Misinformation in the Information Age

Our Review of the Week highlights an interdisciplinary take on “fake news” through the ages

The misinformation age : how false beliefs spread

O’Connor, Cailin. by Caitlin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall Yale, 2019
266p bibl index, 9780300234015 $26.00, 9780300241006

The Misinformation Age is concise, yet broad in scope. The earliest example is Sir John Mandeville’s tales of lambs growing on trees, and the most recent is “fake news” emanating from the office of the president of the US. O’Connor and Weatherall (both, philosophy, Univ. of California, Irvine) take an interdisciplinary approach that combines philosophy of science, cognitive science, and media studies, and the cases they examine range from legitimate disputes among doctors over the cause of, and best treatment for, various diseases to industry-driven controversies over the harm of smoking and climate change. The authors discuss epistemic methods and factors like mental models, Bayesianism, communication networks, and statistical fallacies, skillfully connecting experiments like Asch’s social conformity studies to how internet social networks can lead people to miscount the attendance at an inauguration ceremony. Although O’Connor and Weatherall offer plenty of suggestions on how to handle misinformation, they do not grind axes or provide a surefire cure. Rather, they address how misinformation arises and spreads, with an eye toward enabling readers to identify this increasingly dire threat to US political institutions—and sometimes to individual lives. This is a very accessible introduction to the topic, one that moderately informed and even expert scholars may also value it for its synthetic coverage.

Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readers.
Reviewer: S. E. Forschler, independent scholar
Subject: Social & Behavioral Sciences
Choice Issue: May 2019