to profit on sale of a vaccine. On Wednesday morning, I had another message in my inbox from Bob, in which he shared a source claiming that the coronavirus was a hoax because COVID-19 hospitals were actually empty.
“I’m curious,” I wrote to Bob, “how all these sources you’re sending me can all be true at the same time? How can the coronavirus be a deadly weapon from China as well as something Bill Gates invented as well as a hoax that doesn’t actually exist?”
These questions were important to me because desire for consistency is among the epistemic virtues, being a sub-virtue of a higher order trait taught in the book of Proverbs, namely confidence in reason. But desire for consistency is not fashionable today. Many people like Bob have ideological reasons for doubting the mainstream media, and this will lead them frequently to latch onto competing explanations with no concern for consistency. Truth doesn’t matter, which is why they are quite happy to simultaneously share inconsistent theories as long as it furthers their agenda of disrupting people’s confidence in the mainstream narrative.
But let’s suppose that Bob took a step back and engaged in prayer over this. Over a period of 24 hours, he prays and wrestles with whether it’s possible for COVID to be a deadly weapon from China and something Bill Gates invented and a hoax that doesn’t actually exist. During one of his prayer sessions about this, he suddenly gets an insight that seems so obvious he doesn’t know how he could have missed it before: if COVID is a bioweapon invented by Bill Gates, then COVID would exist; therefore, it cannot be true that COVID doesn’t exist and is a bioweapon. Was this realization given to him by the Holy Spirit or merely because his prayer helped him to slow down? Perhaps we shouldn’t even ask this question since the Holy Spirit often works through natural means in response to prayer. But what we do know is this: Bob’s prayer life worked synergistically with his critical thinking. Again, prayerful discernment and critical thinking do not have an either/or relationship but both/and.
Although it may seem obvious that prayerful discernment and critical thinking should work together symbiotically, in practice there is a growing bifurcation as if these can be separated. In my earlier article, “After Research: The Challenge of Information Literacy in a Post-Truth Culture,” I give examples of how Christian right-wingers are increasingly appealing to their ability to discern if information “feels right” through modalities that are hostile to critical thinking. We even heard a subtle separation between prayerful discernment and critical thinking in the above podcast, where critical thinking was relegated to the economic sphere. When asked about the role critical thinking plays in distinguishing truth from falsehood online, we heard “Critical thinking doesn’t really do much in this area.”
The Cash Value of Getting This Right
Does any of this really matter? Yes, and here’s why. In 2020-21, when the flow of misinformation and confusion began to increase, many of my conservative Orthodox friends reacted to information fatigue by adopting a type of functional relativism that repudiated even the possibility of objective research. Tropes that had previously been associated with postmodernism (i.e., “everything is just a point of view,” “there is no such thing as objective facts anymore,” “it all comes down to what you choose to believe,” etc.) began to be repeated with increasing regularity among right-wing Orthodox Christians. I wrote up about this in my article “After Research: The Challenge of Information Literacy in a Post-Truth Culture.” It isn’t hard to see how a little information literacy instruction, combined with a pursuit of the epistemic virtues, could go a long way in mitigating this troubling trend. The COVID-era was also when we witnessed the real-world consequences in lack of critical thinking throughout the right-wing infosphere in much of the discourse regarding masks and anti-regulatory ideology. In some cases, this lack of critical thinking even led to death. So yes, you bet this matters!
But it doesn’t stop there. During the COVID crisis, an internet priest with no parish who shepherds large numbers of people over the internet, began dividing the churches with his extremist teaching on ecclesiology and liturgics. (I discussed this in my article, “How COVID-19 Led to a Spiritual Pandemic.”) The inconsistencies and fallacies in this man’s approach should have been obvious, but on the internet where there is not the accountability of a parish or academy, his teachings spread like wildfire, and continue to spread to this day. A little information literacy and epistemic virtue would have gone a long way to rectify the situation.
Finally, lest you remain unconvinced that this is important, let me close by citing something from the latest article at my Salvo column:
Our culture is currently undergoing an epistemological crisis. Having access to so much information, it is increasingly difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, let alone differentiate between information, misinformation, and disinformation. While greater access to information has led to more knowledge, it has not led to greater wisdom. In fact, the current glut of information has resulted in widespread confusion. Amid so many competing voices, many are completely giving up on objective knowledge and lapsing into some form of post-truth epistemology, whether relativism, skepticism, cynicism, or hive-mindedness.
We are, in fact, quickly approaching the situation described by former KGB spy, Yuri Alexandrovich Bezmenov, when he spoke with G. Edward Griffin in a now-classic 1984 interview. Bezmenov described a key strategy the Soviets used for psychological warfare, designed to demoralize a population until they begin to internalize lies. Here is what he said:
“Exposure to true information does not matter anymore. A person who was demoralized is unable to assess true information. The facts tell nothing to him. Even if I shower him with information, with authentic proof, with documents, with pictures … he will refuse to believe it, until he is going to receive a kick in his fat bottom. When the military boot crashes his balls, then he will understand, but not before that. That is the tragedy of the situation of demoralization.”
We do not yet live in the type of military dictatorship Bezmenov feared, but we are quickly approaching demoralization. One primary reason for demoralization is that we are bombarded with more information than we can assimilate. Amid so many competing voices, can we even know what’s true anymore? Is it even possible, let alone practical, to perform objective due diligence on all the information claims we encounter?
Yes it is possible, but only if we develop the epistemic virtues. We have a lot of work ahead of ourselves, and need to get started soon.