To read part 2 of this article, CLICK HERE.
“And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” –John 8:32
Do you ever feel like you’re drowning in a swirling sea of information? Information comes at us continuously, relentlessly, from an ever-growing number of sources: newspapers, magazines, 24-hour cable television news shows, radio, podcasts, online news sources, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and so on. And much of the information is conflicting. From one source we hear that wearing masks will dramatically reduce the spread of Covid-19; from another that the benefits of wearing masks are negligible.
One TV commentator tells us that we are on the verge of anarchy as a result of the Black Lives Matter protests while another reports that the vast majority of these protests are peaceful. One podcast insists that immigrants enrich our country immeasurably while another argues that they take away our jobs and import crime.
It’s confusing, overwhelming, bewildering. We feel a sudden kinship to those poor souls spoken of in D&C 123:12:
“For there are many yet on the earth among all sects, parties, and denominations, who are blinded by the subtle craftiness of men . . . and who are only kept from the truth because they know not where to find it.”
None of us wants to be deceived, and yet we’re told that in the last days even the very elect will be. So how do we make sure we can recognize truth and distinguish it from mistruth?
What is Truth?
What is truth? Several millennia ago, Pilate asked this question of the Savior. The scriptures don’t tell us if he waited for or received a reply, but on May 6, 1833, God provided us with a clear, unequivocal answer:
“And truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come” (D&C 93: 24).
Truth, then, corresponds to objective reality. It is solid. It is real. It is eternal.
Truth as we speak of it can relate to facts (the earth is round), natural laws (the apple will fall to the ground if dropped), and principles (freedom is preferable to bondage). It is easier to prove or verify the truth of facts and natural laws than principles.
Opinions and perspectives are something entirely different. Sometimes an opinion or perspective is merely a matter of personal preference (“Vanilla ice cream is the best.”). Opinions or perspectives may be informed by facts, natural laws, and/or true principles, but they may also be grounded in misinformation or incomplete information (or a mix of true and false information) and are always influenced by context and experience.
There can be differing opinions that are equally valid. In politics, there are reasonable, rational arguments to be made on either side of the ideological spectrum.
This is not what we are concerning ourselves with today though. Our focus is truth and our question is: How do we discern between truth and error and between truth and deliberate untruth (mistruth?) so that we are not deceived and so that we can make good and wise choices?
In many things, there is not a clearly true or a clearly false answer. One of the hallmarks of maturity and intelligence is being able to live with ambiguity and nuance—with an understanding that there are shades of grey and that very often “it depends” or “there is insufficient data” are the only honest answers. And the principle of paradox teaches us that something that may appear to be false or implausible can actually be true and possible (the statement that there are as many even numbers as natural numbers, for example, or Christ’s insistence that “he that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it” (Matthew 10:39)).
And often we (whether individually or as a human collective) are still in the process of working toward a full understanding of truth (in science, for example). We sometimes lack information and/or the capacity to fully understand. We grow, then, in our knowledge of truth, line upon line, precept upon precept, hypothesis and experimentation upon hypothesis and experimentation.
But none of this means that truth doesn’t exist. It does. One cannot reasonably say, “Well, the earth can be flat depending on one’s background or culture or position on the planet.” No, the earth is round no matter how strenuously one may argue that, for him or her, it’s actually flat. The law of gravity will have its way, no matter how much we wish to be able to levitate. Freedom will remain the state in which humans can best thrive and find happiness no matter how rigorously someone may extol the virtues of authoritarianism.
The problem is that we live in a world where people can manipulate data, create false narratives, and just plain make stuff up—usually to advance a specific and often self-serving agenda. Furthermore, we are all predisposed to bias because of our individual experiences and temperaments. We naturally tend to see what we want to see and to dismiss what we don’t. And we all have limited information and limited perspectives. We see through a glass darkly.
