In “Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime,” Latour argues that climate change is forcing all of us to confront truths that seem hard to reconcile but turn out to be two sides of the same thing: 1) reality exists, whether we like it or not; and 2) our attempts to apprehend it are contingent on our social context. Along with Cailin O’Connor and James Owen Weatherall’s “The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread,” Latour’s new book offers a way to think through the seemingly insurmountable impasse carved out by political polarization and fake news.
Of the two volumes, “The Misinformation Age” takes the more methodical and earnest approach. O’Connor and Weatherall are professors of logic, and they break down the mechanics of misinformation accordingly. They introduce their subject with the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary — a tree that reportedly grew gourd-like fruit filled with tiny lambs. The claim was propagated during medieval times by so many respected naturalists and scholars that it took nearly four centuries before it was satisfactorily debunked.
Those medieval scholars kept citing one another rather than verifying (or disproving) the Vegetable Lamb for themselves. “Social factors are essential to understanding the spread of beliefs,” O’Connor and Weatherall write, “including — especially — false beliefs.” Similar to the network of right-wing sites that nurtured elaborate conspiracy theories about a Hillary Clinton-sponsored pedophilia ring in a Washington pizzeria (a notion only slightly less outlandish than lambs growing on trees), the medieval scholars had created their own ecosystem for fake news.
O’Connor and Weatherall include contemporary examples of misinformation like Pizzagate, but they focus mainly on ideas held by scientists, highlighting how even the most well-intentioned beliefs can get deployed and distorted. After all, they say, “most scientists, most of the time, are doing their best to learn about the world, using the best methods available and paying careful attention to the available evidence.” Scientists are “the closest we have to ideal inquirers,” even if, as the authors make clear, there’s an unavoidable element of uncertainty in the scientific enterprise.
This uncertainty, it turns out, is central to how so much contemporary misinformation works. O’Connor and Weatherall make a distinction between absolute certainty and the confidence necessary to make informed decisions. “The worry that we can never gain complete certainty about matters of fact is irrelevant,” they write — though it comes up again and again in “The Misinformation Age,” as they show how industrial interests have repeatedly exploited any whiff of uncertainty to argue against government regulation.
The book contains useful summaries of the debates in the 1980s around the ozone layer and acid rain. Drawing from the research of Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in “Merchants of Doubt” (2010), O’Connor and Weatherall compare industry-sponsored campaigns questioning environmental damage to the strategic skepticism of tobacco companies, which disputed the link between smoking and lung cancer by insisting that the link wasn’t utterly definitive. As one tobacco executive put it, “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.”