Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Have Mercy on the Morons: A Plea on Behalf of the Misinformed

How do you know what you know?

That may seem like a pretty basic question, but it's a question that few of us are ever pushed to ask, let alone answer. It is a question, however, that has begun to bother me more than a little in recent years.

Of course, there are certain basic and unprovable assumptions that I must hold by faith as a Christian. Or even as a human being. Not every statement is up for debate. Whether we believe that God, or reason, or science, or Bono, or our own gut feeling is our ultimate standard for truth, we all have a place where the buck stops. All of our reasoning becomes circular when we get down to our most foundational beliefs.

I believe in the God of the Bible, and that necessitates that I reject any statements—however compelling—that directly contradict that belief. If someone asserts that theft is actually a good idea when you can get away with it, I can reject that statement without losing a single night's sleep, because it flatly defies the eighth commandment. Easy. But beyond the clear teachings of the Bible is a myriad of assertions that are anything but easy to assess. They require a degree of knowledge and wisdom that most of us will never attain. These are the kinds of questions that make me wonder how we really know what we "know."

A Matter of Trust
It's not that I lie awake at night worrying about this, and I have no plans for taking up the study of epistemology in my spare time. But honestly, every time one of my well intentioned Facebook friends posts another link to some piece of revisionist history, or alternative medicine, or political conspiracy, or any other article claiming to expose "hidden agendas" and "things the corporations don't want you to know," I feel like tearing my hair out.

It's not that I believe all these articles must be wrong. They may be absolutely right. Or mainly right. Or a little bit right about a few things. But therein lies my frustration; with the seemingly infinite number of "untold stories" out there, it's frequently impossible to know which stories to believe.

"Every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses" (Matthew 18:16). But what about all the times when the witnesses—even the "expert" witnesses—present conflicting evidence? When both the prosecution and the defense can call upon the testimony of two or three persuasive witnesses, how do I decide who makes a more convincing case? Daily life lacks the formality of a courtroom, and there are times when my decision cannot wait. I, of course, pray for wisdom, but often I must render my verdict while knowing full well that I have only part of the story and a few tidbits of sketchy evidence.

If, for example, somebody tells me that my government has lied to me about a particular event in the Middle East, I have to choose whom to believe if I am going to cast a "responsible vote." If there's been a cover-up, it is, well, covered up. There are many things I simply can't know. Do I trust the embittered soldier who was there? The apparently competent general who was also there? The commander in chief who saw the top-secret intelligence reports? The civilians who were affected on the ground? The talk radio host who interpreted the information? The NPR reporter who was embedded with the unit? The news anchor on Al Jazeera? The political blogger who scours the Web for possible leaks and insider stories? How do you know what you know?

I bring this up not because I want to start a discussion on foreign policy. I most certainly don't. And I don't want to sound like a relativist who thinks that all views are equally valid; I believe there's a vast gulf between truth and falsehood. I bring this up because I have found myself increasingly at a loss in sorting through the wildly differing "facts" littering my way as I try to navigate through life—especially through life as a parent.

The Curse of the Over-Informed Parent
In case you hadn't noticed, nearly everything we do for our kids requires careful thought. We need wisdom to sort through the barrage of opinions and studies and information and advice. Studies can be wrong, statistics can be twisted, and people on both sides of an issue can be less than objective in their approach. But the problem is, nobody I know has the time or resources to exhaustively research every possible option presented to us as parents. And because these decisions involve our kids—our future—emotions surrounding these choices tend to run rather high.

A typical mom might be disinterested in politics, apathetic about eschatology, bored by artistic trends. But bring up the topic of, say, childhood vaccines, and boom!  Watch the fireworks begin.

It's so very easy to assume that other parents who have made decisions different from our own have simply failed to understand the issues, or are too lazy to do their research, or have motives that aren't altogether pure. Maybe they've been brainwashed by propaganda. Maybe they haven't seen the shocking episode of 20/20 that we saw. Maybe they haven't talked to the right people. Maybe they're just stupid.

Or maybe, just maybe, they know something that we don't.

We can all agree on certain primary issues—that we should feed, clothe, educate and care for the health of our children. But the secondary details involving how we do those things can vary widely among wise and respectable people. We may all be diligently researching our options and still come to opposing conclusions. And that should hardly come as a surprise. We have studies and statistics bombarding us on every side, but rarely do they form any kind of consensus or any sense of certainty. As tidy as the word "data" may sound, the reality is anything but.

Expert Worship
We may have a pantheon of experts just a URL away, but the Cult of the Expert is a demanding and dizzying religion. First, we all slavishly follow the ex cathedra pronouncements of anybody in a white lab coat and a "Doctor of" diploma framed on the wall. But then some fringe heretic has the gall to stand up and point out that butter actually seems to be better for us than margarine after all and that the AMA and the USDA and the AAP have made some disastrous mistakes. We read the 95 Nutritional Theses nailed to the laboratory door, and our allegiances begin to shift.

Disillusioned by white lab coats, we turn with Reformation zeal to the unshaven nonconformist in Birkenstocks and a broomstick skirt who would expose for us the lies told by the priests of the old order. Down with the establishment! Let's pass out tracts! Let's evangelize the nations with the latest findings, baptizing them in the holistic name of the Protein, the Fat, and the Carbohydrates! Do I hear an "Amen?"

But wait a minute. Now the expert in the broomstick skirt is the establishment, and certain preventable diseases are seeing a global resurgence, to boot. The Holy Writ of the Expert must again be revised. But who will be our prophets and our priests now that nine out of ten nutritionists no longer agree? Which expert's Kool-aid are we going to drink next?

