Disinformation can deceive “even the very elect.”
The following message was adapted from a talk I gave at a couple of church congregations the last Sunday of 2020. It feels even more relevant today (January 6, 2021) due to the riot and invasion perpetrated against the US Capitol.
Misinformation and Disinformation
We just celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ. As He began His ministry, word got out about His way of teaching and what people saw as “new doctrine.” The apostle John tells us what some people said:
Of a truth this is the Prophet.
Others said, This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee?
Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was?
So there was a division among the people because of him
Even back then there was misinformation!
Some people didn’t even know where Christ was born and didn’t agree about his authority or mission (Christ was indeed born in Bethlehem, which as recently taught means “house of bread”).
The Savior warned us of these times, when He said:
. . . there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.
Since the time I read this scripture for the first time when I was a teenager, or maybe even younger, I thought that members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in good standing before God could not be deceived. The last few years have proven me wrong. And it might be due to misinformation and disinformation.
David B. Height said:
Unfortunately, along with much of the world, some of our loved ones are influenced by false prophets, false Christs, and modern movements of spiritualism. Some have become victims of satanic influences because they do not understand or realize the power of the adversary who knows human weaknesses and is ever present.
Just yesterday I saw a “news” headline that read: “The Horrible Year 2021 That Awaits Us . . . According to Nostradamus.” I didn’t click on it. We (members of the LDS Church) of all people know better; we know we have the real deal — a true prophet!
Examples of Disinformation
Eratosthenes and the Shape of the Earth
Eratosthenes is most famous for measuring the circumference of the Earth around the year 200 BC. He was a learned man and became the head librarian at the Library of Alexandria, which was the scientific capital of the world back then.
By the way, what do you call a fake news library?
(You’re supposed to laugh.)
Many learned men at the time knew or at least suspected that the Earth was round (without having the direct evidence that we now have). More than two thousand years ago, Eratosthenes devised a very clever way to measure the circumference of the Earth by knowing the distance between two cities and measuring the shadow of a stick at the same time that the sun’s rays are perpendicular to one of the cities (see image below).
Contrast that to today’s Flat Earth Society, who believes that the Earth is flat!
Spencer W. Kimball said something about this topic:
The earth is spherical. If all the four billion people in the world think it flat, they are in error. That is an absolute truth, and all the arguing in the world will not change it.
An interesting point of view that Eratosthenes had was that he believed there was both good and bad in every nation. And he criticized Aristotle for arguing that humanity was divided into Greeks and barbarians. If you think about it, racism is based upon the false statement that one race is superior to another.
There are many conspiracy theories floating around. Believing them can become even dangerous. Consider the conspiracy theory now referred to as “pizzagate,” which “falsely claimed that several US high-ranking officials and restaurants had an alleged human trafficking and child sex ring.”
One man who believed in that conspiracy went to one such restaurant in Washington DC with a rifle looking for all these children that were supposedly being held captive in its basement, only to discover that there wasn’t even a basement in that place. Everything spread about pizzagate was false. There’s a new conspiracy theory that continues similar falsehoods and has thousands of followers (QAnon).
The following are all true statements. If you disagree, you have been deceived by disinformation:
- The Earth is spherical (for the most part because it’s not a perfect sphere).
- Vaccines don’t cause autism.
- There was no widespread election fraud in the 2020 presidential election in the US.
- Mr. Bean is funny. (OK, this one is subjective and intended as a joke.)
Scriptures that Warn Against Disinformation
“Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners.” 1 Cor. 15:33
“That we 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.” Eph. 4:14
Church’s Statement About Misinformation
Just recently (December 18, 2020), the church updated its General Handbook with a new section called “Seeking Information from Reliable Sources.” It has the following two paragraphs:
In today’s world, information is easy to access and share. This can be a great blessing for those seeking to be educated and informed. However, many sources of information are unreliable and do not edify. Some sources seek to promote anger, contention, fear, or baseless conspiracy theories (see 3 Nephi 11:30; Mosiah 2:32). Therefore, it is important that Church members be wise as they seek truth.
Members of the Church should seek out and share only credible, reliable, and factual sources of information. They should avoid sources that are speculative or founded on rumor. The guidance of the Holy Ghost, along with careful study, can help members discern between truth and error (see Doctrine and Covenants 11:12; 45:57). In matters of doctrine and Church policy, the authoritative sources are the scriptures, the teachings of the living prophets, and the General Handbook.
We all have biases, whether we recognize it or not (there is Unconscious Bias). And even given the same information, we might interpret it and make different conclusions due to Confirmation Bias. The first step to combat this is to recognize this fact.
