The cover of The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread, which contains a drawing of the mythical jackelope, and its first chapter, which deals with the 14th century myth of the vegetable lamb (A plant whose fruit contained baby lambs), both suggest that the problem of false beliefs is nothing new. The entire history of humanity, one might argue, has been one eternal misinformation age. Yet, as authors Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall argue, today’s misinformation age is something different.
We are at a moment in time when millions of people are passionately, sometimes violently, committed to ideas that are demonstrably false. Whether it’s wealthy liberals claiming that omega oils are good for you or angry conservatives blaming illegal immigrants for fictitious criminal acts—or a man killing 11 Jews in Pittsburgh because he believed that George Soros was paying for Mexicans to invade the United States—we can see the products of powerful misinformation at work in our society.
O’Connor and Weatherall, both philosophy of science professors at UC Irvine, show how modern misinformation works and why it is so effective. They do this through models developed to explain how scientists change their minds about research over time, based on the influence of peers in academic/social groupings. They reveal the dynamics of influence that can lead groups of scientists to change their minds or harden their views, regardless of convincing countervailing data.
The authors contrast the evolution of scientific consensus on the depletion of the ozone layer in the 1980s, where scientists came around to a previously debunked theory, with the current stalemate over global warming. In the latter case, the book shows how corporate propagandists have successfully injected accurate but distortive data into the scientific review process.
They talk about the subtle corporate campaigns to push for certainty in science versus consensus, which can make a big difference to suggestable policy makers and their voters. There is almost no scientific certainty about anything, so when the corporate propagandist demands certainty, he or she can succeed in pushing a vast amount of legitimate scientific consensus off the table. The Misinformation Age reviews the sorry history of the tobacco industry’s claims of scientific uncertainty regarding connections between smoking and cancer as an example of this practice.
The subtext of the book, and in many places the actual text, has to do with Donald Trump and the rise of irrational mass movements in America. The authors discuss the social dynamics of “alternative facts,” focusing on why what we believe depends on whom we know, and with whom we are connected on social media. Social media and modern digital journalism are what differentiate our misinformation age from the era of vegetable lambs. In this regard, the authors are fair but accurate, calling out lies and manipulations of the truth where they see them but avoiding falling into the tempting trap of propaganda themselves.
Social media groupings replicate the biased scientific peer groups of the theoretical model at light speed. People can instantly and permanently believe that the Pope endorsed Donald Trump or that Trump’s inauguration crowd was the largest in history—despite obvious evidence to the contrary. O’Connor and Weatherall also describe the power of social acceptance in persuading people to accept false information, even if they are indifferent or don’t to agree with it.
For example, membership in certain social groups in the US might demand that one declare the theory of evolution to be fake. This creates pressure for members of the group to stick with that story, even if they personally doubt it. Such a dynamic is also at work in modern political discourse, as the book deftly demonstrates.
The book itself offers an example of how an idea’s credibility is linked with the social standing of its advocates. The authors both have PhDs, degrees which are called “credentials.” The word is derived from the Medieval Latin “credentialis,” from credentia (belief) and the Latin root “credere,” which means to believe or trust. We trust the PhD, so his or her ideas carry more weight. The authors teach at a major university, which is another endorsement of their credibility. The book is published by Yale University Press, yet another significant gateway of credibility. Even if this book contained false data, one would be ready to believe it based on its structural credibility.
As one might imagine, it’s a complex topic, but O’Connor and Weatherall do a good job of keeping it within the reach of a generalist. The book features an easy style and completely lacks the sort of dense, academic writing one might expect in such a work. It’s a good read on a very important subject, definitely worth exploring.
Publisher: Yale University Press (February 18, 2020)