We have a flood of information available today that we’ve never had before—what is doing to our brains? To our culture? To our ability to have civil conversations about hard issues? We’ll answer these questions and more with our guest, journalist Bonnie Kristian.
Bonnie is the author of Untrustworthy: The Knowledge Crisis Breaking Our Brains, Polluting Our Politics, and Corrupting Christian Community (2022) and A Flexible Faith: Rethinking What It Means to Follow Jesus Today (2018). As a journalist, she writes opinion pieces on foreign policy, religion, electoral politics, and more. Her column, "The Lesser Kingdom," appears in print and online at Christianity Today. Her work has been published at outlets including The New York Times, The Week, USA Today, CNN, Politico, Reason, and The Daily Beast.
Scott Rae: We have a flood of information available today that we've never had before. But what is that flood of information doing to our brains, to our culture, to our ability to have civil conversations about hard issues? We'll answer these questions and more with our guest today, journalist Bonnie Kristian. I'm your host Scott Rae ...
Sean McDowell: And I'm your co-host Sean McDowell.
Scott Rae: And this is Think Biblically, a podcast from Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University. Bonnie, welcome. So delighted to have you with us. We commend your book, Untrustworthy: The Knowledge Crisis is Breaking our Brains, Polluting our Politics, and Corrupting our Christian Community.
Bonnie Kristian: Thank you so much for having me.
Scott Rae: Yeah. You maintain the United States that we have a knowledge crisis. What exactly do you mean by that and what evidence do you have for such a crisis?
Bonnie Kristian: Sure. Yeah, so the idea of the knowledge crisis is I think something that feels very familiar to a lot of us, to the point that even if we might have a little bit of a difficulty articulating exactly what it is, I haven't had anyone when I've said that phrase say, "Oh no, I don't experience that. I don't know what you're talking about."
Sean McDowell: Right.
Bonnie Kristian: It's that sense, I think of confusion and uncertainty in this very chaotic and often overwhelming information environment we have where you frequently find yourself, often, not necessarily, but often online and often, and again not necessarily, but often in political contexts, looking at something and saying, "I don't know if this is true. I don't know how I would figure out if this is true. There are competing claims here. I don't know how to adjudicate them." And it has a relational dimension as well I think where we find ourselves in conversations with friends, family, loved ones where it seems like it's not just we disagree about policy, we've always had those kinds of disagreements, but where it seems like we're talking past each other, we're not even looking at the same reality where they're so convinced that the world is so different from the way you perceive it to be and that frequently goes back to differences in media consumption. That, I think, is sort of the gist of it and something that is unfortunately really familiar to a lot of us. As far as evidence, I would say there's a lot of polling that sort of gestures in this direction where we look at loss of trust and I would also point to things like loneliness and alienation from one another, increased political polarization and tribalism, generational strife, even the rise of conspiracist thinking and the way that pops up often in congregational settings as well as elsewhere, out just in politics in general. There's not a single, I guess, one thing that I could point to and say, "Look, that's the proof," but I think that most of us have experienced at least bits and pieces of this in our lives and in the lives of people we know and in our engagement with politics and with the press.
Sean McDowell: I totally agree. I don't know anybody from the left to the right, conservative to liberal who's going to say, "Nah, we don't have a knowledge crisis today." I think it's obvious, but you say it's breaking our brains. Tell us what you mean by that.
Bonnie Kristian: Yeah, so that phrase is, to some degree, it is intended to mean our literal brains in the sense of the way that we spend our time and our patterns of thought and attention and activity, our brains as we know really, really do set pathways, that it becomes quite physically hard to break out of them. Of course it also means our minds as well and just the way that our thinking becomes corrupt. I think if you get really deep into a state of knowledge crisis, you have trouble maintaining a feel for truth. You have trouble noticing deception and manipulation, especially if it's coming from people with whom you agree or to whom you're generally sympathetic. It's just a corrupting effect on how we think that may begin just with our politics, but I think it's rarely going to be confined to that alone.
Scott Rae: So Bonnie, just say a little bit more about how our mainstream news media contributes to the knowledge crisis, and then I'm curious to know how you think social media contributes to that too.
