Two philosophers of science diagnose our age of fake news.
BY BRIAN GALLAGHER & KEVIN BERGER
Ican’t see them. Therefore they’re not real.” From which century was this quote drawn? Not a medieval one. The utterance emerged on Sunday from Fox & Friends presenter Pete Hegseth, who was referring to … germs. The former Princeton University undergraduate and Afghanistan counterinsurgency instructor said, to the mirth of his co-hosts, that he hadn’t washed his hands in a decade. Naturally this germ of misinformation went viral on social media.
The next day, as serendipity would have it, the authors of The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread—philosophers of science Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall—sat down with Nautilus. In their book, O’Connor and Weatherall, both professors at the University of California, Irvine, illustrate mathematical models of how information spreads—and how consensus on truth or falsity manages or fails to take hold—in society, but particularly in social networks of scientists. The coathors argue “we cannot understand changes in our political situation by focusing only on individuals. We also need to understand how our networks of social interaction have changed, and why those changes have affected our ability, as a group, to form reliable beliefs.”
O’Connor and Weatherall, who are married, are deft communicators of complex ideas. Our conversation ranged from the tobacco industry’s wiles to social media’s complicity in bad data. We discussed how science is subtly manipulated and how the public should make sense of contradictory studies. The science philosophers also had a sharp tip or two for science journalists.
FACT CHECKERS: “We’re philosophers of science and felt the manipulation of science is immediately relevant to our culture and really should be understood,” says James Weatherall (right), about why he and Cailin O’Connor (left) wrote The Misinformation Age.
What do you think of a commentator on a TV show with an audience of about 1.5. million people saying germs aren’t real?
Cailin O’Connor: [laughs] We disagree!
James Weatherall: We’re against it.
O’Connor: In fact, there’s a long history of people having wacky false beliefs. People believed there were animal-plant hybrids—and these were naturalists. People believe all sorts of crazy things about the human body. If you understand beliefs in this social perspective, where people are passing them from person to person, and we have to trust each other and can’t verify things for ourselves, it’s not unexpected that we would have some wacky beliefs. But I don’t know about a person who says germs aren’t real in this day and age!
Weatherall: This is a perfect example of what we’re talking about. Acting as if germs don’t exist is going to lead to a lot of bad outcomes. You’re going to get sicker. You’re not going to treat surgical sites the right way. But it’s also something where you can’t really check yourself. Most of us don’t have microscopes to see germs. It’s the same with climate change. You can freely go around saying either the climate isn’t changing or that anthropogenic sources had nothing to do with it. Without getting any immediate feedback, without anything going wrong in your life, you can form these kinds of beliefs.
What inspired two philosophers of science to wade into misinformation?
O’Connor: I’ve been worried about climate change since I was 5 years old, and here we are 30 years later and still not doing anything about it. This is absolutely insane. It’s clear the marketplace of ideas isn’t working. We’ve allowed ourselves to be influenced by big oil and gas for over 30 years. But it was the 2016 election that prompted us. We just started writing it right after the election. We just sat down and said, What can we do, given our research skills, to improve this public crisis about false belief?
When it comes to misinformation, twas always thus. What’s changed now?
O’Connor: It’s always been the case that humans have been dependent on social ties to gain knowledge and belief. There’s been misinformation and propaganda for hundreds of years. If you’re a governing body, you have interests you’re trying to protect. You want to control what people believe. What’s changed is social media and the structure of communication between people. Now people have tremendous ability to shape who they interact with. Say you’re an anti-vaxxer. You find people online who are also anti-vaxxers and communicate with them rather than people who challenge your beliefs…