So how do we know when we are being deceived? That’s the real question. How do we discern between truth and falsehood (deliberate deception) and truth and error (mistakes, miscalculations, incomplete data) so that we can choose rightly?
Why is Truth Important?
Does it really even matter? Is it really so important that we distinguish between truth and falsity, between truth and error? I think we all instinctively know that it is; that it is, in fact, critical.
To begin with, our relationships—the most important things in the world to most of us—depend upon trust, and trust must be based in truth. What kind of a relationship could you have with your spouse, your best friend, your boss, your co-worker, your next-door neighbor, even your bank teller if they lied to you all the time?
And in order for it to be effective, our public policy must be founded on accurate information inasmuch as possible. That’s why a full and accurate census is so important. We need to know how many people live in each state in order to have fair representation in Congress, for example.
Even our physical safety depends on knowing the truth. We need accurate information in order to stay safe. We don’t want to be told that a bridge is sound before we step out onto it when, in fact, it is unstable. We have a much greater chance of staying safe if we know that a category 5 hurricane is barreling our way than if we’re told it’s merely a light rain shower.
And most importantly, truth is essential to our personal growth and eternal progression. We are here, in part, to increase in intelligence (which we learn in D&C 93 is “light and truth”). A knowledge of the truth allows us to use our agency to make rational, moral choices. We are here to learn to choose good and to reject evil, to choose light over darkness, to choose freedom over bondage. How can we do that if we can’t discern truth? In very fact, then, the truth shall make us free.
And so, we must not be deceived. Our very salvation depends on it. Yet there are those who are set on deceiving us. Satan, the father of all lies, desires nothing more than to blind and bind us. And to do so, he and those who heed him will “call evil good, and good evil” and will “put darkness for light, and light for darkness” (Isaiah 5:20; 2 Nephi 15:20).
So important is it that we see clearly that we’re told we should “waste and wear out our lives in bringing to light all the hidden things of darkness” and that this should be “attended to with great earnestness” (D&C 123:13-14).
We know that many will be deceived—even many honorable people of the earth will be blinded by the craftiness of men. With this knowledge, then, we must each be willing to open our hearts and minds and ask, with genuine humility: “Lord, is it I?” We must be willing to seriously examine the question of whether we might in some regards be deceived.
How Do We Discern?
Again, first we must acknowledge our own capacity to be deceived. This should bring no shame. We’re all vulnerable. And Satan is cunning. He knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s had eons of time to perfect his craft, to train his followers, to learn how best to exploit weaknesses, appeal to pride, and tempt those who are susceptible to his wiles. The scriptures make it very clear that “evils and designs . . . do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days” (D&C 89:4) and Paul tells us that we must “henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive” (Ephesians 4:14).
Fortunately, our loving Heavenly Parents have not left us defenseless. They have given us some reliable patterns and standards whereby we may judge truth and guard against deception.
Patterns and Standards for Determining Truth: Patterns
The “Search/Ponder/Pray” Pattern
One pattern which can be found in various iterations throughout the scriptures we could call the Search/Ponder/Pray pattern.
In any attempt to understand what is true, we must first do our homework. God expects us to use the brains He gave us. In D&C 9: 7-8, the Lord tells Oliver Cowdery: “Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me. But, behold, I say unto you, that you must study it out in your mind; then you must ask me if it be right.”
We need to do our research, then. We need to study things out, using the most credible, reliable, unbiased sources possible.
Which presents us with another problem. How do we know which sources we can trust in this age of information overload, especially remembering the frequent scriptural warnings that in the last days there will be evil and designing people set on deceiving us.
Our goal should be to find sources that adhere to the highest professional and ethical standards—those that are as factual, accurate, and unbiased as possible, that strive for objectivity and balance, and that don’t have a specific political agenda. Impossible, you may say. While it’s true that many news outlets (far too many) do have agendas and often slant their reporting accordingly, there are still many that we can trust. Nonpartisan websites such as mediabiasfactcheck.com and allsides.com rate news outlets using various measures such as factual reporting and bias. There are also several infographs/charts that track and graph the trustworthiness of various news sources. One of the best of these can be found and downloaded for free here. This chart rates news outlets on two criteria: bias and reliability (meaning, accuracy of factual and investigative reporting). You can read about their methodology here. The most credible sources (least biased/most reliable) are found in the top middle section.