Bonnie Kristian: Yeah, well, so starting with the mainstream media, we have ... The answer that most people will give you on this, and I say most people because we have polling on this that overwhelmingly what Americans think is wrong with the mainstream media when they see mistaken stories or just have a general sense of discontent with it, people will tell you that they think that journalists are lying on purpose for ideological reasons. In the most common variant, it's basically to help Democrats get elected. I would argue that that is not a very good diagnosis of what's wrong with the media. That's not to say that there's nothing wrong with the media, but it's to say that I don't think it's generally that. Of course you can always find examples of malfeasance if you look for them, but on the bigger scale I would point to more mundane things that have a lot to do with the media figuring out basically how do we make money in the digital age where the advertising market is just not what it used to be. Now we don't do our classifieds in the newspaper, we do Craigslist, we do Facebook marketplace, you don't close jobs, cars, homes. Advertising for all of that, used to be a huge money maker and it's just not like that anymore. At the same time, subscriptions, which were the other big income source, that's gone down in many cases as well because we have this idea that content on the internet should be free to us by right. That business pressure has, the media doesn't always react to it in the best way. It's still an open question of how do we figure this out? In a lot of cases, the reaction that you see is a tendency to move towards an entertainment model, move toward maybe even some sensationalizing, to be putting out too much content too quickly because there's this desperation to try to get audience so that we can pay the bills because the media is a business, we do have to pay the bills. I think that's a big part of the problem, that incentive to put out low quality, high quantity content that creates some very bad incentives and some bad results. I think also the media is in a point of transition around questions on the reporting side of things, questions around objectivity and how we handle truth claims, matters of morality. Should you try to hew to that older standard of taking a neutral stance or should in your view, call a spade a spade? That's a debate that's happening in public because of everything happens in public now, and so the public watches it and sees an industry that's in a point of transition and really messy at this time. Social media, I think, exacerbates a lot of those trends, and this is where a lot of us as news consumers tend to be implicated, I think, in making things worse. Every time we're posting and sharing some garbage piece of news content on our social media feeds, we're encouraging exactly the bad behavior from the press that we say we don't want. Every time you click, that is sending a tiny signal saying, "Do more of this," but in reality, for the most part, we want them to do less of that. Social media I think it's not without value. I have some social media accounts, it's not like I'm saying there's nothing good there, but the way it is designed to take so much of our time and our attention, the way it is designed to get us emotionally riled because that's what gets people to stay, to stay longer and helps these companies make money that's not good for us not, and it's very difficult to resist that, especially if you're not aware of it and aware of how it works. It also, I think, just places all of our content consumption in a very chaotic and tribalistic context where you're not just sitting down to read the newspaper at the dining room table, you are reading it with a bunch of people cheering or jeering, and you're also getting jerked from one emotion to another. You read that serious newspaper story and then you see a picture of a cat and then you hear about a genocide and then it's a baby photo and I don't know how you can have a coherent, how you can think about things coherently in that context and make sober and prudent judgements in those situations.
Sean McDowell: I think it's really helpful that you're bringing to the surface just the format and medium itself now of news and social media, really does encourage certain behavior that conflicts, let's say, minimally with reporting the truth. If it bleeds, it reads is now on steroids to shock and awe to get clicks and views and ultimately money. I appreciate that you're pushing us deeper to be aware of how the system itself pushes towards this. Now, one of the implications of the crisis you talk about is cancel culture and the public shaming that goes along with that. We've discussed this here a few times, Scott and I have, but what's your take on this? Are there certain opinions that ought to be shamed such as Holocaust denial for example?
