The Internet can leave the truth-seeker feeling pretty hopeless. For every website that says one thing, you can find another that says the opposite. How can you find the truth in over a billion websites of he-said/she-said?
#4: How does the website deal with its ideological opponents?
First, consider its treatment of the opponents as human beings. Does the website demonize them or treat them with respect? A person who insults his opponents probably does so in order to conceal the fact that his rational arguments are weak. If his arguments were strong, he would want to remain calm and kind so that his arguments would shine as jewels in a velvet case.
For example, consider this article at Answers in Genesis (AiG), a creationist website: The Creator Clearly Seen. It is AiG’s attempt to explain why some people don’t believe in God.
If you don’t believe in God, AiG’s diagnosis of what’s in your head will surprise you: you do believe in God! How do they know? Because “God placed a knowledge of Himself within all men — inside their minds, in their hearts, in the very core of their being” (see Romans 1:19) However, unbelievers like you “try to appease their conscience and justify their sin, [therefore] they must suppress their knowledge of God.”
If you stop to think about all the levels of insult toward unbelievers in that line of thought, your head will spin right off your neck.
In my experience, this sort of insult correlates with several things that should prompt us to raise our guard:
- Failure to adequately consider the arguments of the other side. (“Why should we listen to them? They’re evil!”)
- An ends-justify-the-means handling of evidence. (“We know we’re right, so if we cut a few epistemological corners, it’s in the service of a good cause.”)
- Suppression of one’s very reasonable doubts. (“This doesn’t make sense to me, but I don’t want to be a bad person.”)
- Social pressure to enforce conformity. (“If I change my mind, I will lose all my friends. They will think I’m wicked.”)
So the first aspect of Rule #4 is to see how a website treats its opponents as human beings. The second is so see how it treats its opponents’ arguments.
You can learn a lot about a website’s trustworthiness by following the references it gives to its opponents’ work. You may be surprised at how often the opponent is quoted out of context or made to say things he never intended.
Not to pick excessively on creationists, but I wrote a whole post about their quotations of Yale professor Harold Morowitz’s statement that “the [probability of] formation of one E. coli bacteria in the universe [is…] one in 10 to the power of 100 billion.” Therefore, they say, God must have created life. As you can read in that post, professor Morowitz’s actual argument is that it’s quite possible that life is a chemical inevitability: that “life had to emerge on the earth, that at least the early steps would occur in the same way on any similar planet, and that we should be able to predict many of these steps from first principles of chemistry and physics together with an accurate understanding of geochemical conditions on the early earth.” To discover Dr. Morowitz’s actual intent was as simple as googling around a bit.
In conclusion, although both truth and falsehood abound on the Internet, to sort one from the other is not a hopeless task if you’ll put in the effort.