We could spend the rest of our lives chasing after the next "shocking revelation" offered up by the expert-du-jour, only to have each "important new study" undermined by the next.

The fact is, we can't run some kind of in-depth investigation into everything we hear. Not even close. And even if we could, we would still have to make faith-based decisions about what evidence to believe and how to interpret it. "Proof" is only as solid as the assumptions that underlie it. Even if I saw something with my own two eyes, I can still only know it happened if my own two eyes are trustworthy. (And that may be a very big "if.")

So the easiest solution is to turn to the Expert (blessed be he). He will tell us just what to do. No wisdom necessary. And when his advice fails us, we can blame, instead of ourselves, the evil pseudo-expert—the informational heretic—who led us astray.

But the real solution is, I believe, to remember where our true authority comes from and to realize that no earthly expert has a monopoly on knowledge. The data, however good and helpful, must be taken with a grain or two of (unrefined, natural Baltic Sea) salt.  The world is a messy place made up of messy people with messy motives, and while true knowledge about the world is attainable, exhaustive knowledge is not.

The older our kids get, the more I am amazed by the number of decisions we are required to make on their behalf. And the more decisions we have to make, the more I realize how much I just don't know. Socrates was on to something. I may not go so far as to say that I know nothing, but what I don't know definitely outweighs what I do. By a lot. Tons, actually.

This is why I have sometimes found myself wishing that an angel from heaven (a different kind of expert) would simply appear and tell me exactly whom to believe about things I'm told to do (or not to do) for the good of my children. But this is not going to happen, so we must proceed as wisely as we can with what information we can find in the time that we can set aside to find it. And in doing so, we must all—experts included—recognize that we have a whole lot left to learn. Additionally, we who are Christians must not lose sight of where the beginning of knowledge lies—with the fear of the Lord. That's our starting point. Whatever other knowledge we pursue must be built on that foundation.

A Toast to Ignorance
Even before they are born, I'm given conflicting information on all kinds of topics. Here's one bit of advice that's been printed everywhere from public bathrooms to health manuals: "Alcohol and pregnancy do not mix." The "experts" have a litany of scary statistics implying that an unintentional sip of grape juice gone bad could leave your unborn baby mentally impaired. So pregnant women nervously chew their nails wondering if they've ruined their child's life by drinking an entire cocktail before knowing they were expecting. But (as always seems to be the case) that's only one side of the story.

There are also scientific studies and statistics (mostly British) that have "proven" just the opposite—that children of women who drank "moderately" during pregnancy actually had brighter, better adapted children than those of women who had completely abstained. And some of these studies allege that it's fear of litigation that has (understandably) led most American obstetricians to advocate the total-abstinence policy, fearing that women will interpret permission to have a drink as permission to go on a month-long vodka binge.

So what to do? Better safe than sorry? Or better lighten up than stress out? Whom to believe? British doctors or American doctors? OBs or midwives? Your mom or that lady from the church potluck? I've tried to read a fair bit about this one, and the more I've read, the more I feel like reciting "eeny-meeny-miney-mo" is probably the best means of deciding the issue.

Sheesh. Please pass the shiraz.

Love and Let Live
I have more to learn than is humanly possible if I am going to make what might be called an "informed decision" about almost anything you can name. And so, I am guessing, do most of us. That is why I am writing this—not as a rant but as a plea for mercy. Share what you've learned for the good of your neighbor, and wisdom can be the result. Beat your neighbor over the head with the cold, hard facts, and somebody is going to get hurt. And it just might be the "facts" themselves that suffer.

In this messy world, charity is the necessary antidote to the idolatrous worship of expertise. Let us hear with gratitude—let us even seek out—what the knowledgeable have to say, but let us not bow down and kiss their feet.

If you see me nibbling on a Chicken McNugget; if you see me, with my pregnant belly, sipping on a mojito; if you see me taking my children for a vaccination; if you see me voting for the wrong candidate (shame on you for peeking); if you see me buying goods from the wrong store; if you see me doing anything else you would never, never do, I beg you to withhold your scorn and instead show a little mercy. I promise to do the same for you.


Erika said...

Well put Mrs. Grieser...I think it was very wise that the Bible tell us many-a time to hold our tongue and listen, as well as pulling the plank out of our own eye.
I'll give an AMEN to it all.

Anonymous said...

Appreciated your article. Well done. Impressive insights from one so young (I'm an old geezer).

P.S. Rule of thumb: When it comes to the need for "body and fender repair" (i.e., medical emergencies), western/"orthodox" medicine is hard to beat. When it comes to chronic problems, however, it's best to look elsewhere unless you wish to have the situation reduced to pharmaceutically managed disease rather than search for a cure...

KeriAnn said...

Here's a virtual kiss on the cheek. ***

Luma said...

Can I just say "thank you" and "Amen" to this!

Aunt Brenda said...

Hah! Loved every word. Makes me wonder why no one asks me for advice, though....

Signe said...

Amen, and amen. If those darn experts would just stick to the same story all would be well, but where would faith be? I think suit yourself should be the answer much more often than it is.

God Bless You!

Carissalayla said...

Hannah, you are fantastic! Keep writing, I love it!

Leanne said...

Ok, so I finally sat down to read this post, without interruption, but I know you will not judge! ; ) Thank You! You have such a gift. A wonderful piece indeed, and one that hits home for sure.

John Grauke said...

Amen and may I say a touch of mercy on the experts is always appreciated. BTW great speech at the Logos lunch today.

FruitfulMama said...

Excellent writing! I loved it!!!

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