Bonnie Kristian: Yes. There's never been a society that doesn't have out of bounds opinions and some things should be out of bounds I think. What's unique about what's going on right now and the phrase "cancel culture" has become so controversial that it's hard to say if that's even worthwhile, but that is generally what I'm talking about. What's happening with cancel culture is a few specific things. One is we're not talking about the judgment of the local community or within the village. It's a mass online phenomenon. A lot of the people who are engaged in the shaming are people who were never directly harmed by the initial action at all. It's not like you have some actual grievance, it's not like what this person did affected you in some concrete way, it's just you decided to get in on the mob. That, I think, is very different and it allows retribution on a scale that didn't happen before and with so many uninvolved people who just, it's really none of their business. Another thing I think that is really distinct is again, it's not bad that there are ideas that the community decides are out of bound. What's different is that the boundaries move much more quickly now. You have people, and again, this is something else that we have polling on, people are quite worried that they're going to get in trouble for saying something unacceptable that they didn't even know was unacceptable because it changes so quickly. It's not cancel culture when you do a murder and you get convicted of it and you suffer the appropriate legal consequences. That is a concrete harm with a concrete victim and it's something that we have long prohibited and all agreed that murder is wrong. Cancel culture tends to be much more about, it's not criminal activities, it's things that may not have even been considered shame worthy relatively recently, it involves people who weren't directly harmed, and also where I think it get often gets really disproportionate because it happens online, the record is permanent. Even if you were to say, "Well, I think this degree of shame was appropriate for this offense," is it appropriate then that person may be five years down the line, 10 years down the line, every time a new potential employer looks up their name, this record of their single worst moment online is what they find? I think it's pretty much never the case that that long, long trail of punishment from strangers is going to be appropriate, but that is how it works.
Scott Rae: Now Bonnie, let's look at the other side of that coin, sort of the opposite of cancel culture, which you described by the term the Overton Window. Tell us a little bit what do you mean by that and how does that function today?
Bonnie Kristian: Yeah, so the Overton Window is an idea from political science and it basically says that we always have a range of ideas in a given societies that we think are legitimate and reasonable, and these are the things where we would say, "I think that's wrong, but this is something in which reasonable people can disagree." The Overton Window changes over time and that's fine. The problem is, and this is where we're getting to that issue of boundaries for debate and what's considered shame worthy and what's not, the problem is when the Overton Window changes too rapidly, I think, and not only that it changes so rapidly, but that it changes really mercilessly, such that people become afraid to engage in debate and to research and to say what they think is true or to ask questions because they're worried that they will step outside the window unawares and then suffer disproportionate and long-standing consequences.
Sean McDowell: Towards the beginning of the interview, you mentioned the idea of increasing conspiracy theories today, such as Q-Anon. Of course we've always had certain kinds of theories like this, mostly dismissed as nonsense, but you say these current conspiracy notions are different. In what way?
Bonnie Kristian: Apologies. Yeah, so I think what's different is not so much the content in many distinct conspiracy theory like Q-Anon. Q-Anon is actually, in many ways, a patchwork of a very long-standing conspiracy theories that have been around forever, just slightly updated and repackaged, so it's not particularly novel. What's different is what a pair of political scientists whom I quote, "Call conspiracism." It's not about any discreet theory, it's really much more of a mindset where it's a habit of distrust, not without any particular basis. It's very accusatory, it's very credulous, ironically, depending on who is speaking and it doesn't require research, rumor is good enough. It doesn't require proof, innuendo is enough if the person who's being accused is someone whom you already dislike. You will frequently hear people who get into Q-Anon on say things like, "Do your own research," but they don't really mean research. They mean watching a YouTube video and we're not talking about digging up classified documents and building this meticulous case to demonstrate that a conspiracy happen because sometimes conspiracies do happen. We're talking about just making allegations and even if none of the evidence pans out, you just come up with some new allegations and keep on going 'cause it's really not about the details, it's about you've already decided that these people are bad and the accusation has its own momentum and it doesn't really require any of what we think of as the stereotypical X-files conspiracy theorizing where you're trying to drum up that proof and make your case. This is much more of a broad mindset that doesn't need details because details aren't really the point. The accusation itself is the point.
Scott Rae: Bonnie, one of the evidences you cite for the knowledge crisis that we have today is our increasing and widespread distrust of experts. Tell us a little bit, how do we get to this place where being labeled an expert is almost a pejorative term now in some people's eyes and we just have, especially post COVID, we have such a widespread distrust of experts. How did we get to this place?
