In the age of fake news, various people frequently express concern about the reasoning skills of other people, who blindly believe whatever is in line with their preconceived beliefs. But are those beliefs the only reason that people fall so easily for fake news?
Scholar Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall, who teach philosophy of science at University of California-Irvine, argue that is another, deeper reason — a need to conform to the consensus view of a community.
In their new book, The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread, O’Connor and Weatherall stress that social factors, rather than individual psychology, are essential to understanding the spread of false beliefs – what you believe depends on who you know.
“… Almost everybody has a bias toward conformity. You don’t want to stick out in a group of people, including with your stated beliefs. There are lots of studies that show people prefer to conform with others,” O’Connor said in an interview to Pacific Standard magazine.
The authors begin with the example of the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary — a tree whose fruit was supposedly filled with tiny lambs. It was a myth that lasted for centuries, with mediaeval scholars preferring to cite one another rather than fact-check. Among contemporary examples, the book focuses largely on beliefs held by scientists — such as the general consensus on climate change.
“The one thing you begin to notice in this book is that propagating a reflexive skepticism and sowing discord aren’t terribly difficult, especially when there’s a vested interest willing to pay for it; ‘merely creating the appearance of controversy’ is often all that needs to be done,” The New York Times said in its review.