Tuesday, July 03, 2012

The Dangerous Meme

Unfortunately, it is all too common for people to simply repeat something that they once heard without first investigating whether it is true.  When we are talking about our friends and neighbors, this is called “gossip.” But when people engage in this type of behavior in the intellectual marketplace, unfortunately very few folks are willing to respectfully call them on it, leading to more misinformation being spread and accepted by the masses as the truth.

This is how political campaigns are run or ideological drives are pushed.  Start an overly simplistic (and usually misleading) slogan and spread it all over the internet.  Before too long, everyone believes it is true.

I recently came across a similar phenomenon in a discussion on a Yahoo! News article with a gentleman named “Ryan.”  Ryan proposed, without offering support, that “science tells us” that “something can come from nothing for no reason.”  The first question that occurs to me when people make comments like this is what they even mean by “science.”  Science is a discipline, not a person.  In fact, it is a collection of multiple disciplines.  A discipline cannot “tell” us anything.  It cannot speak.

Usually when someone makes an assertion like Ryan’s they really mean that most scientists who have evaluated the issue have arrived at this particular conclusion.  Of course, in regard to Ryan’s comment this is untrue.  “Scientists” have not, by and large, concluded that “something can come from nothing for no reason.”  If I had simply pointed this out to Ryan, however, the discussion would have led nowhere.  Anyone reading our interchange would have seen that Ryan made one assertion, I made another, and there was no way to evaluate between them

The far more effective way to make a point is to reflect the burden back on Ryan.  He made an assertion, so I simply asked him to support that assertion.  Anyone who makes an affirmative truth claim has the burden of proof to offer support for that claim.  What follows is the exchange between Ryan and I in which I asked him to offer support for his claim.  You will notice at the beginning that someone else (“Rowanese”) initially replied to him, then our discussion follows.  Because Yahoo! only includes first names (or screen names) to begin with, I have left the names the same.  I did not correct any typographical errors.

Ryan: So, if something can come from nothing for no reason (which science tells us) and there's no evidence of god, he is nothing doesn't exist. Can something come from god?

Rowanese: You just think science says something comes from nothing. That's not what science says at all.

Ryan: You need to read up on your physics if you still think something can't come from nothing.

Kenneth: @ Ryan. Please provide your source for your assertion that science "tells us" that "something can come from nothing for no reason." Is this something you have researched and arrived at this conclusion or is it a meme you have heard and are merely repeating? I would be interested in hearing how you arrived at this conclusion. Thank you.

Ryan: @Kenneth It's theoretical physics which is widely accepted by the scientific community. I can't remember who first announced this but it is accepted and considered a fact.

Kenneth: Again Ryan, I ask you to please find a citation and refer us to it. It sounds like this is something you heard once and are merely repeating. In reality this principle is not accepted by the scientific community nor is it considered as fact. I can attempt to help you a little bit. It sounds as if you might be referring to Stephen Hawking's latest arguments regarding the laws of physics being responsible for the creation of the universe, but even his theory cannot really be accurately summarized as "something can come from nothing for no reason."

And I would simply ask you to reflect on that statement for a moment. If you were walking down the street and a red, delicious apple spontaneously popped into the air right in front of your face, would you be surprised or would you simply shrug it off nonchalantly and keep walking? If the former, then you do not really believe that that things come from nothing for no reason. In fact, you would be shocked and amazed and likely demand an explanation if you witnessed anything resembling this phenomenon.

Ryan: In reality I studied this in college and am not in the mood to dig through a ton of information just to please you. Find it yourself if you're so worried about it.

Notice that Ryan never answered my challenge.  Even if he was not in a position to lay his hands on a particular citation to support his position, he very easily could have offered some response to my red delicious apple example.  That did not require an explanation.  Yet instead he deflected.

This is a common tactic when people cannot offer an adequate response.  Actually, I was a bit surprised at how quickly Ryan reached this point.  I even tried to “throw him a bone” by referring to Stephen Hawking, but he did not take the invitation to cite to Dr. Hawking, something which I believe would have given him at least some level of credibility amongst impartial readers.  I was prepared to discuss Dr. Hawking’s opinions, but instead Ryan simply avoided my challenges altogether and in the end made it readily apparent that his belief in something coming from nothing was likely a matter of him repeating a meme without giving it any independent thought.

This is how far too many opinions are formed, unfortunately.  I do not expect that Ryan is going to come to Christ as a result of our discussion.  As Greg Koukl is fond of saying, not every interaction has to bring someone all the way to the cross.  The goal is to put a “stone in their shoe.”  Give them something to think about.  Then the next Christian apologist they speak to may build on the foundation I have already laid.  We may never know the ultimate results of our efforts.  But is it our job to represent Christ gracefully and in truth.  This requires us to point out sloppy thinking when we see it and ask direct and pointed questions, but to do so with gentleness and respect.

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