Why Misinformation Is About Who You Trust, Not What You Think

I can’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.

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

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus6 min readSociety
How Freedom Divides: An expert on animal societies on what sets human societies apart.
As a biologist who studies animal behavior, particularly the long-term stability of the societies of different species, our own included, I’ve traveled through diverse cultures around the world. The word I hear everywhere I go, a badge of honor to al
Nautilus7 min read
Why We’re Drawn Into Darkness: Author Robert MacFarlane on the awe and horror of subterranean places.
Robert Macfarlane grew up obsessed twith climbing mountains and nearly died on several occasions as he scaled some of the world’s high peaks. He found a safer way to indulge his alpine passions, writing about the mystique of mountains. As someone dra
Nautilus5 min read
Why Campaigns to Change Language Often Backfire
In the first decades of the 20th century, people around the world began succumbing to an entirely new cause of mortality. These new deaths, due to the dangers of the automobile, soon became accepted as a lamentable but normal part of modern life. A h