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Academic & Professional Books  History & Other Humanities  Philosophy, Ethics & Religion

The Misinformation Age How False Beliefs Spread

By: Cailin O'Connor(Author), James Owen Weatherall(Author)
266 pages, 16 b/w illustrations
In The Misinformation Age, two philosophers model communication networks. The result is a surprisingly breezy read that convincingly argues that social forces matter for how knowledge spreads.
The Misinformation Age
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  • The Misinformation Age ISBN: 9780300251852 Paperback Apr 2020 Usually dispatched within 4 days
  • The Misinformation Age ISBN: 9780300234015 Hardback Jan 2019 Usually dispatched within 4 days
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About this book

Why should we care about having true beliefs? And why do demonstrably false beliefs persist and spread despite consequences for the people who hold them? Philosophers of science Cailin O'Connor and James Weatherall argue that social factors, rather than individual psychology, are what's essential to understanding the spread and persistence of false belief. It might seem that there's an obvious reason that true beliefs matter: false beliefs will hurt you. But if that's right, then why is it (apparently) irrelevant to many people whether they believe true things or not?

In an age riven by "fake news", "alternative facts", and disputes over the validity of everything from climate change to the size of inauguration crowds, the authors argue that social factors, not individual psychology, are what's essential to understanding the persistence of false belief and that we must know how those social forces work in order to fight misinformation effectively.

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Social forces matter for how knowledge spreads
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 27 Aug 2019 Written for Paperback

    “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes”. This oft-misattributed quote highlights a persistent problem in our world. Why do false ideas spread so easily? Sure, blame people’s ignorance or stupidity, but philosophers Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall write that the problem is far more insidious. Through a combination of case studies and modelling work, they convincingly argue that the same social dynamics by which truth spreads are inherently vulnerable to exploitation. But first, some vegetable lamb.

    Fake news and lies have a long history. Take, for example, the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary. The idea that lambs grow on trees seems absurd now, but for centuries it was one of the many hybrid beasts populating mediaeval bestiaries. Learned men were convinced of its existence, based on nothing more than hearsay. And that problem remains, in spite of communication technologies allowing the rapid, global spread of information. Our knowledgebase long ago already became too vast for people to construct their worldviews from first principles. So all of us, scientists included, largely have to trust what other people tell us. And that is where things can get messy.

    I was prepared for a lot of concerned hand-wringing. But The Misinformation Age offers something far better than that: an incisive analysis in four chunky chapters of how social interactions influence false beliefs, starting with scientists. “Wait now,” I hear you cry “aren’t scientists supposed to be the good guys?”. They are, and that is exactly why we start with them. After all, here is a community of well-informed, highly trained information gatherers and analysts, who dedicate their lives to the pursuit of knowledge – “the closest we have to ideal inquirers” in the words of the authors. And even they are fallible.

    By modelling simple communication networks, i.e. individuals exchanging information to decide which of two options to choose, the authors show how consensus is reached, but also how social factors quickly complicate the picture. Evidence presented by others is judged not just on its merits, but also on the trust we have in the presenter. And we are prey to the psychological phenomenon of conformity bias: we are uncomfortable disagreeing with others and like to fit in. Both can rapidly lead to polarization, with groups having different convictions.

    And this is before we consider real-life complications of industry interests who will bend the truth to further their own fortunes. “Doubt is our product”, wrote a tobacco company executive once in an unsigned memo, and it is one of the best-known examples of how industries sow discord and confusion (see more in e.g. Merchants of Doubt, and Creating Scientific Controversies). Data fabrication is the blunt strategy, but, as O’Connor and Weatherall show, there is an insidious sliding scale to ever more subtle forms of propaganda. From biased production (i.e. industries funding or doing their own research but selectively reporting only the desired results) or increasing the productivity of certain research groups by funding them, to quoting academics out of context or selectively publicising only certain research findings. And this is before we get to the weaponisation of people’s professional reputations.

    Particularly problematic is that industries can simply exploit existing weaknesses in current scientific practice. Academic journals are biased towards publishing novel or positive results. And there is a host of factors stimulating salami science: the publication of more but smaller and statistically underpowered studies, rather than fewer but larger and more powerful ones. These include limited funding, limited time due to short tenures, and the importance attached to publication volume and citation metrics when hiring scientists. The resulting reproducibility crisis and the temptation of doctoring data offer easy pressure points for industry interests (see also my review of Stepping in the Same River Twice and Fraud in the Lab).

