Falling for it hook, line, and onion: Overcoming gullibility


By Eric Metaxas
One year ago, China's People's Daily newspaper told readers that Kim Jong-un, the leader of neighboring North Korea, had been named the "sexiest man alive." A 55-photo slide show accompanied copy that read "With his devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm, and his strong, sturdy frame, this Pyongyang-bred heartthrob is every woman's dream come true."

As you have probably guessed by now, the People's Daily had fallen for a "story" from the satire magazine, "The Onion."

It's easy to laugh at the Chinese communists and other "rubes" who cannot distinguish fact from fiction and satire from serious reporting. But, sadly enough, Christians are often every bit as gullible.

This gullibility was the subject of a recent piece at the web site Patheos. In it, Alan Noble cites several examples of stories that Christians accept as true and passed on to their friends. Unlike the Chinese mistake, there was nothing funny about these examples of credulity.

Two of them were stories that seemed to confirm our worst fears about Muslims and their enablers in the mainstream media. The third was about pictures, again ignored by the mainstream media, which purported to "prove" that Trayvon Martin was a thug. The first two stories weren't true, and the pictures of Martin were, in fact, pictures of someone else.

So why did Christians fall for it? Part of the answer lies in what is called "confirmation bias," the "tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs."

This bias is just as strong among the intelligent and well-educated as it is among the less-educated. And, of course, it is no respecter of political persons. For instance, a patently ridiculous story about Sarah Palin talking about Jesus telling people how to protest Roman abortion clinics and convert homosexuals was treated as fact by Piers Morgan on CNN.

People fell for the hoax because it confirmed what they thought they "knew" about Palin and people like her. It was literally too good to check.

But there's another factor at work here. About ten years ago, journalist Bill Bishop coined the phrase the "big sort" to describe the self-segregation of many Americans. Their choices of media outlets, churches and even communities were intended to ensure that they rarely, if ever, encountered anyone who didn't share their values.

The result was what is known as "epistemic closure." All their knowledge about the world, especially their knowledge about those who disagree with them, comes from "friendly" sources who confirm their beliefs.

Thus, it's easy for conservatives to believe the worst about liberals and vice-versa. They simply don't know enough about the "other" to distinguish an accurate portrait from a caricature or stereotype. As result, what passes for debate is as-often-as-not the knocking down of straw men.

What's missing is the ability to state the other person's position in a way that he would regard as fair.

This might not matter if the "big sort" meant that neither side ever has to deal with the other. But that's obviously not the case. And it's certainly not an option for the vast majority of Christians.

Engagement requires understanding, and understanding requires seeing people, not stereotypes and not caricatures. This understanding does not guarantee agreement, and it certainly doesn't guarantee that you will persuade the other person.

But it does guarantee that the disagreement will be with a real person, and not with, for example, a Pyongyang-bred heartthrob.

Eric Metaxas is currently the voice of Breakpoint, a radio commentary (www.breakpoint.org) that is broadcast on 400 stations with an audience of eight million.

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