Untrustworthy, Bonnie Kristian, Foreword by David French. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2022.
Summary: A discussion of the epistemic crisis that has swept our society, riven our politics, and undermined our Christian community, and steps one may take to cultivate epistemic virtue and live discerningly.
We’ve all lived through it the last number of years. The “fake news” we encountered on social media and the resistance to fact-checkers, equally accused of being “fake” or biased or wrong. We’ve watched friends go down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, of the left or the right. We’ve watched or even participated in the arguments about who do you trust for pandemic information. We’ve watched a sizable part of the country believe in a “stolen election” even though no actionable evidence has met the standards of proof required by a court of law (and recently learned of admissions that even news outlets who promoted these ideas didn’t actually believe them). We’ve watched conflicts over matters like masking policies rip apart churches, places where we are taught to love and submit to one another.
In short, we are faced with what many have called an “epistemic crisis.” We are not longer sure how we know, and how we may know the truth and left in little tribal groups and echo chambers where all we can say is “you have your truth and I have mine” and agree to a world of “alternate facts” and “alternate truths.” Bonnie Kristian is a seasoned journalist who grew up in a conservative Christian, Late Great Planet Earth community. In Untrustworthy, she explores how we have gotten to this place, and what we may do, particularly in the Christian community, to live with epistemic virtue and discernment, even if we are unable to change the broader landscape.
She begins with looking at what’s wrong with the news from the bias of mainstream media to the profit and entertainment bias that has come to dominate many news outlets. She argues for the effort to do unbiased reporting along older models with a high commitment to admitting errors and publishing corrections. She also notes the deleterious effects of online media, underscored by Nicholas Carr’s Atlantic critique: that it encourages distraction rather than focus, it’s tailored to our taste my algorithms, it modifies our real-world interactions, and serves to solidify our views making us less likely to consider other evidence. From this, she moves to one of the most disturbing phenomena of the online world, the punishing of views that transgress by cancellation, threatening both the personal and job security of the cancelled, with no place for forgiveness or restoration. From “mobs” we move to “schemes” and how our online media feed conspiracy thinking. Addressing Christians she makes three modest proposals: “(1) don’t argue; (2) look at the fruit the mindset is bearing; and (3) don’t seek a false sense of security that doesn’t come from God.” Finally, she discusses skepticism and the death of expertise, where a Google search is as valid as years of training and research in a specific field. She’s candid about the ways experts undermine trust while recognizing how dependent we are on expertise in so many dimensions of our modern life. She notes that even experts are constantly learning and that revised expert advice can be a good thing because it reflects that learning.
She turns, then to how people change their views, and it is not through argument. She cites Jonathan Haidt’s analogy of the rider (reason) and the elephant (emotion), and that the rider is going to go where the elephant wants to go. The issue is redeemed emotion, where love supplants fear. She also discusses identitarian deference which means when discussing matters of race, class, disability, and gender and sexuality, we must defer to those with the particular status in question. This can lead to a highly Balkanized society and denies that we can understand another whose lived experience is different and forecloses discussion. She calls for a middle ground, still allowing for someone to “speak as an X” upholding the example of Esau McCaulley, among others, who does speak as a Black scholar, humbly and with integrity, but wishes to be taken seriously for good scholarship from a Black perspective, not just because he is Black.
Chapters 8 and 9 on developing epistemic virtue and making a plan are worth the price of the book. She asserts that truth is knowable, that we can know it, but not all of it, and that humility is a requisite virtue. She asserts that epistemic virtue requires one to be studious while limiting our focus (we can’t know everything), intellectually honest, wise in our use of that knowledge, cultivating an epistemology of love and a hermeneutic of obedience. Practically, she calls for a look at our habits: our devices and desires, our space and our subscriptions, our social media use, and our news consumption. She suggests how we may both strengthen the rider and become aware of the elephant. She concludes with inviting us to choose better things and holds up 1 Peter as an example of doing so.
While discussing the landscape of media in society and larger social trends, the book focuses not on finger-pointing but self-assessment, asking us how we have been affected by the ways we engage with various forms of news and online media, how we have allowed the epistemic crisis to corrode our own epistemic virtue. She recognizes that people are going to keep doing all the things that have led to this crisis but that the challenge for us, particularly in the Christian community, is the development of virtues that make us, if not immune, then certainly more discerning. Setting boundaries on media consumption and choosing real social engagements with our families and Christian community also acts as a check on the extremes.
Two things I would like to see her address in the future. One is steps toward restoring a commitment to reporting that is closer to the objective standard once set by journalism, perhaps more self-aware given our understandings of bias. The other is the steps one may take to address Carr’s analysis of how the internet has broken our minds, and in what ways we might grow in our capacity for extended discussions, focused inquiry, and long form journalism and reading. That’s for another book, perhaps, and her practical advice in this one points in those directions. This is a worthy book to consider for those engaged in adult education and Christian formation, where one would hope the virtues basic to epistemic virtue might be developed. Educators also might give attention to this in understanding more of the challenges they face in forming virtuous learners. Clearly, an important book.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.
One thought on “Review: Untrustworthy”
Pingback: The Month in Reviews: February 2023 | Bob on Books