“The World is Awash With Bullshit” And Other Problems of The Information Age

Four books to understand the creation, sharing, and incentives of bad information

Each day 1.79 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 192 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 weren’t exactly taught to us in school, but are becoming increasingly necessary in the information era we now navigate, which began when the internet and personal computers became increasingly common in the 1990s, and has since become paramount as social media becomes intimately entwined with daily activities. But as information and its infrastructure grow, some (many) bad apples get into the mix. We have moved into the new era of mis- and dis-information – terms featuring prominently in public discourse the past couple of years.

So, how do we deal with the “infocalypse”? How do we equip ourselves with the practices, awareness, and expertise to recognize and refute bad information? Education is a good place to start.

As I’ve written elsewhere, our high schools and colleges need to explicitly teach information literacy to students, rather than integrating it (at best) within our existing courses. Making statistics, rather than calculus, the mandatory math path in schools would also make more sense for the majority of students. As I’ve mentioned before: “Calculus is foundational for creating the technological advancements in our modern world. Statistics is foundational for navigating the onslaught of information in our modern world. Everyone needs the latter, only the creators need the former.”

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Luckily for those not in school or for those that want fresh takes on information literacy, it has become a bit of a hot topic in publishing as of late. Below, is a collection of books I’d recommend for those that want to learn more about the creation, sharing, and incentives driving bad information in this new information era. All the books are clear and accessible for the general public, even if you’ve never set foot in a statistics class, or haven’t set foot in one for many years.

Science Fictions: How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search For Truth

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, he provides a broad overview of the key issues underlying the influx of false positive findings in the science literature and the incentive structures that drive bad science.

Read this if you want to know why most of what you think you know about psychology is probably wrong.

Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World

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, 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 tools necessary to identify all the bullshit in your day.

Read this if you want a statistical refresher and enjoy concrete examples (with a bit of humor mixed in).

Deep Fakes: The Coming Infocalypse

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, fake news is going mainstream in the form of synthetic audio-visual content generated by AI. The consequences of this new era shouldn’t be ignored. We have little in the way of safe guards 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.

Read this if all you know about deep fakes is in the form of fun tiktok videos.

Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now

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. In Breaking News, Alan Rusbridger shares his newsroom point of view as he worked through the change in journalism during the internet age.

Read this if you enjoy historical takes, and also wonder why the news now seems so unnewsworthy.

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This collection of books hits at part of our daily lives that many of us now experience as banal and routine: the consumption of information. The flow of “big data”, the next “breaking news” story, and flashy results have diluted the information space to such a point that we now need a special set of data and information literacy skills to adeptly navigate it. No longer can we trust information presented to us, but we must become reasonably good, yet skeptical, consumers to ensure that what we’re being told isn’t complete bullshit.

I hope this collection of books provides you with a set of knowledge to navigate this space.