Book of the Week 12: The Misinformation Age by Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall

23rd March, 2020

The Misinformation Age is a good read, although not quite what I expected. Not much on the psychology of misinformation – the backfire effect and confirmation bias, for example, are mentioned only briefly. But that’s fine: such topics are covered very well elsewhere. Instead, the book has two stylistically quite different components: some strong storytelling (and often the stories were unfamiliar to me); and a network-based analysis of the spread of information or misinformation through a nodes-and-edges graph.

O’Connor and Weatherall are interested, then, in the structure of networks that propagate information and misinformation, and spend at least as much time on expert networks (for example, networks of research scientists) as they do on muppets like you and me. The graph-analysis is used to study how pseudo-scientific propaganda (such as tobacco-cancer denial and climate denial) can influence experts. I learned a lot, and was delighted to see that an idea I proposed way back in “Adapt” actually exists in the scientific literature: it’s called the Zollman Effect. (The Zollman Effect describes a situation in which scientists can improve their beliefs by failing to communicate. Too much communication, too early, leads to a convergence of beliefs that might be premature. Pockets of heterodox thought gather data on alternative approaches, which will sometimes prove to be correct.)

The stories are good, too. Some come from the excellent Merchants of Doubt, but no harm in that. There was some very interesting detail on the initial research into the ozone hole, and I loved the opening tale about the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, a piece of fake news that emerged around 1350 CE and persisted for centuries. Bravo.

UK: Blackwell’sAmazon

US: Powell’sAmazon

My NEW book The Next Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy is out in the UK in May and available to pre-order; please consider doing so online or at your local bookshop – pre-orders help other people find the book and are a huge help.

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