Summer 2010

Society and Culture

Thinking Between the Lines

Wilf Hey

Why is deception so prevalent? Is it possible to think more clearly and determine truth more reliably? 

Did you ever hear the one about Procter and Gamble, the international corporate giant? It was said that the well-known supplier of familiar household brands, including cleaning products, cosmetics and food, devoted a portion of its huge annual profit to funding satanic worship; after all, wasn’t the group’s logo based on an old motif familiar to satanists? Furthermore, it was no secret: it was admitted by the corporation’s president on American national television. Or so we were informed: sources even provided the address where we could obtain a transcript of the televised confession. So obviously the story was true. Or was it?

How about the one that said NASA scientists a few years ago attempted to calculate the exact positions of various solar system bodies at precise moments in the future? They were stymied when a consistent discrepancy of many hours cropped up over and over again. At the suggestion of one of their number, who remembered from his childhood the Bible story about Joshua praying for more daylight to fight an important battle, the computers were recalibrated to consider the astronomical status quo at that date. The difference jumped out at them: it accounted for all but 40 minutes of the discrepancy. Then the same engineer recalled another biblical story, this time of King Hezekiah, who asked for a sign that he would be healed from a grave illness. His sundial went backward by 10 degrees, exactly equivalent to the still-missing 40 minutes. According to the report, NASA’s own computers proved these two biblical incidents to be literally true. Not only that, but we were given the name of a man who was there and who corroborated the story: a NASA consultant named Harry Hill. With such a specific and easily verifiable detail, how could the story be false?

Then there’s the dark secret of the Universal Product Code, or UPC (the barcode on all kinds of food and other products). You will almost always find it divided up by three pairs of bold bars that go right through the ordinary figure printout section. A pair of bars in this code, we’ve been told, signifies the figure 6, and so the UPC encapsulates 666, the famous number of the Beast warned about in the book of Revelation (13:16–18). This is plain to see and easy to confirm. So again, it must be true. 

Legendary Deceptions

Are these reports familiar to you? Each was widely published, but each is bogus and entails both error and plain deception.

The Procter and Gamble story was a fraud that dated back to the 1960s; for decades the lie was passed on, though some of the details changed from time to time to keep the story fresh. There never were any transcripts of that fictitious televised confession, but few who read the report ever bothered to confirm it.

Nor did people pause to follow up the facts behind the NASA story. If they had, they would have found that there were no facts: Harry Hill was indeed a real person, and he did spread the story, but he never had any connection with NASA’s computer facilities or those who worked there. His story was pure fiction. Yet it is still posted on some Web sites without any indication that it has been thoroughly debunked.

The UPC myth has also been around for years and is alive and well on the Internet even today. But it represents a gross misunderstanding: the bars are emphatically not codes for 6. Their purpose is merely to provide reference points as the code passes the reading head.

Our willingness to accept legends depends far more upon their expression of concepts we want to believe than upon their plausibility.”

Each of these examples, and countless others like them, throws the reader into deep water, inviting him or her to come to a judgment on the basis of deception, error or ignorance. In order to exercise sound thinking, a person needs to be on guard against such false evidence; but this may be easier said than done. For example, if you are a believer in the accuracy of the Bible, some of the examples we have quoted will appeal to decisions and conclusions you may already have made. Yet if you swallowed the Procter and Gamble or NASA story, you were duped; and if you credit the UPC–“mark of the Beast” explanation, your mind has been diverted, perhaps dangerously, from the true meaning of the scripture in question.

Another issue is justice. Procter and Gamble, for example, lost business over a period of decades because well-meaning (but misinformed) people boycotted their products. Multinational companies rarely enjoy a sympathetic hearing, but think for a moment of the injustice that arises from misguided people promulgating such false reports. After struggling for many years against the malicious rumors and suing a competitor for spreading them, Procter and Gamble finally settled the matter in 2008. While one might expect that to have been the end of it, a few Web sites still maintain that the company has links to the occult.

Wisdom in the Balance

A potent symbol that appears in law courts around the free world is that of a blindfolded woman holding a balance scale: this characterizes justice, blind to deceptions but relying on fairness. Our minds can guide us successfully—and fairly—only if we are able to turn away from deceit and make certain that our thinking is sound and fair. An important step in attending to our “thought life” is to be on guard against deceptive appeals.

But how can we sort out the deceptive appeals from the genuine? Is there a way to weigh them and act with justice? Solving that problem surely requires the wisdom of King Solomon.

One of the first decisions that Solomon was called on to make as ruler of Israel involved exactly this sort of problem. Two women came before him, each claiming that a certain child was her own and that a second child—a dead child—belonged to the other. Solomon decreed that the living child should be cut in two and half given to each woman. Immediately the real mother, concerned for her child’s welfare, intervened and insisted that the other woman receive the child intact. The king then changed his judgment, restoring the child to its true mother. Note that his insightful tactic brought to light the truth of the matter and facilitated his decision; he had never intended to carry out that barbaric first judgment (1 Kings 3:16–28).

Solomon used wisdom: he knew the nature of mother love—that it would rather give up custody of a child than see the child die. Even if we do not lay claim to the wisdom and understanding of Solomon, we are human beings and can therefore know something about how human beings think.

