Viewpoint: Strategic Thinking to Avoid Miscues and Blunders

(system) #1

The by-invitation-only International Conference on the Bible and Science: Affirming Creation, sponsored by the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, concluded on Monday this week. While the details of the conference were guarded, enough leaked out to suspect that whatever the goals were, they were not about an open and honest inquiry — affording little prospect that the participants would come away with a better understanding of reality. It is possible to arrive at this conclusion by the lineup of some of the invited presenters, as well as some glaring absences from the lineup. In fact, I know Adventist scientists who would have loved to attend this conference, but who were obviously not welcome. We can guess that this enclave was really about shoring up the frayed edges of a traditional construct, with the use of the word “science” in the title of this conference perhaps offering a veneer of credibility.

As sort of the proverbial canary in the mine, it should be pointed out that everyone alive today is the beneficiary of the breathtaking advances in knowledge — the credibility of science is not only based on data and reason, but also on its proven track record; yet some leading Adventists dismiss the inconvenient findings of science. This disconnect is so transparent it is hard to miss.

While it is easy to point out the folly that is taking place in some quarters of the Church, it is important to remember the degree to which all of us mingle erroneous ideas into a tapestry of understanding that may lack a certain concordance with reality. This is the nature of finite humanness, but it will only be recognized if we have the humility and good sense to admit it. With that in mind I would like to outline a few points that could assist all of us in living life in a way that better connects with reality.

I am thinking here of ideas that may have a thread of truth attached, that seem plausible, that may have pieces of data that give the appearance of support, that may share a degree of popular appeal, but which turn out to be unfounded to varying degrees. Everyone is touched by this human frailty, but there are unfortunately a great many people who do not seem to know this; and who proceed from a framework of certitude, with nothing to learn or unlearn. By proceeding in this way there is no need for curiosity about how a chosen view stands up to the rigors of empirical and cognitive inquiry. In effect, such individuals allow credulity to rule their lives.

Damian Thompson, in his book titled Counterknowledge, details a number of ways that this manifests. Consider, for example, the success of alternative medicine that in many cases enjoys very little empirical credibility. He mentions, among other things: craniosacral therapy, homeopathy, reflexology, and some aspects of the chiropractic profession. Counterknowledge can also spill out in other ways, an example of which would be pseudo-histories — literary efforts that masquerade as history, yet fundamentally amount to works of fiction. Along these lines are such literary efforts as Da Vinci Code, and The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. In the age of mass media, facts are often very fungible, to be spun in selective ways that respond to preconceptions and prejudice rather than to more obvious responsiveness to the data at hand. Unfortunately, religion also is often a comfortable repository for counterknowledge—where data that confronts both sense and reason is sometimes ignored in favor of traditional understandings sourced in sacred writings.

By using the DIKW Pyramid (an acronym for Data, Information, Knowledge, and Wisdom), Jay Bernstein attempted to develop a practical matrix for analyzing what he specifies to be the antithesis of knowledge — and this would include ignorance, stupidity, folly, misinformation, and disinformation.1 Each of these terms can have variations of meaning, but as Bernstein points out they all tend to represent a category that counters recognized concepts of knowledge. He believes this to be an important area of study because non-knowledge is a part of culture and traditional folklore, and tests the boundaries of the concept of knowledge.2 In identifying the possible inverse of DIKW, Bernstein looks around for an analogous sequence of categories that can be attached to the category of ignorance — what he terms non-knowledge.

Most of these categories are fairly straightforward, but issues can arise from the definitions associated with non-knowledge. For example, Bernstein points out that the term “stupidity” can be controversial with some equating it with low IQ. Bernstein is not particularly partial to this definition and is quick to quote experts who equate stupidity not so much with IQ, but with those who compound ignorance, one on top of another to some ultimate detriment.

In the final analysis, Bernstein rejects his own hypothesis that the mirror opposite of DIKW has a direct corollary. Yet, he nevertheless believes that there is a category of non-information that can be useful to consider, and that can help inform an understanding of the whole DIKW model.

One of the classic books in this topical area was authored by Charles Mackay, titled Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, first published in 1841 and widely reprinted. A more recent work — Counterknowledge (2008), noted above, considers some of the mistakes of religious thought, including anti-scientific notions that are imposed on the Book of Genesis. The more secular corollary includes alternative medicine; get-rich-quick schemes; alternative histories; and conspiracy theories.