As we encounter new information, we should always, always check its sources. Never mindlessly share or forward memes or links that you haven’t carefully vetted. If you regularly get most of your news from a source that is either right-leaning or left-leaning, switch to one (or several) that are less biased. If you like to listen to/read/watch a slightly right-leaning source, spend equal time listening to/reading/watching a comparable source that leans slightly the other way. If you read the Wall Street Journal, for example, try supplementing it with The Washington Post. If you read mostly from The New York Times, try spending equal time reading The Hill.
By almost all credible accounts, the fairest, most balanced, least biased, and most accurate sources for news are The Associated Press (AP News) and Reuters. These wire services deal mainly with straight facts rather than analysis or opinion–both of which are also important to read, but with full awareness and a more critical eye.
Be aware of (and wary of) news sources with overt biases and low factual reporting (those either to the left or the right of the center section of the chart and/or in the bottom two-thirds.
When we ponder, we think carefully about what we’ve heard or read, we evaluate it, we look for holes, for overt bias, for inaccuracies, for lapses in logic or logical fallacies.
Joseph Fielding Smith was very clear on the importance of this kind of critical thinking:
“The Lord expects us to use our faculties and has given us reason as a measuring rod to measure truth under certain conditions.”
Unfortunately, logical fallacies abound in the public discourse of today, especially in the extreme poles of the political spectrum. Both sides are equally culpable, and it is critical that we learn to spot and refute (if only in our own heads and private discussions) such fallacies.
Some of the most common logical fallacies that are employed today include the following:
a. The Either/Or Fallacy (or False Dichotomy or False Dilemma)
When someone employs this fallacy, he/she builds an argument on the assumption that there are only two possible causes, positions, options, or outcomes when in actuality there are several (or even many).
Examples of this fallacy are ubiquitous in political discussions. Most recently, we’ve seen this fallacy emerge in the form of the insistence of many (again, on both sides) that either you care about people or you care about the economy during this pandemic. In truth, of course, you can care about, and, in fact, should care about both. And any viable solutions must consider both.
As I’ve written elsewhere, this kind of over-simplification “is not only misleading, but can be divisive, damaging, and downright dangerous. Too often it pits us against each other in extraordinarily destructive ways.
The truth is that life is messy. Human beings are complicated. Issues are complex. Black-and-white thinking that fails to acknowledge this lacks sophistication, nuance, and compassion. It isn’t helpful, nor is it accurate.”
Remember, it is the father of all lies who tells us there is no other way. In reality, there is almost always another way, another side to consider, other factors to take into account, more than one way of seeing things or finding solutions.
b. The Red Herring Fallacy
Another unfortunately common fallacy is the red herring. This fallacy is used when someone diverts attention from the issue at hand by introducing a different unrelated (or merely tangentially related) issue. If, for example, you are talking to your teenage son about the fact that he failed to put gas in the car after he’d borrowed it, and he suddenly starts talking about how he got an “A” on his last chemistry test, that’s a red herring.
We see this all the time in political discussions. Someone may be making a case for stricter immigration policies, for example, and an opponent responds with: “What we really need in this country is universal health care.” Or someone may be talking about systemic racism when someone else counters with, “Why are we talking about that when children are being trafficked?” (This latter example also uses the either/or fallacy. The implication is that we can only care about one or the other—racism or trafficking—when, in fact, we can (and should!) care about both.)
Whataboutism is related to the red herring fallacy in that it directs attention away from the issue at hand rather than addressing it. In this case, the opponent attempts to discredit the argument by charging the author/speaker of hypocrisy rather than refuting or disproving the argument itself.