    Meanwhile, in the “real world”, many of these mechanisms play out, often amplified, in how society at large forms their beliefs. The authors highlight journalism – its ethical framework of fairness and representing-all-sides-of-a-debate can backfire spectacularly. In the UK, for example, the BBC has been lambasted for giving equal weight to lobbyists and scientists in its coverage of climate change, creating the illusion of a debate where there is none. And online social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook can isolate us in so-called filter bubbles, though I found the authors’ coverage of the algorithms driving these sites fairly limited.

    You would be forgiven for thinking that two philosophers reporting on modelling work could make for a boring read, but nothing is further from the truth. O’Connor and Weatherall write in a breezy style, making it very easy to follow their argument, and they make good use of diagrams when they discuss their network models. Furthermore, they nicely balance the book with interesting and relevant case studies. I found the finer details on the controversies surrounding ozone depletion and Lyme disease particularly fascinating.

    The authors are outspoken when offering recommendations on how to combat false beliefs. They consider as dangerous and patently false the notion that truth will triumph when allowed to compete with other ideas in the proverbial “marketplace of ideas”. Scientists could organise themselves better (yes), journalistic standards can be improved (sure), and legislative frameworks such as defamation and libel laws could be extended to prohibit industries from spreading misinformation (why not). But then, in the last three (!) pages of the book: “Isn’t it time to reimagine democracy?”

    Right, I was not prepared for that one.

    They follow Philip Kitcher (see his books Science, Truth, and Democracy and Science in a Democratic Society) by arguing that, when applied to scientifically-informed decisions, democracy is a failure. Most voters have no idea what they are talking about, making democracy a “tyranny of ignorance” or worse, as people are often actively misinformed and manipulated. Evidence, they say, is simply not up for a vote. Given that I have Brennan’s Against Democracy sitting on my shelf here (which champions the idea of an epistocracy, a rule of the knowledgeable), I was all ears.

    The Misinformation Age is fantastically readable and makes a convincing case for the importance of social factors in the spread of knowledge. Whether you are interested in the communication of science or worried about the epidemic of false beliefs, this book comes highly recommended.
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Cailin O'Connor is assistant professor of logic and philosophy of science at the University of California, Irvine. James Owen Weatherall is professor of logic and philosophy of science at the University of California, Irvine, and author of the New York Times best-seller The Physics of Wall Street. Both are members of the Institute for Mathematical Behavioral Science. They reside in California.

By: Cailin O'Connor(Author), James Owen Weatherall(Author)
266 pages, 16 b/w illustrations
In The Misinformation Age, two philosophers model communication networks. The result is a surprisingly breezy read that convincingly argues that social forces matter for how knowledge spreads.
Media reviews

"Fake news has revealed a dark side of networks: an almost unstoppable ability to spread false and misleading information, changing people's perception of reality and shaking the political establishment. The Misinformation Age is a timely, engaging narrative of how this happened and how the mix of fake news and networks is changing our world."
– Albert-László Barabási, author of Linked: The New Science of Networks

"An important book for an era of weaponized information. False beliefs aren't due to stupidity or cognitive biases, but to the trust that all of us necessarily place in others. It has to be tackled at the systems level, and the authors offer some provocative ideas for how."
– George Musser, contributing editor for Scientific American and Nautilus magazines

"In this perilous moment – when knowledge is powerfully eroded by new and effective campaigns of misinformation – O'Connor and Weatherall offer a critically important philosophical defense of evidence, facts, and above all, the truth."
– Allan M. Brandt, Harvard University

"The Misinformation Age is the best book I've read on why the fake-news epidemic is afflicting us and what we can do about it. It offers in-depth reporting and provocative analysis delivered in lively prose, a rare combination."
– John Horgan, director of the Center for Science Writings, Stevens Institute of Technology

"Empowering and thoroughly researched, this book offers useful contemporary analysis and possible solutions to one of the greatest threats to democracy."
Kirkus Reviews

"[The authors] deftly apply sociological models to examine how misinformation spreads among people and how scientific results get misrepresented in the public sphere. They offer scientific case studies – the discovery that CFCs were responsible for the ozone hole in the 1980s, for example – to explore the question of what constitutes truth and to consider the role that information plays in a healthy democracy."
– Andrea Gawrylewski, Scientific American

"Methodical and earnest. [...] The Misinformation Age covers big subjects like truth and the fate of the species"
– Jennifer Szalai, International New York Times

"A notable new volume [...] The Misinformation Age explains systematically how facts are determined and changed – whether it is concerning the effects of vaccination on children or the Russian attack on the integrity of the electoral process."
– Roger I. Abrams, New York Journal of Books

"It's a good read on a very important subject, definitely worth exploring."
– Hugh Taylor, Journal of Cyberpolicy

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