Because of general human gullibility there does seem to be value in considering the pathways that can lead us astray, particularly relevant for those who desire to tune life as closely to reality as possible. In fact, there are useful mechanisms that can be brought to bear on spotting and avoiding some of the pitfalls of knowing. In this regard, I have found the work of Thomas Gilovich, How We Know What Isn’t So, helpful in that he makes a number of observations that can guide everyday thinking and discourse by demonstrating specific ways in which people engage in faulty thinking.3 These mistakes of thinking occur on a range of subjects, and among these would be matters related to a religious worldview. Because some of these issues are emotion-laden, or may tend to disrupt emotional security, there may sometimes be incentive to overlook sound reasoning.

Certainly pseudo-knowledge involves errors in thinking, but can also involve self-deception and outright purveying of deception. I personally think there is wisdom in proceeding under the assumption that people generally do want to achieve an affinity with reality, but simply fail to optimize the resources they have available. For that reason I would like to outline several common mistakes of thinking that Gilovich and others have identified as being made by people — often people of intended goodwill. By avoiding these common mistakes, it can assist all of us in avoiding dogmatic and erroneous thinking. These points would include the following:

  1. The Mistake of Treating a Master Narrative in Idolatrous ways. Humans by nature tend to operate from the context of a master narrative — either consciously or unconsciously. Certainly one of the most significant of master narratives is the meaningful role played by religion in providing context and meaning for living life with a purpose. Yet we all know that this category comes in a few thousand varieties, and because of the lack of adequate objective ground for evaluating these variations of belief, it has resulted in the scholarly community referring to such narratives as mythology — not because any specific one of them is necessarily a false construct — but simply because there is no empirical way to test the veracity of the multitude of narratives. They obviously can’t be all right, particularly since many of them offer up dogma that conflicts with other mythologies. Even though a religious master narrative tends to deal with questions of purpose — something that is outside the empirical and descriptive nature of science — occasionally religious narrative does intersect with the sciences, and on those occasions, narrative should pay appropriate attention to God’s book of nature, or risk becoming irrelevant. In fact, I would submit that the degree to which a construct is impervious to the attendant realities, it becomes idolatrous in nature. The reaction to this latter assertion is likely to highlight the fallibility of the senses. Yet such reactions tend to conveniently ignore the limited understandings of science by the writers of a sacred text, the inadequacies and limitations of the translators, and the very different world in which the reader attempts to decipher ancient meanings. When tensions emerge between science and the sacred, it is probably worth recognizing all the limitations on both sides of the ledger. Thus, it seems far wiser to admit our human existential finitude and humbly admit that in the face of conflicting paradigms it is appropriate to consider that more light may be necessary to resolve certain conflicts, as opposed to moving in a direction that offers the potential of being a strategic blunder.
  2. The Mistake of Making Something Out of Nothing. Humans are predisposed to seeing order, patterns, and meaning in the world, but sometimes what may be perceived as some overarching pattern is really an illusion. The mistake can sometimes be one of interpreting data to have some application to the issue at hand, when in fact there is no direct correlation. In this regard, most Adventists of any duration will be familiar with this type of thinking where a given occurrence is viewed in conspiratorial terms, such as reading the headlines through a certain set of metaphorical eyeglasses, suggesting to the reader what the headlines must mean about the future. Such situations can become a form of counterknowledge even though true believers are generally blind to what is taking place. There could be a variety of reasons for this, but one possibility is that a false narrative does not allow the holder to see the error of thinking.
  3. The Mistake of Making too Much from too Little. This situation is not completely unrelated to #2 above, but unlike the previous example where conclusions are drawn from essentially no correlating data, this issue can be one of concluding too hastily when only a partial data set is available. This situation often arises where a generalization is made from specifics. Not all generalizations are inappropriate, but it is important to note that they can sometimes lead us astray unless we recognize this vulnerability. So when working with a generalization arising from an intuition it is prudent to maintain awareness that a conclusion must remain very tentative. Conversely, when an observation is made that someone else is floating a generalization based on anecdotal evidence, or other incomplete data, it is time for the antenna to go up. Generalizations can evolve from an overarching master narrative, or conversely can be the product of impure motives with the intent to misguide or deceive — again veering into counterknowledge. Ultimately, I suspect that this category is where Adventism corporately could derail in its efforts to revise FB #6, and for that reason should be considered a worrisome category.
  4. The Mistake of a Person Seeing What they Expect to See. Often there is a tendency to give a biased evaluation to ambiguous and inconsistent data, though not all bias is bad. Yet there can be wisdom in honing the skill of discernment between appropriate and inappropriate bias. In all of this, there can be motivational factors that may contribute to reaching biased conclusions. All too often people create their own reality by seeing what they want to see, and (within limits) believing what they want to believe. It can be the act of putting forth ideas based on selective bias — cherry-picked facts that avoid other inconvenient facts — to make the argument seem compelling, rather than putting forth the entirety of factors that may suggest quite different conclusions. Most will likely be aware of examples of this taking place within the religious community, but perhaps the classic example on this latter point would be the 2012 Presidential Election where it seemed that pundits and pollsters lived in parallel universes, with most polling suggesting the President’s reelection, while a handful of pollsters along with a bevy of pundits — in talk radio land, and on at least one cable news channel — argued that this conventional wisdom was radically wrong. As it turned out, it was a classic case of “wish” influencing “conclusion” rather than actual data. In general, people operate within the framework of a master narrative, and then tend to solicit evidence that supports it — discounting evidence that may run contrary.
  5. Mistakes of Methodology. There is a lot that could be said on this point, but let me just mention two issues. First, we often fail to give sufficient attention to the category of “expert” when it comes to the sciences. All of us know people who have professional training of some sort, and then go on to pretend to be an expert on a subject far afield from their true area of expertise. The second point has to do with the significance of peer review in the sciences. In this regard it is important to recognize that when considering a genuine subject-matter expert, such expertise does not guarantee that the opinion rendered is trustworthy. Courtrooms are full of subject matter experts who tend to argue a wide variety of opinions based on the facts in the particular case. In general, matters pertaining to a scientific hypothesis must go through peer review, a formal process of review by an official body of subject matter experts, prior to being elevated to a higher level of respect. So, whenever a genuine expert floats an idea, the real question is whether the idea being proffered has made it through peer review. If it has not been peer reviewed, it doesn’t mean the idea is wrong, but it certainly should put the listener on notice that it is not a mainstream idea.