Bonnie Kristian: It's a tricky time to say positive things about expertise I think, as you say, especially after the pandemic, because so many experts really did not cover themselves with glory during the pandemic. In some cases, openly admitting that they had told noble lies to the public, lies that they thought were for the public's own good, and then just coming out and flat out saying it and expecting to still be trusted moving forward. The difficulty is that we live in a very complex society. We have to rely on expertise and we all do it every single day. You hire a plumber, you drive across a bridge, you go to the doctor, you are relying on expertise and it's expertise that in the vast majority of cases you have no way to evaluate. I can't look at a bridge and say, "Is that bridge good?" I just have to drive across it and trust them the bridge is not going to fall. Occasionally bridges do fall, but generally speaking they don't. That is how we are able to live in such a complex and wealthy and comfortable society that we have. We can't do without expertise. We can't not trust experts to a great degree. But at the same time, particularly again in light of recent events, experts do need to take care to make their expertise trustworthy. A lot of what we've seen in recent years that has made it hard to trust expertise is things like expert hypocrisy, doing things that they told the rest of us not to do. Things like, again, the noble lies, things like experts who have legitimate expertise in one field and then deciding they're going to pontificate in another field where they don't have any expertise, but they still want to just be generally regarded as experts, and especially experts being unwilling to admit and apologize when they get things wrong. All of those kinds of behaviors are really poisonous to public trust but the flip side of that is that the public ... Experts getting things wrong does not mean that the unexpert public is correct. The fact that a scientist made a mistake does not mean that what I Googled is right. It doesn't mean that my YouTube watching habits count as real research. At the same time as experts need to really take care to not be treating adults like children who can't be trusted with the hard truths, we as adults need to be giving experts grace to self-correct and to make improvements and to move on from mistakes. I think on both sides ... And not holding up our own ignorance as equal to an expert's real expertise. I think on both sides there are changes that need to be made to make the public-expert relationship more functional and workable because it is a relationship that I think we need.
Sean McDowell: Now when it comes to news and social media and the range of ways we get information today, they're appealing not only to our minds but also to our emotions. How do you think we can connect our emotions and our rationality in light of just all the information that's coming at us nonstop? Should we just follow our hearts or should we be like Spock and siphon our hearts and just purely follow our minds?
Bonnie Kristian: I think you get a lot of messages at both of those extremes. My own background as a kid in evangelical churches was very distrustful of emotions. I think especially if that's your background, it's easy to see what's wrong with the just follow your heart approach. We do need to think rationally, we do need to consider evidence, we do need to approach things in a way that is studious and careful. Simply going with the whims of your emotion is clearly not good. It can be tempting, if that seems obvious to you to say, "All right, well maybe we'll try to do just that. Just be rational and not engage with our emotions." The problem is that I think it's naive and mistaken to believe that we can just cut ourselves off from our emotions like that. What happens is when we think that we are so rational, the emotions are there, we're just not aware of them and not handling them well, and to the point that sometimes we treat emotions as if they're more sinful, as if that part of us is more fallen than our rational mind and that's not true. There's no scriptural warrant for that. What I would argue is that emotion is a very important part of persuasion. Very rarely are you going to persuade someone just by making just a pure logical evidence-based case for them. Emotion is huge, it's why journalists will love to start articles with a little anecdote because that emotional connection prepares you, prepares the mind to receive the evidence. I think if we care about truth, if we care about persuading people of truthful things, we should be looking to have emotion and reason working in harmony, not against each other and not isolated from one another, but so that emotion can prepare us essentially to hear reason and to be accepting of truths that we might have resisted if we were only presented with that very logical case.
Scott Rae: Bonnie, one of the other bits of evidence you cite for a knowledge crisis is what you refer to as identity deference in the culture at large. What do you mean by that and what makes that such a dangerous thing?