In another scene from the Bible, we find four men in deep and unsettling discussion. Job has suffered terrible misfortune and in the process has lost his perspective; he moans, protesting the unfairness of life. The other three cannot answer Job but condemn him anyway, saying that somehow he must deserve what has happened.

A young man named Elihu has listened quietly to the proceedings and is able to pinpoint the failings of both Job and his accusers. When the dust settles, Elihu steps forward and declares that “there is a spirit in man,” observing that “great men are not always wise, nor do the aged always understand justice” (Job 32:2–22). He knew he was qualified to speak his opinion because he was a human being, not because he was old and (supposedly) wise.

Likewise, we can know that our own minds are valuable in helping to assess the truth about issues because we know what it is to be human. By applying what we know of our own psychology—our own modus operandi—we, like Solomon and Elihu, can often separate falsehood from truth. It’s essential that we think about our motives, about how we convince ourselves (and others) of our feelings, and about how our minds deceive us, and under what circumstances.

Vital Tools

Are there any other ways we can establish whether or not a report is true? In the examples at the beginning of this article, we made references that could, with a little effort, be validated. The Procter and Gamble report actually gave an address to which people could write for a transcript, but the hoaxer knew that few would bother to test it out. Perhaps the wisest course is to be skeptical and spend effort confirming sources.

Another useful rule of thumb is known as Occam’s Razor, after the 14th-century thinker who suggested it, William of Occam. In effect, it says that the simplest explanation for anything is the most likely. Crop circles, for example, have been explained as the activity of extraterrestrial beings. A simpler explanation is that a few mischievous individuals create them. By Occam’s Razor, that explanation is the wiser one to adopt (and indeed has already been proven true in at least some of these cases).

In the mid-1990s, a German chemist named Peter Plichta wrote a book titled God’s Secret Formula. In it, among much self-praise (he anticipated winning three Nobel prizes) he maintained that he had proven the existence of God by demonstrating that the characteristics of prime numbers constitute a code. You may wish that Plichta were correct—that the existence of God were demonstrable by straightforward scientific means. Indeed, many who have read his book find it compelling and persuasive, yet a mathematician can readily show that his understanding of prime numbers is naïve and his theory of randomness deficient.

Albert Einstein continually reminded his colleagues of the sobering need for sound judgment: recognizing that a scientific frame of mind can lose sight of other values, he taught that “science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.”

It is distressing to see unsound thinking pitting these two realms against each other. Each time a research scientist cites results that jar with a religious opinion, whether about the age of the universe or about the life in a womb, a guardian of orthodoxy boldly steps forth and decries it as faithless work, often as not citing what he wrongly thinks is a scientifically sound alternative.

Frequently we see two champions of their respective causes trying to undermine each other, and each loses sight of an overall truth. Science cannot prove God any more than a screwdriver can design circuitry: the scientific method is a tool to analyze facts and explain phenomena. People trained to analyze scientifically are intentionally restricting themselves to observation and logic. Moral and religious understanding are not their area of expertise. It should not surprise us to find that many scientists claim no religious experience (and may even think it impossible), and likewise that religious thinkers may err when they attempt to use scientific argument.

Superhuman Challenge

We have seen that we can dispel a great deal of false thinking by being vigilant and aware of human mental weak points (see “Logic Loopholes,”). We have referred to the danger of misusing certain tools—trying to use science to prove (or disprove) God, for instance. However, even equipped with this information, it would seem we are helpless before a tide of misinformation. Most of us don’t know trustworthy experts in the fields that seem so prone to opinion and myth, yet we dare not trust our own instincts.

In part, this is because we have seen that humankind itself is a rich source of deception: the less we know about ourselves, the more easily we fall into wrong thinking. But it is worse than that. There is a potent spirit of deception at work in the world. In Scripture he is usually known as Satan, simply the Hebrew word for “enemy.” This enemy aims to confuse us and ensure that lies rule us and limit us. Indeed, he is described as the father of all liars (John 8:44). Unfortunately, Satan is the “god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4), and his influence is pervasive. In fact, he “deceives the whole world” according to Revelation 12:9.

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Romans 12:2, English Standard Version

How, then, can we evaluate issues of importance to whole nations, economies and populations? If we struggle to get at truth when we address even the simplest of problems, then what about the more challenging issues? It would seem that we are doomed to failure, that we are ultimately bound by deception. With effort we can certainly cultivate the faculty of wise judgment, but there is clearly no way that we can study all things, know all truth, and stand impervious to deception; that would be a superhuman task. Yet that is exactly what is foretold in Scripture.

The Bible speaks of a future day when God will provide humans with wisdom in full measure: “I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them” (Ezekiel 36:27), and “I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33). In that day, Satan himself will be bound (Revelation 20:1–3, 10), and lies will no longer influence our thought. In that day, humanity will be dealing with the glory of God’s mind rather than the more limited glory of the human mind. Deceit will no longer beset us, and our own tendency to reason erroneously will evaporate.

Until then, the thinking person is like a tightrope walker, striving to avoid the fall into deception and error. What better safeguard to sound thinking can there be than to heed the words of Israel’s Kind David (Psalm 111:10): “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who do His commandments.”