For the most part, major reputable news organizations, while they might be biased, report the truth and would not publish something if they could not verify its accuracy. And they retract or provide erratas when an error is made.
But outside of reputable news organizations, there are thousands, if not millions, of sources of information whose sole purpose is to deceive. Their reason? Political power and control, money, and in some cases, fanaticism to a given belief or cause. Some have been proven to be funded by politically-motivated persons or institutions.
Scientific vs Spiritual Knowledge
There are two sources of knowledge: One that comes from God and can cover any truth, and the other is scientific knowledge, which is based on empirical evidence acquired through our senses using the scientific method.
We accept both, and they can’t contradict each other, yet they sometimes may seem to do just that. Some scientific theories might not yet have arrived at the truth and that’s where some people have become confused. Science, like revelation, is ongoing. Likewise, literal interpretations of the scriptures might seem to contradict truths proven by scientific inquiry. In those cases, we have to accept the fact that literal interpretation of scripture isn’t correct.
Joseph Smith said that “a man is saved no faster than he gets knowledge” and always advocated pursuing knowledge in every field, including fields of scientific inquiry. He also said the following:
Mormonism is truth; and every man who embraces it feels himself at liberty to embrace every truth: consequently the shackles of superstition, bigotry, ignorance, and priestcraft, fall at once from his neck; and his eyes are opened to see the truth . . .
Mormonism is truth, in other words the doctrine of the Latter-day Saints, is truth . . . The first and fundamental principle of our holy religion is, that we believe that we have a right to embrace all, and every item of truth, without limitation or without being circumscribed or prohibited by the creeds or superstitious notions of men, or by the dominations of one another, when that truth is clearly demonstrated to our minds, and we have the highest degree of evidence of the same.
Carl Sagan said that science is like a “candle to the world.” Although science is a useful candle, we as members of the Church of Christ have an even more powerful source of light, perhaps an LED lamp, represented by true religion and the source of all light: Jesus Christ.
Science has the scientific method to discover truth.
The equivalent method for spiritual inquiry is described by Alma the prophet in chapter 32 of his book, which talks about planting the seed of the word (the gospel) through faith and hope. Oh, and don’t forget nourishment! Spiritual inquiry is the work of a lifetime constantly requiring effort and humility.
Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and His brightness rivals the sun, so why limit yourself to only a candle?
How Can We Be Deceived
We can be deceived in three general ways:
- We separate ourselves from the source of truth (God) by disobedience.
- We become critical instead of developing critical thinking.
- We fail to recognize and control our biases.
Let’s consider how to combat these three issues, starting with the first.
Heber C. Kimball said:
To meet the difficulties that are coming, it will be necessary for you to have a knowledge of the truth of the work for yourselves . . . If you do not you will not stand . . . The time will come when no man nor woman will be able to endure on borrowed light. Each will have to be guided by the light within himself.
Valiant in the Testimony of Jesus, General Conference, April 1982
That’s very similar to what our current prophet said not too long ago:
In coming days, it will not be possible to survive spiritually without the guiding, directing, comforting, and constant influence of the Holy Ghost.
Russell M. Nelson
Living a Christlike life is the answer to having the Holy Spirit present in our lives, and also to a world in commotion around us. The Holy Ghost reveals and teaches “the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5). We should listen to Him. He will never lead us astray. We should aim to approach perfection, or as Joseph Smith said it:
We consider that God has created man with a mind capable of instruction, and a faculty which may be enlarged in proportion to the heed and diligence given to the light communicated from heaven to the intellect; and that the nearer man approaches perfection, the clearer are his views, and the greater his enjoyments.
Developing Critical Thinking
We should know that in matters not related to our salvation and about which God has not spoken, we listen to what current scientists and other experts in their fields tell us.
And we should apply the same principles used in the scientific method to accept or discard information. We consider the sources, the date, read beyond the headlines, check the authors and look for evidence. We should follow the data and the facts wherever they lead.
Lastly, we check our biases. Just being aware of them can help us mitigate the downsides.
Are we listening only inside an echo chamber? Or do we sometimes visit news sources with opposite views than our own? We should explore the “other side”, question ourselves, and be willing to change our minds. Even scientists fall to confirmation bias (or other forms of cognitive biases). We — usually not scientists — could also fall for the Dunning-Kruger effect even when we’re trying to educate others. Some medical professionals, for instance, take inductive reasoning courses to help them get rid of biases that could affect their diagnoses.
I am grateful that we have prophets. President Nelson is the current mouthpiece of God, who is the source of truth. We would be wise in following the prophets and their examples while at the same time develop more critical thinking.
Let’s follow the guidelines outlined in “Seeking information from Reliable Sources.” We can be part of the solution instead of being part of the problem of disinformation.