Canons of Criticism

How to discern trustworthy sources in an information age.


We live in an information age. The internet, radio, podcasts, newspapers, TV, billboards, magazines, and many other media constantly inundate us with information claiming to be true, relevant, important, and therefore worthy of our serious consideration. Anyone can post an article online (such as this one!) advocating just about any opinion under the sun and garnering a host of likes, shares, retweets, and hits. For pastors, this is particularly noticeable in the realm of theology, where serious theological training is a rare prerequisite for confident assertions in the public square. The same goes for other disciplines such as medicine, history, and yes, politics. With all the talk of fake news, misinformation, disinformation, and conspiracy theories in social media today, how are we to begin to discern which sources to grant a fair hearing and which to turn away at the door?


We cannot be experts in everything. Even Leonardo da Vinci would have a difficult time mastering the multiplicity of specialized disciplines in our modern world. This makes it all the more vital that we possess some basic tools of discernment – some fundamental canons of criticism – by which we can begin to sort through the barrage of information and identify which sources of information are worth considering and which are simply not worth our time.


Below are ten straightforward criteria for evaluating written sources – whether online or in print, whether theological, medical, political, or otherwise. This list is by no means exhaustive but, when taken as a whole, will enable you to perform some epistemological triage on the sources that come across your path. These canons are simple, basic, indeed common-sensical, and yet easily forgotten in our impulsive, unthinking age.[1] In general, then, trustworthy sources of information that merit serious consideration possess the following interrelated attributes:

  1. The authors identify themselves.

  2. The authors have recognized credentials in the fields to which they are speaking.

  3. The authors are members of larger institutions that provide collegial checks and balances.

  4. The articles or studies have been peer reviewed by other experts in the field prior to publication.

  5. The publisher or website is a reputable one with a proven track record of academic responsibility.

  6. The publisher or website is not the work of one or two individuals but is managed by a transparent governing body.

  7. The article, study, or report clearly and accurately cites scholarly, primary sources on both sides of the discussion and interacts charitably with them.

  8. There is no demonstrable proof of a conflict of interest between the author or publisher and the conclusions of the study or article.

  9. The article, study, or report is not filled with emotionally charged language, logical fallacies, grammatical mistakes, unsupported assertions, or personal accusations.

  10. The article, study, or report is characterized by careful nuance, qualification, measured conclusions, and charitable interaction with opposing views.

To be sure, none of these canons absolutely guarantees the absence of error or falsehood. Working together, however, they significantly reduce the likelihood of misinformation by severely limiting personal bias and procedural oversight. Authors who pass all these tests may still be wrong in their conclusions, but sources that fail to meet these criteria should be quietly and graciously dismissed.


Undergirding these canons is the twin theological belief in total depravity and common grace. Men are sinful and have their biases, but God enables both believers and unbelievers to do good work. Rigorous processes of peer review, publishing standards, etc., require experts with competing biases to write in such a way as to gain approval from one another, thereby mitigating to a large extent the effects of an individual’s sin and weakness.


Concomitant to this is the biblical doctrine of office or special training (see, e.g., Jas 3:1; 1 Tim 3:1, 10; 2 Tim 2:2; 1 Pet 2:13). In both sacred and secular realms, God has providentially appointed specially trained persons to positions of authority and expertise.[2] Again, this does not make such people infallible, but it does give them extra epistemological weight, such that their peer-reviewed judgments are the proper recipients of our default deference. Put frankly, all opinions are not created equal, and many opinionators are simply not worth your time.


Putting these ten canons to work, then, means asking four basic questions as soon as you click that link that your concerned friend just sent you:

  1. Who wrote this? (What are his/their credentials and institutional affiliation?)

  2. Who published this? (Is it a reputable site with a plurality of overseers?)

  3. What are his sources? (Are they scholarly sources cited clearly and accurately?)

  4. How does he write? (Is it nuanced and objective, dignified and charitable?)

If you cannot answer these four questions[3] with a confident “Yes,” then you are probably reading an article that is not worthy of serious consideration – particularly when it comes to weighty matters of scholarly debate. There’s nothing wrong with a little fluff now and then, but it is important to know when you are eating cotton candy and when you’re eating steak. Failure to discern the difference will inevitably result in a malnourished understanding and a hyperactive imagination.


Christ has called us to be vigilant and discerning in all things – to test everything and hold fast to what is good (1 Thess 5:22). This applies to temporal matters as well as to supernatural claims of special revelation. The mature Christian will, by constant use, develop his powers of discernment (Heb 5:14) such that he is not tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine or wave of internet opinion (Eph 4:14). May the Spirit of Wisdom grant us all increased discernment as we seek to navigate skillfully through this cacophonic age, in order to view the world truly, thinking God’s thoughts after Him.


SDG


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Notes:

[1] Many such canons are set forth in academic research and writing manuals, such as Michael Kibbe’s helpful little book, From Topic to Thesis: A Guide to Theological Research (IVP, 2016).

[2] For a helpful discussion of the authority of expertise, see chapter six of Berkhof and Van Til’s work, Foundations of Christian Education: Addresses to Christian Teachers (P&R, 1990).

[3] To these a final, fifth question must always be added: “Am I willing to be proven wrong?” This heart-diagnosing question is in fact the most important of all, as it determines whether any amount of sound argumentation and trustworthy data will be able to change your own emotional, experiential, and temperamental bias. (Thank you to my peer-reviewer, Pastor James Norris, for reminding me of this crucial point!)

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