Monday, January 18, 2010


Quite often, books written by non-Christians (or at least by those who make no claims one way or other) have a way of putting their fingers on ethical problems that Christians seem to totally ignore. One such book is: ON RUMORS: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done by Cass R. Sunstein. Sunstein is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, presently on leave serving as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs for the current administration. Though this sounds pretty impressive, he writes in an easy-to-read style. And though the book has only 100 pages, it’s packed with more info than most books four times its size!

The author is clear on his purpose: “This small book has two goals. The first is to answer these questions: Why do ordinary human beings accept rumors, even false, destructive, and bizarre ones? Why do some groups, and even nations, accept rumors that other groups and nations deem preposterous? The second is to answer this question: What can we do to protect ourselves against the harmful effects of false rumors?” (pages 4, 5) The book does an excellent job of answering the first question, though I believe it comes up short of answering the second.

Sunstein gives as his working definition of rumors: “ … the term refer(s) roughly to claims of fact … that have not been shown to be true, but that move from one person to another, and hence have credibility not because direct evidence is known to support them, but because other people seem to believe them.” (page 6)

What to me makes the argument(s) of this book easy to follow is the author’s use of various clear descriptive phrases:
 “social cascades” (we rely on what other people think and do)
 “group polarization” (when like-minded people talk to each other, their thinking gets more extreme)
 “biased assimilation” (“my mind is made up – don’t confuse me with the facts”)
Much of the book is devoted to dealing with the above.

When dealing with how rumors start, he describes the various motivations of propagators: Some are simply self-interested while others are downright malicious. The propagators may be (among other things) involved in investments or in politics, and rumors are begun in order to promote the interests of investors or political candidates.

Political rumors are often propagated to attack an opponent and destroy his/her credibility. We saw plenty of these in the 2008 presidential campaign, and many are still going around.

One matter of curiosity for me was who these propagators are. I receive plenty of e-mails with all sorts of wild rumors, but I don’t think any of my friends actually started them. The book doesn’t seem to have a clear answer to this.

Basically the rumors we accept and pass on are those that reinforce our previously held opinions, whether political, religious, or even “scientific.” We are slow to accept any information that contradicts those hard held beliefs. “We seek out and believe information that we find pleasant to learn, and we avoid and dismiss information that we find disturbing.”

The author points out the distinction between “dread rumors, those driven by fear, and wish rumors, those driven by hope.” Unfortunately these often overlap. We may even be outraged by rumors of a certain person’s behavior (a senator, the President), but they also bring us pleasure, and we are overjoyed if the rumor is confirmed. Depending on one’s political affiliation, many were delighted to hear of Bill Clinton’s or Newt Gingrich’s affairs.

The very traits which make rumors so acceptable are the ones which make them hard to deny. The motives of the denier are often called into question, as anyone who has attempted to deny a rumor can probably testify. Or a thought is expressed something like: “It must be true or he wouldn’t be trying so hard to deny it.”

The problem of rumors is multiplied in our present age of instant electronic communication. Even as we are barraged with more information than we can absorb, so also we are barraged with misinformation. If we like the rumor all we need do is click the “forward” button. No need to think. No need to ask questions. No need for skepticism.

The weakness of the book is its attempts to answer the second question. There are clearly no legal means to deal with rumors as the author seems to admit, and other “chilling effects” can only be hoped for.

We are told we can imagine two different futures: “a dystopian future in which propagators … are rewarded,” or “a future in which those who spread false rumors are categorized as such, discounted, and marginalized.” “The choice between these futures is our own.” Or is it?

If we have a biblical worldview, if we understand original sin, then the “dystopian future” is the more likely. Yet we as Christians do have the option of not giving in to the temptation to become just like the rest of the rumor lovers.

To me the book’s greatest weakness is that it lacks a sense of moral indignation. Rumors are simply a problem. They don’t seem to be considered the evils that they really are.

The spreading of rumors is sin. And not just some personal sin that only involves the person passing them on. Rumors are destructive. They can destroy a person’s reputation. They can distort our understanding of ethical or political issues. They can destroy a company, or a church, or our nation’s economy.

It seems that we Christians can get extremely indignant about certain evils or perceived evils in our nation, but don’t seem too stirred by this evil. Perhaps that is because it is an “acceptable” sin among us.

I have written on this subject before. See: GOSSIP and DO NOT PASS IT ON). I believe I did not speak strongly enough there. I basically recommended not passing on rumors. But I believe we need to do more. We need to be skeptical. We need to check them out thoroughly. We need to confront the rumor monger and challenge him or her to find out the truth. We need to let them know that gossip is sin.

Perhaps this sounds judgmental, but aren’t we being judgmental whenever we pass on rumors?

Anyway, I highly recommend the book. If I were still teaching a course on ethics, this book would be on my bibliography, probably even on a required reading list.

Bill Ball

1 comment:

Sherry said...

I think we don't preach against gossip because we all practice it - sometimes even unwittingly. Some prayer requests for others seem like grist for the rumor mill. Some declarations from the pulpit, while not naming names, shed negative light and because they're not specific leave room for speculating.

I also don't believe all rumors are deliberately started. Often what starts out as a statement of opinion becomes "fact" or is changed entirely as it moves along (remember the game gossip).

I think we do need to challenge each other in love. In grace and apologetically too since in all liklihood we have done the same.

And we need to remember that someone isn't UNpatriotic or UNchristian or UNwhatever if they challenge us on something we've said.