2018, Books, Non-Fiction

The Misinformation Age (2018, Cailin O’Connor, James Owen Weatherall)

This is a compelling examination of mathematical models about the way beliefs spread through human social networks.

The authors, two logicians, give us an overview of mathematical modelling of the methods by which beliefs spread within scientific social networks. I read a lot of psychology -specifically cognitive biases – and one of the things most psychology studies do not focus on is the spread of beliefs which are generated by our biases. This modelling is very idealistic and imperfect, but it’s a necessary addition to understanding human beliefs, given our nature as social animals.

The book then covers the methods by which industry can distort both the public perception of scientific consensus and even sometimes the scientific consensus itself. This part is particularly fascinating give the subtleties with which money can distort our perceptions of science through the good intentions of scientists, journalists and policy makers.

But perhaps the most fascinating part – and the part that is most relevant to many people in 2019 – is their analysis on Russian influence in the 2016 US Presidential Election (and Brexit, though it barely gets a mention) because it sure seems like Russia’s cyber-warfare operatives used these mathematical modeling theories to influence the outcome of the election. It’s uncanny the degree to which their tactics seem to follow these theories. So this section feels basically essential to anyone hoping to understand the methods governments are no using to interfere politically in other countries without sanctions, directly funding resistance groups or committing other traditional acts of interference.

The book then leaves of us with a very difficult question: is there some method by which democracy can be changed so that majority rule is no longer the arbiter of policies which must rely on science? Fortunately they do not try to answer that question (though they hint at one) but they leave it open-ended.

Anyway, well worth your time.


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