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The director of marketing at my college, who also teaches a communication course, asked me to order The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread. It turns out this book discusses many of the things I’m studying in my “Science and the Media” course right now. The title might lead you to think this book is about fake news, but it goes far beyond that, covering the many ways that real information can be manipulated or shared selectively in ways that alters what people think.

A couple of things stood out for me as I read this book. First is something we talk about a lot in the library world — inaccurate or misleading information is a far greater problem than outright fake news. Really fake news — like the Pizzagate story — is often sensational and headline grabbing, and we usually indulge in some collective hand-wringing after one of these stories explodes. What’s more dangerous, and Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall detail this carefully in their book, is deliberate or even inadvertent spread of information that is factual but shared in ways that give people the wrong idea. For example, the tobacco industry knew it couldn’t undo or entirely discredit the research linking smoking and cancer, but decided on a different strategy, as summed up in a memo that O’Connor and Weatherall quote: “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the public.”

In other words, the tobacco companies not only didn’t care that their product caused cancer, they also worked to make the public doubt the truth, so they could go on selling cigarettes. The book goes into a fair bit of detail about their misinformation campaigns. It wasn’t all through advertising — they recruited scientists to do research and then shared only what they wanted to from the results. So it wasn’t untrue, but highly selective, and it deluded people into thinking smoking was healthier than it is.

That is the root of The Misinformation Age. O’Connor and Weatherall share mathematical models that explain how scientists and others share and assess information. The way we do this — ostensibly to get to the most accurate view we can of something — is informed by a number of psychological tendencies related to how we decide who and what to trust. When bad actors, like the tobacco industry, or other commercial or political operatives, interfere with the way we receive information, we sometimes never even have the chance to reach the right conclusions. The second thing that stood out for me as I read is that these social influences impact not only the public, but also experts in science and the media, often slowing, if not completely obscuring, these experts progress towards truth.

And this is a book that doesn’t shy away from the idea that there is such a thing as truth. O’Connor and Weatherall are philosophers of science, so they come from a science perspective, but it’s worth remembering that many fields also boil down to this: there are facts, which encompass what happened, when, where, and with whom, which can be measured, quantified, described and verified. And then there is how we view the facts. Truth is the raw material, and our conclusions can contain the truth but are not themselves necessarily the truth. So when we take in only selected facts, or facts that have been manipulated to help us reach a particular conclusion, or facts produced in a particular way to benefit a particular person, group, commercial or political entity, we will form views based in only part of the truth. Online media (both traditional and social) makes it very easy to package truth according to a particular frame or value and share it widely.

And that is much harder to fight than “fake” news. As O’Connor and Weatherall note, “Merely sussing out industrial or political funding or influence in the production of science is not sufficient. We also need to be attuned to how science is publicized and shared.” This means watching out for balance bias: “If journalists make efforts to be ‘fair’ by presenting results from two sides of scientific debate, they can bias what results the public sees in deeply misleading ways.” I recently gave up listening to national NPR coverage because I’d had it with how often someone is invited on air who has prepared talking points that are not based in fact, and then is allowed to say those things without the reporter or host being able to note that the view expressed is unsubstantiated.

Las week I did tune in to an NHPR show, The Exchange, to hear a show on vaccinations. I was delighted that the host and the panel responded to uninformed callers the way media should — they acknowledged that the anti-vaxx view exists, and then calmly and factually explained why it is unsubstantiated. The host of the show even responded to a caller who claimed the show was on- sided by noting that because of the level of consensus among medical professionals that vaccination is safe, effective, saves lives, and eradicates disease, it would be wrong to present “both sides” as if they are equal. This is responsible media. Especially in reporting science, rather than creating the false impression that all theories have merit, the media should explain when a consensus has been reached, how certain it is, and what conclusions can be drawn, even if it means discrediting views that aren’t evidence-based.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s a tough read, and you’ll be angry when you’re through — after all, you are part of this: “Public beliefs are often worse than ignorant: they are actively misinformed and manipulated.” But you may feel better equipped to seek evidence and resist misinformation, which is good for all of us, after reading this well-documented, well-reasoned book.

