Lenscap Logic

Last November an amateur astronomer named Chuck Shramek photographed the comet Hale-Bopp. When he developed the photos, Shramek thought he saw an odd shape alongside the comet. His interpretation eventually contributed to the mass suicide of the Heaven’s Gate cult—which should make us stop and ask what we mean by "truth" in the Information Age. Shramek’s photos showed what he called "a Saturn-like object" near the comet. After checking some star-mapping software, he concluded that he had discovered a new planet. Instead of submitting his findings for scientific review, Shramek posted them on the Internet. Almost immediately, others chimed in with speculations about the photograph. One of these folks was an Atlantic psychic named Courtney Brown, who concluded that the object in question was a "metallic object full of aliens." Professional astronomers came to a different conclusion: They told Shramek that his telescope was out of adjustment. Shramek had also loaded his star-mapping software incorrectly. There was no new planet, no alien ship, no object at all. But nothing astronomers said could dissuade Shramek. And the story was kept alive on the Internet long enough to reach the Heaven’s Gate cult, whose members took the image as a heavenly sign. We all know the tragic consequences that followed. Commenting on Shramek’s error, renowned astronomer David Levy says, "The Internet allows people to get more information than at any other time in human history—most of it wrong." True enough: In the headlong rush to make information available, there’s no mechanism for testing whether it is true. As Bill Machrone, the editor of PC Magazine puts it, the Information Age is being ushered in by technologies designed to make access to information "ubiquitous." It will give everyone a voice—no matter how wrong-headed or mistaken. The result is a world where the studied views of NASA experts are taken no more seriously than opinions of amateurs like Shramek—or even psychics like Brown. As Machrone says, "Today’s on-line world is utterly democratic. All opinions rendered… have the same apparent weight." What this means is that the tradition of truth is being dissolved. The Information Age is a product of a worldview that distinguishes between information and values. Information is considered good in and of itself. How people use that information is up to them. By contrast, Christianity has always insisted that mere knowledge is useless without a moral and cultural context. This context helps us to judge between what is worthwhile and what is worthless, with the ultimate purpose of living a good life. What’s important is not mere knowledge but wisdom. As Aristotle said, wisdom is knowledge rightly applied—what Christians later called prudence. In the chaos of the Information Age, our culture must learn how to recover the biblical distinction between mere information and true wisdom. And the church must lead the way. We start by recovering the Christian understanding of wisdom, so we can apply this time-honored standard to the new technologies of the Information Age. Because the consequences of spreading information as bare data—without a context of prudence and wisdom—can sometimes mean the difference between life… and death.


Chuck Colson


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