Bonnie Kristian: Yeah, so that's a phrase from a guy named Matt Bruenig, and he himself is a socialist. He's very much on the left, which I mention because this concept that he named is primarily, not exclusively, but primarily a problem that you see on the left he is critiquing it from within his own tribe and presents a very clear-eyed account of identitarian deference as a problem. Essentially what it is the idea that certain people with certain identities, and often this extends to certain experiences, you'll hear people say, "In my lived experience,. That's a frequently a telltale phrase or they'll say, "As a woman," or, "As a Black person," or, "As an immigrant," whatever the relevant identity is, they'll start with that. If you can claim that identity or experience, then it's not just that you have a unique and important insight to contribute or you have a relevant question to raise or whatever the case may be, it's that you should receive deference when you speak on that issue and that someone who doesn't have that identity or experience needs to automatically take the backseat and not challenge you, and even in some cases that you may have real trouble communicating across identities, that someone who has had a certain set of experiences because of who they are might not be able to communicate that to someone who doesn't have that same background and the other person just needs to accept it. There's a whole lot of reasons why this doesn't make sense, which Bruenig details. One of the ones that really concerns me though, is what that does to conversation and it's a conversation stopper, because if you accept that the terms of that for a conversation, then at a certain point you reached an impasse where the disagreement persists, no one has really persuaded anyone, they haven't reached some new synthesis of the two ideas, it's a power play more than anything else, it's not persuasion. That, I think, when we already have so many limits on how we talk to each other and so many fears about how we talk to each other and so much anger, adding that rule does not help.
Sean McDowell: Bonnie, you diagnosed the problem going on in our culture, I think well, but you also offer some habits that we can develop. Now, obviously you can't go into the depth you do in the back of the book, some really practical habits of kind of building a plan to do this better, but what are some of the habits we need to develop to become more intellectually virtuous?
Bonnie Kristian: Yeah, so I think a lot of people really are hoping for some big top-down fix. If Elon Musk can just moderate Twitter better, it'll all be better. Not Elon Musk in particular, but anyone, I don't think anyone -
Sean McDowell: Sure.
Bonnie Kristian: ... is coming up with a big top-down fix for that. That's where it can affect is what kind of people we are coming into these environments, what kind of intellectual virtues we have, and that's where habits come in because you can't just decide to be virtuous, but you can create a space with your habits for those virtues to grow. A lot of the habits that I suggest are really about use of time and where we are putting our attention. What voices are we hearing throughout the day? Some of it is about news consumption, some of it is about how much time are you spending on social media, some of it is about the television in the center point of your home, in your primary room where you spend your time? These kind of very practical things that, as daunting as it feels to look at the entirety of our knowledge crisis and the whole mess of our media ecosystem, that's a huge thing that you can't fix, but you can make these smaller changes in what your life is like day to day. I think that for many of us, we tend to think of our social media use in particular, especially if you're old enough to have remembered time without social media, we think of it as an add-on to our lives, something like a little bit recreational, something that we just do in the margins of our lives, but if you look at your phone screen time report, I'm guessing you'll find that your phone is not an add-on, that it is significantly just how you're spending your life now. It's very important, I think, that we are not out of control in the way these ways that we're spending our attention. Even something as simple as is your phone the first thing that you look at when you wake up in the morning? Is that how you are starting your day and beginning your interaction with the world? As you say, I can't list them all, but they are a number of things and they're all pretty doable things. They're not things that cost a lot of money or that someone living a normal, hectic life with kids or jobs or whatever is unable to do.
Scott Rae: Well, once you start talking about our phone and that screen time indicator, that's getting way too convicting.
Bonnie Kristian: Oh, it's embarrassing.
Scott Rae: So we better stop for now. But Bonnie, we're out of time. Thank you so much. I so appreciate your book. I want to commend it to our listeners, titled Untrustworthy, subtitled The Knowledge Crisis That's Breaking Our Brains, Polluting Our Politics and Corrupting Christian Community by our guest, Bonnie Kristian. Thanks so much for being with us. Thanks for the insight in this and I pray for our listeners to develop some of the habits that you've talked about, and I think that that probably involves breaking some habits that we have developed by default over the years that social media and iPhones and things like that have been with us. This is great stuff. I hope our listeners get a chance to get your book and to go carefully through it.
Bonnie Kristian: Thank you so much.
Scott Rae: Great to have you with us. This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. Think Biblical Podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including our masters in Christian Apologetics now offered fully online. Visit biola.edu/talbot in order to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation, please give us a rating on your podcast app and do share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.