The Misinformation Age, by Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall

Two of my colleagues and I lead a book club for faculty this fall semester using Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall’s The Misinformation Age. Over six sessions, my colleagues and the professors who joined us from across our university, used the book as a springboard for discussions of conspiracy thinking, information literacy, politics, higher education, trust, and so much more. Although this book falls short in at least one critical way, it was a fantastic resource for helping us to understand more about why we fall for misinformation and how it spreads as fast as a retweet.

I’ve been fascinated by misinformation since before the 2016 election. Prior to that #!@$! event, false beliefs and misinformation alternately amused and puzzled me. Why on earth did so many highly intelligent people believe in humoral medicine? Why did so many people think Orson Welles’ The War of the Worlds broadcast was real and freak out? But after 2016, it was a lot harder to brush off folks who believe in Q-Anon, refuse to get vaccinated, deny climate change, and so many other things that have zero empirical supporting evidence. I work as an academic librarian. Part of my job is to teach people how to find and use credible information. How can I teach students to be critical about the flood of information we’re all drowning in? How do I teach them to recognize their own cognitive and emotional biases? I hoped The Misinformation Age would give me insights that I could use to help my students sort the credible germ from the misleading, false, and dangerous chaff.

O’Connor and Weatherall approach the problem of misinformation from a philosophical and statistical perspective. They model how scientists form consensus from their interpretations of the data, how dissentors emerge, and how all of this information is disseminated to the public at large. Being a humanities person at heart and a social scientist by profession, there were many moments when these models struck me as simplistic. O’Connor and Weatherall address motive here and there, but what bothers me the most is that the authors only briefly engage with emotion. My own experience and what I’ve learned from reading about conspiracy thinking has led me to believe that you can’t boil down the problem of misinformation down to numbers. Numbers can show us that there is a problem, but they don’t really help us understand the problem. At least, numbers didn’t help me understand issues like confirmation bias, conformity bias, and all the other biases that our goofy gray cells come up with.

What I appreciated most in The Misinformation Age were the examples from history that O’Connor and Weatherall used to introduce and illustrate their points. Perhaps its my humanities background but their recounting of the aggravatingly tragic story of Ignaz Semmelweis, the hilarious trope of the Vegetable Lamb, or the horrifying tale of Pizzagate were a lot more effective for me than models of information transfer and updating of beliefs. I’ve always subscribed to the adage about those who don’t learn history—not to mention the fact that these (hi)stories contain the very human emotions and biases that keep us from being a coldly logical species.

For all my criticisms and quibbles about The Misinformation Age, I’m glad that my colleagues and I chose it for a faculty book discussion series. It was genuinely helpful for us as we shared our experiences, assignments, and questions about misinformation. If nothing else, it helped us generate a thread of really interesting resources for teaching information literacy skills.

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