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In my last post I wrote about The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble, and over the last week I finished the trilogy, reading A Natural Curiosity and The Gates of Ivory. These books are the continuing story of Liz Headland, Alix Bowen, and Esther Breuer, friends since their late teens when they arrived at Cambridge, in their fifties by the end of The Gates of Ivory.

A Natural Curiosity also focuses on a few other characters who are introduced in The Radiant Way but don’t play a large part in the first book. For example, Shirley, Liz’s sister, and others who live in in Northam, where Alix has moved. Drabble also discusses one of her signature topics in this book — marriages, and how they work or don’t. We watch Shirley and her husband Clive as his business implodes and Esther, faced with a proposal after being single and mainly living alone her entire adult life. We see a middle aged lawyer in Northam whose wife starts a torrid affair, trying to carry on. And her girlhood friend, who is married to a famous archeologist, who are happily married even though they don’t seem to be at all suited. And Liz, seeming to grow closer to her ex-husband, Charles, who left her so dramatically in The Radiant Way but has come home from Washington and is in the process of a divorce.

There’s also a fair bit of politics in these books, which is one of the critiques of them that I’ve seen in reviews. Personally, I don’t mind. I also empathize with the characters, who find that their views shift a bit as they mature, but who are also disappointed, even disillusioned to see the world as it’s evolving. Unlike Liz and her friends I was never an apologist for communism, and as a young person I didn’t really have well thought out views. I parroted the views I’d heard as a child from adults, and it wasn’t until I had children that I began to think for myself about what I valued, and to try to understand what various political views meant practically in the world and whether any politicians or parties actually represented my views.

Drabble’s characters are surer from the start, and a few really live their views in accordance with their views — like Alix and her husband Brian, and Brian’s best friend Stephen Cox. In the second book, Alix is trying to help Paul, the serial killer, now jailed near her home in the north, who lived above Esther’s flat and killed one of Alix’s students in The Radiant Way. And almost the entire third book is about Stephen Cox trying to get to Khmer Rouge territory (which in the early 80s were officially out of power and not in charge in the cities, but still controlled parts of the Cambodian countryside).

Cox is a Booker winning novelist and we watched him grow closer to Liz in the second book. In fact it is at dinner with her that he says he’s going to go and see what happened, and why the communist ideal didn’t work in Kampuchea, and write a play about Pol Pot. Liz is a little alarmed, but doesn’t stop him. In the beginning of the third book she receives a package containing some finger bones and packet of fragmented writing — notes, sketches, journals. The novel bounces between scenes of Stephen making his way to Cambodia and meeting various people along the way (including the wonderful Thai business woman Mrs. Porntip), and Liz and others back in England.

She and Stephen’s other friends decide they have to determine what happened to him. Drabble introduces a character who narrates bits of The Gates of Ivoryat times addressing the reader directly, Hattie Osborne. She is Stephen’s agent and a former actress, and the night before he leaves they attend a friend’s 70th birthday dinner and a party and in the wee hours he suggests she stay in his apartment while he’s away. Hattie, it turns out, was also at the party at the very beginning of The Radiant Way, and is additionally an acquaintance of Polly Piper, Alix’s former boss.

It’s this social network — the myriad ways Drabble’s characters’ lives interweave — that made me think last night as I finished The Gates of Ivory that these books would make great television. I can see them adapted for a multi-season drama. These books together tell not only the story of three women and their friends and relations, but also of England, through the post-war years, the Thatcher years, the massive social, economic, and political changes. of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, and the art, theater, music, and media that Liz and Alix and Esther and their friends enjoy. In this way, Drabble’s books are like Jane Austen’s, social in more than one way — they examine the lives of particular families but also the life of a society, with all the layers that entails.

