and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free. (John 8:32)
In reading or hearing the media discuss a particular issue a common term heard is “everybody knows” or “its common knowledge that” followed by some dogmatic statement on the issue. It is hard to tell, at times, if what is being presented is true or propaganda to support a particular position.
Mark Twain was quoted as saying “There are lies, damn lies and statistics”. This statement is often used to support the notion that statistics can be manipulated to support a viewpoint. Buying into that concept can make one quite the skeptic, especially when looking at an issue that one may not have any real background or knowledge.
Judging the Truth
When assessing media reporting of research especially that are hot button cultural issues such as homosexuality, transgenderism, abortion etc. (usually, anything involving sex and morals) conclusions and claims do not always stack up as being valid.
Being trained in the scientific method and conducting research studies over the years has given me a basic understanding of the nature of valid data collection and interpretation that is generic to any field of inquiry. When I observe media reports on a particular topic that “lens” is used to judge the validity of a given claim based on research data.
An example of a critique of invalid research is a recent essay by Father Paul Sullins (a priest and former Research Professor of Sociology at Catholic University). He elaborates on the point of how “poor” scientific evidence has been used to promote the belief that same-sex parenting is equivalent to normal (male and female) parenting. While noting several research method deficiencies, one example was that much of the survey research did not use random samples. The data conclusions were drawn from volunteers.
An illustration of how this is a problem for drawing truthful conclusions (with a less emotionally charged issue) would be a study to assess the physical activity levels of Americans whereby only health club members who volunteered to take a survey were sampled. Needless to say, one would get a skewed (invalid) result concluding that Americans were very active which is not the case.
The Agenda Problem
There is a push in our society today to “normalize” a variety of human behaviors that would be considered immoral actions. An agenda is expressed that emphasizes a tolerance to acceptance to the promotion of such behaviors as voiced throughout the media. Data is presented, oftentimes, to support that agenda under scrutiny (such as the example above) can appear as propaganda for promotion. To a certain extent, it reinforces that Mark Twain may have been right in certain circumstances.
Many are frustrated with this situation and believe in the notion of “fake news”. The majority of Americans get their information from mainline or cable news outlets. Most would conclude there is some level of bias from all of those news sources. Given this situation, it becomes increasingly difficult to “ferret out” the truth of a given claim.
Curtailing the Truth
A related problem is the restricting of the truth through forcing politically correct speech and condemnation of viewpoints that do not match it as “hate speech”. In many respects, George Orwell in his classic novel 1984 foreshadowed this phenomenon. In that book, he imagined a future totalitarian state that had a “Ministry of Truth” which decided what is the truth and what could be expressed. In turn, “thought crime” was a term applied to the crime of free thought.
The situation of our current culture has not reached the level Orwell described, however, there are examples, especially in campus settings where a curtailing of free speech is occurring. Viewpoints that do not fit the narrative that those in control want to be promoted are denied free expression. This is especially the case involving issues that refer to moral behavior, particularly within a Christian framework.
Spinning the Truth with False Narratives
Another problem is that agenda based news often “spins” something that has an element of truth to produce a narrative that is a false projection of the real truth. An example is seen in the reporting of the clergy abuse crisis where the media still refer to the abuse as being done by pedophile priests. The various studies that have been done on clergy abuse document that pedophilia (abuse against pre-pubescent children) was not a primary form of abuse. In turn, approximately 80% of the abuse was adult clergy abusing post-pubescent boys (homosexual predation). Yet, the narrative that it is a pedophile clergy problem still gets headlines.
Using Language to Propagandize
Language can be misused to manipulate thoughts, facts, and the nature of reality to promote an agenda. An example is a defense of abortion where the issue is framed as an issue of rights – a woman’s right to her own body. Since most everyone supports human rights, the killing of babies in the womb is projected as good because it serves the rights of the woman. In turn, media outlets have renamed the pro-life movement as an anti-abortion one to project it in negative terms. On the flip side, pro-abortion is now referred to as pro-choice to give a positive connotation to that agenda. It is similar to Orwell’s “newspeak” in his book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, whereby speech is used to redefine evil as good, ugly as beautiful and down as up.
A Lens for Assessing Claims
The bottom line is that to find the truth of what is really happening in our world requires an effort. For many current topics such as global warming, political policy etc. where one may not have a background to accurately judge claims some fact-finding is necessary. Probably the best way to get separate truth from propaganda is by actively seeking several media outlets and to go directly to quoted sources. Then, one can weigh optional interpretations by using common sense, reason and one’s own experience to help draw out a reasonable sense of the truth.
There is a more objective basis for shifting out the truth on moral issues. We have Sacred Scripture and Holy Tradition that define absolute moral principles with no spin and with but one agenda. That agenda is to provide the guidance to live out a holy life to fulfill what is told in the book of Genesis that we are created in the image and likeness of God. The 2000-year experience of the Church’s Magisterium reflected in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) can provide assistance and direction based on that historical and critical search for truth.
We have that foundation for which to distill the truth but we have to make use of it. Studying Scripture, the CCC, paying attention to orthodox clergy and to a well-formed conscience can provide a reliable basis for judging the truth.
The sum of your word is the truth, and every one of your righteous rules endures forever. (Psalm 119:160)