Monty Python, Fake News & Science

A guilty pleasure movie from my time in University is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It is a deeply flawed, perfect movie. It is filled with memorable scenes, each of which are probably more funny and impactful than the movie as a whole. One of the funniest scenes involves the trial of a poor woman, who has been accused of being a witch. You can watch it below.

Monty Python Witch Burning Trial Clip HD

I was thinking about this scene last night and I realized in its absurdity it does a nice job of illustrating some of the problems with fake news in our media today. When we hear something for the first time, whether it is shared on CNN, social media or from a government official, we would be wise to have our radar up, ready to detect the signs that we are being fed an agenda-laden story, rather than just a factual reporting of what has occurred.

Looking online, it isn’t surprising that many professors make use of this scene when they are teaching philosophy, logic and reason. One of the best examples I found was this one. In the “trial” from the film, the accused is brought to a “judge” and they attempt to make arguments about why she is a witch, using their observations, accusations, framing, and their own versions of reason or science. Here are a few examples:

She’s a witch because she looks like one – the lady is dressed with a pointy hat and a fake nose to make her look more like a witch. The accusers are forced to admit that they are the ones who dressed her up like this. This is very common today, where individuals or groups are labeled things like racist, communist, white supremist, socialist or even “literally, worse than Hitler”, even as the story is being told. When officials and journalists use labels like this as they are framing the story, they attempt to slant the bias against those groups, much in the same way the angry mob attempted to paint this lady as a witch.

She turned me into a newt…I got better – Another popular tactic in fake news today is to make a bold accusation that is blatantly false, only to eventually admit the truth, but at a later time and with much less publicity. We’ve seen that over and over again as stories are pushed aggressively and when information comes out showing that the stories are baseless or completely wrong, those who most loudly propagated the stories in the beginning have conveniently moved on and ignore the new information.  Sometimes, this new information would seem to be a bigger story than the original false one, but if it doesn’t fit the narrative, then it is completely ignored.

There are ways of telling if someone is a witch – we burn witches – we burn wood – witches must burn because they’re made out of wood – wood floats – a duck floats – if she weighs the same as a duck, she must be a witch – This long, hilariously reasoned out “logic” doesn’t make any sense, but by emphasizing the things that are true (wood burns and floats, ducks float), the logic flows along. It is all ridiculous, but fake news sometimes does the same thing. They take a story that is obviously false and find a few true items and make those the new story. Fact checkers are notorious for this in their fact checks, or the reverse where they take a true story that they don’t like and emphasize or misinterpret one aspect of it that is less flattering and make that the core of their story or fact check.

We shall use my largest scales – there are no scales that should show a full grown woman weighing the same as a duck, but here we are. They follow some type of “scientific method or process” and in the end they get the result that they want. They can point to the results and outcome as being scientific or even in the most blatant misuse: “Trust the science”, as if science is a book of facts we can refer to with definitive answers on every subject and not a process of learning and discovery. It is possible to find scientific studies and research to support most narratives and if only the results that agree with our perspective are highlighted and those that call anything into question are muted, then we get an outcome that is far from scientific. You end up with officials saying that anyone who disagrees with them is against science, when following the scientific method should always be about pushing the boundaries and bringing conflicting evidence to light so it can be examined and tested along with results that confirm our results. “Who are you, who is so wise in the ways of science.”

“She’s a witch! Burn her” – The mob mentality wins. When you have enough people and sources ganging up and pushing one perspective loudly enough, it is very difficult to go against it. It is a power that should be held with great caution. To condemn and label quickly and spread that condemnation widely is a uniquely modern evil perpetuated by the power of the internet.

We should proceed with great caution as we process the information we receive and even greater caution before we spread it. Now, let’s contrast this tale with the story we find in John 9, after Jesus healed the man born blind. We pick the story up after the healing has happened to see how people discuss it:

8 His neighbors and others who knew him as a blind beggar asked each other, “Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?” Some said he was, and others said, “No, he just looks like him!” But the beggar kept saying, “Yes, I am the same one!” 10 They asked, “Who healed you? What happened?” 11 He told them, “The man they call Jesus made mud and spread it over my eyes and told me, ‘Go to the pool of Siloam and wash yourself.’ So I went and washed, and now I can see!” 12 “Where is he now?” they asked. “I don’t know,” he replied. 13 Then they took the man who had been blind to the Pharisees, 14 because it was on the Sabbath that Jesus had made the mud and healed him. 15 The Pharisees asked the man all about it. So he told them, “He put the mud over my eyes, and when I washed it away, I could see!” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man Jesus is not from God, for he is working on the Sabbath.” Others said, “But how could an ordinary sinner do such miraculous signs?” So there was a deep division of opinion among them. 17 Then the Pharisees again questioned the man who had been blind and demanded, “What’s your opinion about this man who healed you?” The man replied, “I think he must be a prophet.” 18 The Jewish leaders still refused to believe the man had been blind and could now see, so they called in his parents. 19 They asked them, “Is this your son? Was he born blind? If so, how can he now see?” 20 His parents replied, “We know this is our son and that he was born blind, 21 but we don’t know how he can see or who healed him. Ask him. He is old enough to speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who had announced that anyone saying Jesus was the Messiah would be expelled from the synagogue. 23 That’s why they said, “He is old enough. Ask him.” 24 So for the second time they called in the man who had been blind and told him, “God should get the glory for this, because we know this man Jesus is a sinner.” 25 “I don’t know whether he is a sinner,” the man replied. “But I know this: I was blind, and now I can see!” 26 “But what did he do?” they asked. “How did he heal you?” 27 “Look!” the man exclaimed. “I told you once. Didn’t you listen? Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?” 28 Then they cursed him and said, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses! 29 We know God spoke to Moses, but we don’t even know where this man comes from.” 30 “Why, that’s very strange!” the man replied. “He healed my eyes, and yet you don’t know where he comes from? 31 We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but he is ready to hear those who worship him and do his will. 32 Ever since the world began, no one has been able to open the eyes of someone born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he couldn’t have done it.” 34 “You were born a total sinner!” they answered. “Are you trying to teach us?” And they threw him out of the synagogue.

Here, the news is being spread by a firsthand witness, the actual man who was healed. He is telling the truth and he has all the evidence on his side. After all, people who have known him his whole life all testify that he was always blind. Here the truth is shared by the man, other people in the community and his parents, but still the religious leaders refused to hear the truth.  Because what was being shared was damaging and disrupting to their worldview, they refused to accept it.

This is the problem with fake news. For most people, they process information through the lens of their worldview. Whatever reinforces their current beliefs is processed without question or discernment. Information received that goes against what we consider to be true is tossed aside like fake news. The angry mob from Monty Python and the religious leaders in John both had their filters up ready to only believe that which gained them the outcome that they desired. In the average week, how often are you guilty of doing the same?

There is ultimate Truth and we can know it, but the information we process from the media and online is perpetually biased in a way that can be confusing, demoralizing and very manipulative. As the world moves more to the Metaverse, I would encourage you to stay and become ever more grounded in the reality of the Truth that can be known. This is the Truth of the man born blind. “I know this: I was blind, and now I can see!”

Live in your community, stay grounded in God’s Word and refuse to participate in the echo chambers of fake news from both sides. I think you’ll find your life turning more towards the joy of true living, rather than the anger and outrage that the world so frequently demands of us. There is no joy in the angry mob.

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