Concluding Thoughts

Having been a life-long Adventist, the subject of this essay is perhaps as relevant as any in addressing one of the prevailing deficiencies of human existence. This deficiency is certainly not limited to the religious community, but common blunders of thinking are especially prevalent among those who “know” what they believe, with no amount of data being able to dislodge a given idea. One of the more obvious examples would be interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis, where, for some, multiple streams of data seem to matter not one iota. Obviously, the opposite mistake would be to suggest that science has nailed it down so tightly that there is no possibility that the scientific narrative will modify appreciably in the future. In all of this, once again, there would seem to be an appropriate need for humility in giving current scientific thinking full respect with the recognition that the last chapter is yet to be written. If a scientific idea does not match up with certain religious presupposition, then perhaps the appropriate attitude should be to keep the thinking tentative, with the hope that over time, new data will be able to bring about reconciliation. But the other side of the equation would require that the religious idea that conflicts with science deserves to be probed, and then to consider whether or not there might be ways to modify the thinking so as to align it with the known data.

Certainly, if we are genuinely interested in “truth” there will be little redeeming value in cherry-picking physical data in an effort to support theology, or in completely ignoring data by claiming that revelation trumps it. History should have taught these lessons a long time ago.

Finally, it seems sometimes that the rightness and certainty that flow from religious views can evolve into something of a parallel universe, apart from the reality. If belief is equated with the divine will, perhaps deemed superior to that of other mortals — particularly scientific mortals — then belief itself may be reckoned to trump the evidences of nature. However, the irony is that the evidence of nature can sometimes be sufficiently concrete so as to have no sacred equivalence. This speaks to the urgency of maintaining modesty and caution in the declarations made on the important affairs of the Church.

Jan M. Long, J.D., M.H.A., works for the County of Riverside, California.


1. See generally, Bernstein, Jay H. The Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom Hierarchy and its Antithesis.

2. Ibid at p. 70.

3. Thomas Gilovich, How We Know What Isn’t So, The Free Press (1991).

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at