Magazine Article

Too Much Information?

Evaluating sources and claims in an age of information overload

Marina F. Garner
Too Much Information?
Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash

Life today is filled with an abundance of information. Many streams of information vie for our attention all the time. Ours is an age of information overload. How are we to deal with this situation? How might we filter all this information toward discerning what is true and what is good?

Information Overload

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects, among other things, one’s capacity to attend to a task for extended periods. In alignment with the disorder’s name, physicians and psychologists have often described the person with ADHD as lacking the capacity to hold their attention (hence attention deficit) on a task. More recently, however, mental health professionals have pushed back on this description. For many, it is not so much an attention deficit disorder as an abundance-of-attention disorder. The difficulty, then, for people with ADHD is to allocate their attention appropriately in the presence of the abundant amount of information that they detect around them. For this reason the name for the disorder has been criticized by specialists in the field as misleading.1

Perhaps an analogous phenomenon can be found in our dealing with the massive stream of information that we encounter daily. The Internet—and our access to it at the tip of our fingers—has provided us with the incredible possibility of knowing so much so quickly. On the other hand, the dizzying effect of information overload has been linked to increased levels of mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.2 In addition to mental health issues, information overload has raised personal philosophical and religious problems. With social media accounts, websites, and advertisements vying for our attention, the most critical question is “How should I filter all this information to absorb solely what is true?”

Reliable Sources?

One of the answers we tend to give to this question is that we should always be attentive to the origin of the information we consume. That is, if the origin is from an unreliable source, we should be suspicious of that information. If, however, it comes from a source that is considered reliable, then it may be trustworthy.

The problem with taking this answer too far is that philosophers (specifically those working in the field of logic) have long discredited arguments that depend on what is known as the genetic fallacy. A fallacy occurs when someone refutes or supports a statement or belief based on erroneous arguments (or, as logicians would say, invalid arguments). The genetic fallacy occurs when a belief or an argument is evaluated based solely on its origin or history. Usually this line of argument is used to discredit a belief based on its origin, though it could also be used to support a belief. We hear arguments such as “Well, you cannot believe the content of this video because X created it, and everyone knows X is a sketchy guy.” Such evaluations are used quite frequently when discussing an issue: the political or religious alignment of the proponent, ethnicity, race, education, source of income—and the list goes on.

The problem with this fallacy, of course, is that the origin of an idea does not necessarily affect the truth of that idea. What truly matters when we evaluate information, be it a belief, a statement, or an argument, is the truth of the content, not the person who proposed it or their motivation to do so. Whether the content of the video in the example above is true or false is what matters, not that the “sketchy guy” was the person behind that content. Put simply, unreliable sources can set forth true claims, and typically reliable sources can sometimes set forth false ones.

To criticize the genetic fallacy is not to say that we should not take the origin of information as important data to evaluate content. In fact, the origin of information, especially in a digital era, is a crucial factor in our systems of processing information overload. Suppose the origin of a piece of news, historical tidbit, scientific discovery, or theological interpretation is from a source that we consider dubious or overly biased. In that case, we feel justified in taking it with a grain of salt. We seem justified in thinking that the reliability of the source of our information is directly related to its truth. Hence the oft-quoted advice to “check the sources.” What, then, is the difference between the genetic fallacy and the idea that the origin of information matters when it comes to our acceptance of it or not?

Assessing Reliability

This puzzle has led some philosophers to propose a distinction between erroneous approaches to considering sources (fallacious genetic reasoning) and appropriate ways of considering sources (nonfallacious genetic reasoning). Instead of hinging a claim’s veracity on its source, we must test the methods on which that source frequently relies. If someone uses forms of reasoning that tend to lead to true statements (be they scientific or biblical interpretation methods), we seem justified in believing them when they propose something. If they do not, the belief might still be true, but we will be justified in being more suspicious of it. If, for example, we follow an influencer on social media who consistently relies on materialistic/atheistic reasoning to arrive at their conclusions, we are justified in being suspicious of the conclusions they bring forth. In other words, considering our theistic worldview, solely materialistic reasoning is an unreliable method of arriving at truths.

So what are the questions that we must ask to assess the reliability of a cyber source? Here are a few suggestions:

Does this person/institution/organization utilize the Bible as one of their sources of authority to argue for their position?

If so, is their use of the Bible responsible—do they consider the context of the passage? Do they have access to the primary languages of the passage? Do they take the whole Bible into account in their reasoning?

If not, are their claims in harmony with biblical principles, and do they back them up with trustworthy methods, such as peer-reviewed scientific studies?

Does this person/institution/organization tend to be overly sensationalist or controversial to attract attention and gain more followers?

The Berean Way

Answering any of these questions in the negative would be sufficient grounds to be guarded when it comes to this source. This, however, does not absolve us from assessing the very content of the information provided. The quick access we have to an array of information on the Internet often gives us the false impression that we do not need to do our “homework” to evaluate the input. On the contrary, it is more necessary than ever that we do the work that the Bereans so honorably did after Paul and Silas visited them: “They received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so. Many of them therefore believed, with not a few Greek women of high standing as well as men” (Acts 17:11, 12, ESV). To do the same about the cyber information we take in daily, we must take it upon ourselves to (1) take the time to evaluate the arguments made and the methods utilized to arrive at them (1 Thess. 5:21); (2) pray over such information so that God can illuminate us regarding its veracity (John 17:17); (3) claim the promise of the gift of the Holy Spirit of wisdom (1 Cor. 12:8); (4) be careful with sources of information that tend to utilize unreliable methods of arriving at the truth (Matt. 16:21-23).

1 Alison Pritchard, “The Attention ‘Deficit’ Myth,”

2 One study among many is Joseph Ciarrochi et al., “The Development of Compulsive Internet Use and Mental Health: A Four-Year Study of Adolescence,” Developmental Psychology 52: 272-283.

Marina F. Garner

Marina F. Garner is assistant professor of religion at Loma Linda University.