misinformation age

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  1. Just finished this book, The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread, by Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall.

    The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, a gourd-like fruit with an actual, tiny flesh-and-blood lamb inside, was believed by leading scholars in the 14th century to actually exist in India. It was a false belief, obviously.

    Starting with this remarkable example, the authors ask what are the mechanisms by which such false beliefs are formed and spread, even among supposed experts? In other words, what are today’s Vegetable Lambs?

    There are MANY, of course, and there always have been, but now with the internet they spread MUCH FASTER than ever before, making them a much bigger problem than ever before.

    Some key false beliefs:

    – That the Pope endorsed Trump in the weeks prior to the 2016 election (this was the single most frequently shared item on Facebook at that time!)

    – That hacked DNC e-mails were discovered by the FBI on Rich’s computer (reported and later retracted by Fox).

    – That Spain sank the USS Maine (an example of fake news causing a war).

    – That Hillary Clinton was the kingpin of an international child enslavement in sex ring, which Edgar Madison Welch believed was based at the DC pizzeria known as Comet Ping Pong, upon which he opened fire with an AR15 to take matters into his own hands since nobody was doing anything about his terrible (but fake) story.

    – That there is any substantial disagreement among scientists about several scientific issues:
    +++ climate change
    +++ the roundness of the earth
    +++ evolution
    +++ the cancer-causing effects of smoking
    +++ the effect of CFCs on ozone
    +++ the germ theory of disease (that washing your hands prevents spread of disease)
    +++ the safety of vaccines
    There is no substantial disagreement about these scientific issues among scientists, yet false beliefs abounded in history and amazingly abound today. Just like the tobacco industry did for decades, many continue today to try to give the impression that substantial (and therefore meaningful and important) disagreement exists among the world’s leading scientists when in fact it doesn’t.

    There are countless other false beliefs, in science and not in science.

    They spend a lot of the book, however, talking about how false beliefs spread *among scientists* since, scientists are generally “doing their best to learn about the world, using the best methods available and paying careful attention to the available evidence. They are trained to gather and analyze evidence and they are generally well-informed about the issues they study. In other words, scientists are the closest we have to ideal inquirers. For these reasons, the fact that even communities of scientists can persist in false beliefs is striking—and if even scientists are influenced by social factors, surely the rest of us are as well” (12).

    What affects the spread of false beliefs? Mostly social factors do: whom we trust, reputations, our biases and expectations, our embedded norms and assumptions, what feels right, our social connections, etc, all profoundly affect how beliefs, true and false, spread. The authors do a great job looking at how so much more than logic and evidence affects what we belief and what we share.

    They offer several suggestions to improve on this rather dismal situation of false beliefs spreading rapidly today:

    1) Find spokespeople whose shared values can ground trust with groups that are highly dubious of well-established facts (180).

    Ideally, they say, politicians might play this role. Think of John McCain saying that climate change is real. Such a statement has much more impact on the right then the same statement made by Al Gore for example, because people would expect McCain to conform (the “maverick effect”). This same mechanism of course worked in the opposite direction in the case of Roger Revelle (Al Gore’s mentor whose life work suggested that human-caused climate change was real but despite this his name appeared on a paper with a conclusion he didn’t agree with, that greenhouse warming too uncertain to justify action. He died before he could refute it and it was later used to ridicule Gore and to cast inappropriate doubt on climate change, to give the impression that there was more uncertainty than there really was.

    2) Stop thinking that there is a “marketplace of ideas” that will sort out fact from fiction. That marketplace doesn’t work like that. They make the case, rightly I think, that it is irresponsible and immoral to advocate for unsupported views, to spread false beliefs. It is not just a harmless addition to some ideal “marketplace” (180)

    3) Scientists and should continue to raise standards, try to publish better studies, etc.

    4) Abandon industry funding of research.

    5) Journalist should minimize the social spread of false beliefs by holding themselves to different standards when writing about science and expert opinion. “If there are 99 studies indicating there smoking is dangerous for every one study indicating the opposite, journalists should talk to 99 scientists who think smoking is harmful for everyone who does not” (182). Reporting on “the other side” just to appear even-handed can be misleading.

    6) And a more controversial suggestion: “Legislative frameworks should be extended to cover more general efforts to spread misinformation” (183). They note that some may consider this a form of censorship, counter to free speech, but the goal is not to limit free speech, but to prevent speech from illegitimately posing as something it is not, to prevent damaging propaganda from getting amplified on social media. They draw an analogy to current legislation limiting certain industries like tobacco and pharmaceuticals to advertise their product and to spread misinformation. This is because there is a clear public health risk. They also note that we have defamation and libel laws that prohibit inaccurate claims about individuals. They suggest that those legislative frameworks be extended more generally to avoid the spread of misinformation.

    7) And really stepping back for a big-picture look, they offer “what we expect will be the most controversial proposal of all,” viz., to “reimagine democracy … to extract from Kitcherism an idea about what it means to have a democratic society that is responsive to fact” (184). But what that would look like is beyond the scope of their book (and certainly this already-too-long post!

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