Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Blogging to Learn: Skepticism and Citation

Last night's post on Andrew Murray put me in mind of another topic that comes up in Blogging to Learn -- that of citation.

Yesterday, I that several different Christian websites had lifted identical language from some source about Andrew Murray's life. None of these sites offered any citation for some of the unique biographical details (appropriate citations such as "In a letter to his sister on Dec 4, 1875..." or "From his book Humility...." or "As biographer Ann E. Body states..."). This gets us into the twin problems of credibility and plagarism.

I'm well aware that the blogging genre is more freewheeling and geared toward rapid dissemination of thoughts, opinions and ideas. The genre itself seems to mitigate against such forms of citation. However if we're truly blogging to learn, we're more interested in what is true than what is rumored. And what is true often requires a little work.

Case in point... a few years ago, I received via email this nice little story about a chance encounter between Sir Winston Churchill's father and the father of Andrew Fleming, the man who discovered Penicillin. It was a lovely story, and I wanted to use it in a sermon, like this pastor did:

We live in a country where everything has to do with looking out for number one. Such an approach to life is self-defeating, it leaves us empty and unfulfilled. For none of us live in a vacuum. The way I look out for you in reality is the way I look out for myself. In is in giving that we get, in loosing that we find, in dying that we live. That’s Gospel. I need you and you need me and in being aware of that and honoring that we fulfill ourselves. His name was Fleming and he was a poor Scottish farmer. One day while working in his fields he heard a cry for help from a nearby bog. Dropping his tools he ran to the bog and found mired to his waist in black mud a terrified boy struggling desperately to free himself. The man named Fleming rescued that boy from what would have been a tragic death.The next day a carriage pulled up to Farmer Fleming’s sparse house. An elegantly dressed nobleman stepped out and introduced himself as the father of the boy who the farmer had saved. "I want to repay you," he said. "You saved my son’s life." "I can’t accept payment for what I did," farmer Fleming replied. At that moment the farmer’s son came to the door of the modest farmhouse. "Is that your son?" the nobleman asked. "Yes," the farmer replied. The nobleman said, "Let me take him and give him a good education. If he is anything like his father, he’ll grow up to be a man you can be proud of."

And so it happened. In time farmer Fleming’s son graduated from St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London and went on to discover the miracle drug Penicillin. You and I know him by the name Sir Alexander Fleming. Years afterward the nobleman’s son was stricken with pneumonia. What saved his life, penicillin. The name of the nobleman? Lord Randolph Churchill and the name of the son saved by penicillin- Sir Winston Churchill. Fleming, Churchill, two great names. Did the name make the man or did the man make the name? Of course it is the latter not the former and it happened because each looked to the interest of the other.

There was a problem, however. No citation. No credible source. I really liked the story Before using it in the sermon, I spent about an hour on the web looking for any kind of confirmation. Zero -- zip. According to the PBS website, Fleming worked hard and came into an inheiritance that allowed him to attend medical school. Though not available a few years ago, a number of websites have put up pages to dispel the myth of the Fleming Churchill connection. Indeed the Churchill Center has put up a well documented page about this story -- citing biographies and letters indicating that it just couldn't possibly be true.

To be credible, we must provide a trail for our stories -- we must back things up with a little evidence. Sometimes that's impossible. I have in my posession one email and one letter, both from missionaries that I correspond with (one in Europe, one in the US). Both tell stories of Muslim men that have approached them speaking of dreams in which they have encountered Jesus Christ. These Muslim men sought out the first Christians they could find to ask about Jesus. I can tell you these stories, but I can't provide the supporting documentation because my friends have asked that their identities be protected (in order to protect their ministries). On this one, you just have to trust me that I did indeed receive two such firsthand accounts.

You're much more likely to believe me if I've earned the credibility by demonstrating time and again that my sources are reliable -- that I take the extra effort to track things down and make sure there is some grounding in reality -- or that I openly say "I heard this story, but I don't know if its true."

Our credibility gets sapped when we lift word for word from some other source without acknowledgement (see this cautionary tale from the NY Times -- registration is required, but access is free -- about a preacher who was delivering another preacher's sermons word for word).

The flip side of establishing credibility is having a healthy skepticism. The web is something like a wild west of information. Any yahoo with access to a keyboard is able to post whatever scred he or she chooses. Reader beware. Sure, we can relax our guard a bit around trusted information sources -- people who have established our credibility time and again. But just because something pops up on a weblog, that doesn't mean it is the truth. Look for multiple sources. Use a little creativity in doing some digging. Brush off those old research skills from college. And then when you discover some facts ... blog it, and you will have been blogging to learn!