 

 

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Books & Brew is one of my favorite things. It’s our library’s low pressure book club; we meet once a month at True Brew Barista and talk about whatever we’re reading. On Wednesday, a guy in a shirt with some kind of red, white & blue logo came over with some postcards. I admit I ignored him a little — this is New Hampshire, and we’re up to ears in political canvassing. I was concerned that he was going to pitch something or someone to the group.

Turns out he was. When there was a break in the conversation, he jumped in and explained. He was Bob Makela of Bobtimystic Books, a small press in Brooklyn. He had an author with him, Craig Tomashoff, a box full of books, and no one had shown up for their event. I immediately felt for them. He told us about Tomashoff’s book, The Can’t-idates: Running for President When Nobody Knows Your Name.

It’s about fifteen of the more than 1400 “ordinary citizens” running for president. When Makela pitched it, I immediately asked one question that for me, would reveal how well researched this book was: “Is Vermin Supreme one of them?” Makela didn’t hesitate, “He’s chapter eleven.” Sold.

For you poor folks in the rest of the country where Vermin Supreme doesn’t campaign, get yourselves a copy of The Can’t-idates because it’s worth it for his chapter alone. Mr. Supreme has been running for president since 1992, and it’s not primary season in New Hampshire without him. My son and his friend actually got to meet him during the 2012 campaign at a Barack Obama event. He often attends other candidates’ events and talks to the crowds lined up to go in.

Anyway, I had high hopes there were other “protest” candidates out there bringing Vermin Supreme’s potent mix of satire and seriousness (this year he’s challenging people to give a kidney to those who need one) to weary voters everywhere. But as I began to read The Can’t-idates I was a little worried — the first guy Tomashoff meets thinks his whole hometown are government agents meant to keep him safe.

To his credit, Tomashoff recognizes his own “Oh God, this guy is crazy” feeling and feels badly about it — he wants to be respectful and kind to all the people he meets, and I admire that. He’s honest and he also looks for the good in these people. They may have failed the bar, or lost a business, or have a rap sheet, or be semi-illiterate, or have nearly insurmountable problems, but he sees and writes about what makes each of them admirable as well.

And that works, because Tomashoff is thoughtful, and a good writer. The book is as much a road trip memoir (he drove over 10,000 miles!) as it is a book about fringe presidential candidates. Tomashoff writes candidly about his own life experiences and his inspiration for the trip — he wanted “To show my son (and anyone else who’d pay attention) that you should listen to your own life.” His son was about to graduate from high school and Tomashoff hoped this project would help him learn about trying something other people thought was crazy, and finding happiness anyway.

He also notes things about America in 2016 that the mainstream media doesn’t or can’t confront so plainly and honestly. The ubiquity of racism, yes, even in you and me, in everyone. The fact that so many people all over our country don’t have safe, comfortable, or stable lives, and if you are a minority you’re even more likely not to. The fact that people who don’t learn like other people frequently end up just not learning at all.

And most of all that we are going along with electoral politics the way some of us follow our GPS even when it is leading us astray. Tomashoff writes about Waze not making clear that he’d be taking a ferry across Lake Champlain to get to Burlington. “The mainstream Republican and Democratic contenders are like Waze. We don’t really know how they operate. They’re forever telling us what to do, where to go and the easiest path to get there. And we are the ones who give them that authority, which we blindly follow without question because . . . well . . . it’s just easier that way.”

In his introduction, Tomashoff also points out that the media is partially responsible for low voter turnout. “There’s some irony here: the media spends hours shaming candidates for their personal and professional failures, and then shames voters for not showing up at the polls. If you tell us these people suck, you can’t be surprised that we don’t want to cast our votes for any of them.”

I submit to you, as does Tomashoff, that you have options. My take? If you truly feel no candidate represents your views or understands your life, consider voting for Vermin Supreme. He gave a kidney to his mother, and takes care of her. That’s probably a better indicator of someone’s fitness for office than a lot of the stuff we mindlessly accept from other candidates.

 

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