Your Ultimate Book Guide to Understanding Information
Sifting through bullshit in the information age
Each day two billion users log on to Facebook to share hundreds of millions of posts, links, and photos. Meanwhile on Twitter (my preferred social network), there are 230+ million daily active users sharing over half a billion tweets per day.
That’s a lot of information.
Is all of it reliable? Absolutely not.
Information literacy, scientific literacy, data literacy. These literacies are becoming increasingly necessary in the information age we now must navigate. But as information and its infrastructure grow, we now face the challenge of having to sift through endless data, “facts”, and stories to find the truth and nuance beyond the headlines.
So, how do we deal with the “infocalypse”? How do we equip ourselves with the practices, awareness, and experience to recognize and refute bad information? Education is a good place to start – and this month I have eight books to help you out.
Stuart Richie delivers a truly needed book on the current replication crises in the social and health sciences that has become mainstream in the previous decade. In Science Fictions: How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search For Truth (2020), he provides a broad overview of the key issues underling the influx of false positive findings in the science literature and the incentive structures that drive bad science.
With the digitizing of our society has also come “big data,” and every company and news organization wants to hit you with numbers to (sometimes) trick you in to buying what they’re selling. Numbers seem less arguable than words, but as Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West demonstrate in their book, Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World (2020), not every number is what it seems. Using real world examples, they show readers the tricks of the marketing trade to equip you with the skepticism tools necessary to identify all the bullshit in your day.
The internet fundamentally changed how we consume news, and significantly changed the incentive structures around information sharing. Advertisement-driven revenue has altered what the point of information is for: the central target of sharing information is no longer to educate, but to drive clicks and time on a particular webpage to make money. As the target changed, so did the news. And the rise of social media as only exacerbated the issues. In Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now (2018), Alan Rusbridger shares his newsroom point of view as he worked through the change in journalism during the internet age.
The Matter of Facts
Science is more than an approach to understanding the world and seeking truth. It’s also an industry. The Matter of Facts: Skepticism, Persuasion, and Evidence in Science (2020), by Gareth Leng and Rhodri Ivor Leng, is a collection of essays about what modern science is and how scientists exist within its structure. Part philosophy, part science Leng and Leng share what we should know about science so that we can better understand the information it yields.
The term “fake news” became so popular so quickly that it means almost nothing anymore and is hardly said in a serious manner. But as Nina Schick documents in her book, Deep Fakes: The Coming Infocalypse (2020), fake news is going mainstream in the form of synthetic audio-visual content generated by Artificial Intelligence. The consequences of this new era shouldn’t be ignored. We have little in the way of safeguards set in place to detect these new forms of media, and the potential negative impact is enormous – and we need to prepare for what’s coming.
The Book of Why
From our earliest months on this planet our brains work tirelessly to understand the causal relationships among events. And scientists in particular are keenly aware of the power in understanding cause and effect. The problem is that it’s enormously hard to design experiments and analyze data in a way that actually gives us causal answers. In his brilliant book, The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect (2018), Judea Pearl and Dana Mackenzie meticulously examine methods of causal inference and how you, too, can spot causality in our world.
The Quick Fix
Psychology research is quick to make headlines because it’s relevant to everyone’s lives and promises to address some of the most pressing social issues of our time. But, as we also know from books like Science Fictions, psychology has run into a replication crisis filled with fad findings that won’t actually help us. In The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills (2021), Jesse Singal covers all the hottest topics in psychology, from the myth of “grit”, the false promises of power posing, to the religious-like believe in implicit bias testing. You might just learn that most of what was covered in your Intro Psych class is wrong.
The Death of Expertise
One of the greatest paradoxes of our time is that we live in a world of endless information yet have troves of terribly uninformed people. And, as Tom Nichols explains in his book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (2017), our information age has “fueled a surge in narcissistic and misguided intellectual egalitarianism”. Rather than trusting experts, we actively reject their knowledge – a trend easily observed here in the US during the pandemic. Nichols challenges the notion of taking all voices equally seriously on all topics, and explains the risks of doing so.
Thanks for reading Bookmarked Reads📚! Subscribe for free to receive 2x weekly non-fiction reviews and recommendations.
This post contains affiliate links, allowing me to earn a small commission when you purchase books from the link provided. There is no cost to you, and this will allow me to keep this newsletter free and open to all. Happy reading!