The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread

Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall. Yale Univ, $26 (280p) ISBN 978-0-300-23401-5
This guide to separating society’s factual wheat from its fraudulent chaff is useful more for the serious information-dissemination problems the authors explain than for any practical solutions they propose. The ostensible thesis of the authors, philosophers of science O’Connor and Weatherall (The Physics of Wall Street), is that people’s beliefs depend on their social networks, which are increasingly susceptible to 21st-century modes of propaganda, especially online. Half the book focuses on examples of how false beliefs infiltrate mainstream scientific discourse. The authors explain at length how scientists gather and circulate information, and how these legitimate empirical efforts can cross treacherous paths with so-called industrial-strength propaganda. The book’s most appealing material is tangential to its main purpose: entertaining historical accounts of instances when, casting off the shackles of faulty conventional wisdom, scientists achieved factual breakthroughs in treating or preventing such ailments as puerperal fever, Lyme disease, stomach ulcers, and mercury poisoning. But the only real insight offered into the current political polarization in the U.S. is that “people tend to search out and pay attention to only the evidence that accords with their current beliefs.” While the authors call for further internet regulation and more journalistic self-policing, they will leave readers unconvinced that widespread motivation exists for such reform. (Jan.)
Reviewed on: 11/12/2018
Release date: 01/01/2019
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