Again, this is far too common in today’s political discussions. We’ve all heard it (and perhaps engaged in it). Someone, for example, expresses alarm over the revelations of the Access Hollywood tapes and someone else responds with, “Well, what about Bill Clinton?” Or someone points out that Obama should not have created DACA by executive order and someone else counters with, “But what about President Trump’s travel ban?”
Whataboutism gets us nowhere. It’s the childish equivalent of “He pushed me!” “Well, she breathed my air!”
d. Non Sequitur
Non sequitur means “it does not follow.” It’s a non sequitur when the conclusion doesn’t follow the premise or the response doesn’t match the question. A non sequitur statement can take many different forms. Here are a few examples:
Mitch McConnell’s neighbors say that he is unfriendly, therefore, he can’t be an effective Senate Majority Leader.
Hillary Clinton is Bill Clinton’s wife, therefore, she lies.
Q: What are your plans for the economy?
A: I’m way ahead in the polls.
Q: How will you get Mexico to pay for the wall?
A: Mexico will pay for it.
Non sequiturs result from sloppy or lazy thinking or deliberate attempts to evade difficult questions or to mislead. It’s imperative that we train ourselves to recognize non sequiturs and that we not fall into the trap of using them ourselves.
e. Ad Hominem Fallacy
One of the crudest but unfortunately most common logical fallacies is the ad hominem attack. Ad hominem means “against the man.” An ad hominem attack is a personal attack. It replaces logic with name calling. It’s often cruel and always irrelevant to the argument. It’s manipulative, lazy, and cowardly.
Examples of the ad hominem fallacy include calling someone an idiot, making fun of their hair, calling them “an orange orangutan,” or referring to them as “Crooked Hillary” or “Lyin’ Ted.” It’s childish and should never be excused or tolerated.
f. Strawman Fallacy
This fallacy consists of intentionally misrepresenting an opponent’s position so that you can set up an easy target to shoot down. For example, if someone is arguing for background checks for private or gun show sales, an opponent may respond with something like: “He wants to take away our guns, and the 2nd amendment guarantees that right.” Or if someone suggests that the rights of unborn babies must be considered, an opponent might say: “Oh, so you don’t believe that women have any rights.”
Strawman responses are reductionistic, misleading, unfair, and illogical.
We should also be aware of other common logical fallacies such as the slippery slope fallacy, the post hoc fallacy (or circular reasoning), etc. These kinds of sophistries have been used for thousands of years to mislead and deceive. We have to train ourselves to identify and reject these manipulations.
Along with searching and pondering, prayer is an important part of this pattern. Prayer is one of the greatest gifts our loving Heavenly Parents have given us. As we search for truth and guard against being deceived, we should pray continually. Pray, specifically, for the gift of discernment. Pray that the Holy Ghost will be with you to guide and direct you, to enlighten your minds, to confirm truth, and to warn you when something isn’t right. We have been promised that “by the power of the Holy Ghost” we “may know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5). Prayer, then, can bring a powerful confirmation of truth, particularly if we have done our due diligence in searching and pondering.
The “Contrite Spirit/Meek and Edifying Language” Pattern
God gives us another pattern for discerning in D&C 52:
14 “And again, I will give unto you a pattern in all things, that ye may not be deceived . . . .”
Someone who is “of God,” then will have a contrite spirit, will use language that is meek and that edifies, and will obey God’s ordinances.
The Lord concludes:
19 Wherefore, by this pattern ye shall know the spirits in all cases under the whole heavens.
In part two, we will discuss some important standards that God has given us for measuring truth. We’ll also look at what He has said about elections.
To read part 2 of this article, CLICK HERE.
About the Author
Sharlee Glenn taught for many years in the Honors Department at Brigham Young University. She is a writer, teacher, advocate, and community organizer. Glenn currently sits on the external advisory board for BYU’s Office of Civic Engagement.