Fake News

The Misinformation Age

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In their book The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread, a pair of professors of logic and philosophy of science from University of California, Irvine, Cailin O'Connor and James Owen Weatherall, use computer models to explain how judgments about things, such as the causes or best cures for certain illnesses, spread through scientific networks—and how that spread can cause false beliefs to dominate a community even if each of the participants is individually rational.

The authors offer juicy takeaways: We need to legally punish people for spreading unlabeled "fake news" and should abandon democratic control of "issues that require expert knowledge." On the latter point, they touch on what some economists call "rational ignorance" or even "rational irrationality"—when you have no direct influence over something, as in the outcome of voting, you have no incentive to do it intelligently.

Their models indicate that "mistrusting those with different beliefs is toxic" when it comes to truth discovery, and the stories they tell of science gone wrong prove that even smart, well-meaning people can come to different judgments. They also insist that "if scientists claim they are gathering evidence and that evidence is convincing, we have little choice but to take their word for it."

The policy conclusions step over the fact that often values are at issue in democratic governance. Centralizing decision making in a powerful elite helps generate mistrust by those with different beliefs and can halt exploration of new ideas.

The book unintentionally provides a stark warning that respect for free expression of ideas judged "dangerous" is dissipating as fast, and as hazardously, as the ozone layer was before we banned CFCs—a story they tell at length to hit home the problem of allowing non-government-sponsored scientific ideas to spread.

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3 responses to “The Misinformation Age

  1. Most dangerous of all, is the utter false news, the LIE, spoken by EVIL people… That LIE that The Dearly Beloved Government Almighty does NOT passionately and deeply love and cherish us all!!!!

    THIS LIE MUST BE RUTHLESSLY SQUASHED FOR THE GOOD OF US ALL!!!

  2. A couple of statists who aren’t yet quite as elite as they deem the nation needs:

    We need to legally punish people for spreading unlabeled “fake news” and should abandon democratic control of “issues that require expert knowledge.”

    the stories they tell of science gone wrong prove that even smart, well-meaning people can come to different judgments. They also insist that “if scientists claim they are gathering evidence and that evidence is convincing, we have little choice but to take their word for it.”

    Brian sure has them pegged:

    Centralizing decision making in a powerful elite helps generate mistrust by those with different beliefs and can halt exploration of new ideas.

    Too bad they won’t recognize his advice, because his is just fake news by an amateur.

  3. re: “if scientists claim they are gathering evidence and that evidence is convincing, we have little choice but to take their word for it.”

    That very sentence contradicts everything we know about how Science works. O’Connor and Weatherall need to be sent back to freshman year for a refresher on Popper, et al.

    First, there is not collective entity called “scientists”. There are a bunch of individual people with their own beliefs, agendas, biases and expertise. Anyone saying that science is based on any kind of consensus is displaying a stunning ignorance about what Science means.

    Second, “science” is not a closed club. Anyone with a modicum of education can follow and even evaluate most scientific studies. It helps to have have a solid grounding in statistics – something that many allegedly-professional “scientists” in academia lack and something that a large number of non-professional-scientists have in spades.

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