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How False Beliefs Spread: A Review Article

T. David Gordon

The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread, by Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019, x + 266 pages, $26.00, paper.

As with many other books, the title is designed (often by the publisher) to attract readers, and the subtitle describes the actual content. Very little in this volume claims that the present age is uniquely misinformed; to the contrary, the authors frequently remind that a variety of economic and political agents have ordinarily misinformed the public in a variety of ways, and the only thing new about the present circumstance is the sheer volume of information—of which some will always be misinformation—to which much of the public is now exposed. The bulk of the book is devoted to explaining “How False Beliefs Spread” (emphasis mine), with a special emphasis on the sociological factors.

This is a book about belief. It is a book about truth and knowledge, science and evidence. But most of all, it is a book about false beliefs. How do we form beliefs—especially false ones? … To understand why false beliefs persist and spread, we need to understand where beliefs come from in the first place. (6, 7)

In this sense it joins a disturbingly large number of writings that I inelegantly refer to as “Stupid Studies,” not because the studies themselves are stupid, but because there are serious studies of the related human phenomena of stupidity, gullibility, deceit, propaganda, etc.[1]

The authors are instructors of logic and the philosophy of science, at University of California, Irvine, and their academic training suits them well for a task such as this. The book is well-documented[2] and includes many examples of misinformation from the fields of science as well as from those of commerce and politics. Much of the interesting analysis attempts to explain what we ordinarily call “the sociology of knowledge” and how the senses of belonging and of sympathy (or non-belonging and antipathy) shape our senses of credibility and trustworthiness (cf. especially chapter 2, “Polarization and Conformity”).

You might think that when we hold false beliefs … it is because of some failure to properly process the information we receive from the world … But to focus on individual psychology, or intelligence, is to badly misdiagnose how false beliefs persist and spread. … Many of our beliefs—perhaps most of them—have a more complex origin: we form them on the basis of what other people tell us. … Most of us get our false beliefs from the same places we get our true ones, and if we want the good stuff, we risk getting the bad as well. (7–9)

The book contains many examples of the public spread of both information and misinformation about matters such as the health effects of smoking cigarettes, vaccinations, Lyme Disease, climate change, acid rain, the Cold War, chlorofluorocarbons, and even Edgar Welch in 2016 shooting people at a DC pizza parlor that he thought was the front for a child prostitution ring headed by Hillary Clinton, etc.

As philosophers of science O’Connor and Weatherall are quite knowledgeable—even candid—about misinformation that is occasionally embraced and propagated by scientists:

We also discuss cases in which scientists have come to reject as false a belief they previously held. As we argue, scientists, just like the rest of us, are strongly influenced by their networks of social connections. (12)

Philosophers of science, such as Larry Laudan and P. Kyle Stanford, have argued that these past failures of science should make us very cautious in accepting current scientific theories as true. (28)

Kuhn’s work raised the possibility that to understand science, we had to recognize it as a human enterprise, with a complex history and rich sociological features that could affect the ideas scientists developed and defended. Scientists, from this perspective, were members of a society, and their behaviors were determined by that society’s rites and rituals. (33)

And whether we accept what scientists tell us depends on the degree to which we trust scientists to accurately gather and report their evidence, and to responsibly update their beliefs in light of it. (44)

Usually, when scientists behave rationally but gather uncertain data, sharing evidence helps the whole group get to the right belief, even persuading those who were initially skeptical. But sometimes this process backfires, and communication between scientists actually leads to a consensus around the false belief. (63)

So far, we have assumed that all of the scientists in our models share real results, and that they are all motivated by the goal of establishing truth. But the history of science—and politics—reveals that this is often a bad assumption. (92)

Those who adopt a pre-Kuhnian belief in the neutrality of the various activities of scientists will be disabused of such notions by O’Conner and Weatherall, as will those who believe that various political and economic propagandists will lead us to an intellectual Promised Land. Citing the 1917–1919 Committee on Public Information, they quote unfavorably the occasionally rosy view of one of its veterans, Edward Bernays, who conceded himself that

(T)hose who manipulate this unseen mechanism (propaganda) of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. (99, citing Bernays, Propaganda, Brooklyn: Ig, 1928, 9)

Nor do O’Connor and Weatherall believe that the First Amendment is any guarantee that truth will prevail: “One take away from this book is that we should stop thinking that the ‘marketplace of ideas’ can effectively sort fact from fiction” (179).

In the closing pages the authors propose as a partial cure to misinformation a reimagining of democracy along lines proposed by Philip Kitcher,[3] in which we evade what Kitcher calls “vulgar democracy,” wherein objective truth is subjected to popular vote (what Kitcher called a “tyranny of ignorance”), by deferring to what he called “well-ordered science.” However, the authors’ endorsement of Kitcher is hardly ringing:

But as Kitcher is the first to admit, there is a strong dose of utopianism here: well-ordered science is what we get in an ideal society, free of the corrupting forces of self-interest, ignorance, and manipulation. The world we live in is far from this ideal (186).

Nonetheless, they believe “We need to develop a practical and dynamic form of Kitcherism. … And the first step in that process is to abandon the notion of a popular vote as the proper way to adjudicate issues that require expert knowledge. (Ibid.)

This desire for some trustworthy agency to inform the public was first proposed by Walter Lippmann in 1921 (note 1, above), and the desire—while certainly noble enough—is no more practicable today than it was a century ago. The desire to be governed by elites who treasure and pursue knowledge and wisdom is as old as Plato’s Republic, and, perhaps sadly, as unachievable today as it was two and a half millennia ago.

The authors acknowledge no particular religious orientation, so they cannot be expected to address the spiritual realities that may be fairly evident to Christian believers: humans are deceived deceivers; apart from the grace of God they are like their “father the devil,” who “is a liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44). There is no human system that can save us from our desire to be deceived, whether by ourselves or by others. According to the apostle John, the entire world lies in the power of the evil one, who is called the “deceiver of the whole world” (1 John 5:19 and Rev. 12:9), and his children “will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Tim. 3:13). At the same time we would not be ignorant of his designs (2 Cor. 2:11), and O’Connor and Weatherall have provided a fascinating account—albeit without reference to any spiritual dimensions—of the variety of social factors that contribute to public misinformation. Church leaders will find much to ponder, and much to appreciate, in this volume.

Endnotes

[1] Walter Lippmann, Public Opinion (New York: Harcourt and Brace, 1922); Daniel Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Psuedo-Events in America (Kingsport, TN: Kingsport, 1961); Peter L. Berger with Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (New York: Anchor, 1966); Farhad Manjoo, True Enough:  Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, 2008); Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions (New York: HarperCollins, 2008); Ori and Rom Brafman, Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior (New York: Doubleday, 2008); Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010); Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown, 2013); Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (New York: Currency, 2017).

[2] The book has fifty-one pages of bibliography, and twenty-six pages of endnotes, the latter of which places the reader in the awkward position of constantly flipping back and forth through two books, just to determine whether it is necessary to do so (whether the notes are merely bibliographic or also rhetorical/argumentative). We would benefit from a serious movement among authors and publishers to end this practice and to restore all notes to the foot of the page where they belong. If non-readers find this “distracting,” as they claim, we should simply invite them to watch television or YouTube instead.

[3] Philip Kitcher, Science, Truth, and Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) and Science in a Democratic Society (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2011).

T. David Gordon is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and serves as professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, May 2020.

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