Thursday, 14 March 2019

The Misinformation Age: how false beliefs spread


Today's post is written by Cailin O'Connor and James Owen Weatherall. In this post, they present their new book The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread, edited by Yale University Press.

Cailin O’Connor is a philosopher of science and applied mathematician specializing in models of social interaction. She is Associate Professor of Logic and Philosophy of Science and a member of the Institute for Mathematical Behavioral Science at the University of California, Irvine. 

James Owen Weatherall is a philosopher of physics and philosopher of science. He is Professor of Logic and Philosophy of Science at the University of California, Irvine, where he is also a member of the Institute for Mathematical Behavioral Science.   

Risultati immagini per The misinformation age: how false beliefs spread

Since early 2016, in the lead-up to the U.S. presidential election and the Brexit vote in the UK, there has been a growing appreciation of the role that misinformation and false beliefs have come to play in major political decisions in Western democracies. (What we have in minds are beliefs such as that vaccines cause autism, that anthropogenic climate change is not real, that the UK pays exorbitant fees to the EU that could be readily redirected to domestic programs, or that genetically modified foods are generally harmful.)

One common line of thought on these events is that reasoning biases are the primary explanation for the spread of misinformation and false belief. To give an example, many have pointed out that confirmation bias – the tendency to take up evidence supporting our current beliefs, and ignore evidence disconfirming them – plays an important role in protecting false beliefs from disconfirmation.

In our recent book, The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread, we focus on another explanation of the persistence and spread of false belief that we think is as important as individual reasoning biases, or even more so. In particular, we look at the role social connections play in the spread of falsehood. In doing so we draw on work, by ourselves and others, in formal social epistemology. This field typically uses mathematical models of human interaction to study questions such as: how do groups of scientists reach consensus? What role does social structure play in the spread of theories? How can industry influence public beliefs about science?

Throughout the book, we use historical cases and modeling results to study how aspects of social interaction influence belief. First, and most obviously, false beliefs spread as a result of our deep dependence on other humans for information. Almost everything we believe we learn from others, rather than directly from our experience of the world. This social spread of information is tremendously useful to us. (Without it we would not have culture or technology!) However, it also creates a channel for falsehood to multiply. Until recently, we all believed the appendix was a useless evolutionary relic. Without social information, we wouldn’t have had that false belief.

Second, given our dependence on others for information, we have to use heuristics in deciding whom to trust. These heuristics are sometimes good ones – such as trusting those who have given us useful information in the past. Sometimes, though, we ground trust on things like shared identity (are we both in the same fraternity?) or shared belief (do we both believe homeopathy works?) As we show, the latter in particular can lead to persistent polarization, even among agents who seek for truth and who can gather evidence about the world. This is because when actors don’t trust those with different beliefs, they ignore individuals who gather the very evidence that might improve their epistemic state.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Epistemic Innocence and the Overcritical Juror

Should we trust eyewitnesses of crimes? Are jurors inclined to trust eyewitnesses more than they should? People tend to adopt a default position of trust towards eyewitness testimony, finding it highly convincing. However, as has now been widely acknowledged, eyewitnesses are subject to memory errors, which make them susceptible to error. These two observations have pointed many researchers towards the conclusion that jurors do trust eyewitnesses more than they should.

However, in a recent paper, I argue that jurors are susceptible to being overcritical, assigning too little credence to eyewitness testimony, due to the presence of memory errors. How can this be so?

Jurors might adopt a default position of trust towards eyewitness testimony, but they are also prone to assuming that an eyewitness is generally unreliable due to noticing individual errors in their testimony. For example, mock jurors are unlikely to base a judgement of guilt or innocence on testimony containing inconsistencies, even if the inconsistencies relate to trivial information that would not determine guilt or innocence (Hatvany and Strack 1980; Berman and Cutler 1996; Berman et al. 1995).

These individuals infer from the presence of errors in some trivial details to general unreliability of the testimony. My suggestion is that often inferences of this sort will be incorrect: people will make errors in their eyewitness testimony but the errors will not indicate general unreliability, instead being due to the ordinary operation of reliable cognitive mechanisms. Not only this, the errors will indicate the presence of ordinary, well-functioning cognitive mechanisms, which in fact facilitate people being good, trustworthy eyewitnesses.

Thursday, 7 March 2019

What Beauty Demands: An Interview with Heather Widdows

Today I have the pleasure to post an interview with my colleague Heather Widdows, John Ferguson Professor of Global Ethics at the University of Birmingham, who talks to us about her research interest in beauty and her very successful monograph, Perfect Me: Beauty as an Ethical Ideal.

LB: Your project examines beauty from a new angle. How did you first become interested in beauty as an ethical ideal?

HW: That’s a difficult question to answer as my passion for researching beauty crept up on me. Before working on beauty I was a fairly typical moral philosopher working in global ethics and justice. My main topic was defining global ethics as an multidisciplinary approach to philosophy, taking the real world and empirical evidence seriously. More broadly, I have worked on areas such as women’s rights, reproductive rights, genetic ethics and bioethics.

I guess my interest in beauty emerged from this long standing interest in gender justice. I recognised that something was happening in visual and virtual culture which was different, profoundly moral and no less connected to justice than other issues of health and wealth I had been working on. 

The challenges of body image anxiety as a global epidemic is an issue of global concern. Likewise, the extent to which the modified body is becoming regarded as normal, and even natural, challenges our understandings of what human beings are, and of the self, at least as much as advances in genetic technology or the emerging possibilities of Artificial Intelligence do. 

Such profound changes about our understanding of human beings, brought on by the emerging dominant beauty ideal, are not well recognised or researched. Perhaps it’s because beauty is seen as trivial, a matter of taste, or a ‘woman’s issue’ that we don’t take it seriously. But in a visual and virtual culture beauty matters, and it matters fundamentally. It provides our values and we judge ourselves, and others, according to it.

LB: In your recent monograph, Perfect Me, you argue that pressure on women to be perfect has increased and is now ‘more global’. What do you think is the reason for this increased pressure, and what makes you say that the preoccupation with beauty is more than a ‘first-world problem’?

HW: In Perfect Me I set out why the current beauty ideal – characterised by thinness, smoothness, firmness and youth – is now an emerging global ideal. This does not mean we all have to look the same, or even similar, but we do have to fall within a certain range. And while diversity might be locally true, globally it is not. Globally, the range of acceptable appearance norms for the face and the body narrows and becomes more demanding.

So while it might seem there is more diversity – more shades and colours of skin, and more shapes and sizes of models are visible – this is diversity within a very small range. To be beautiful – or just good enough – you must conform to most of the features of the beauty ideal. You can be big, and very big, only if you are also firm and smooth.

Yet firm curves are more demanding than thinness alone. And you can be hairy – look at Januhairy – but can you be both? Can you be fat and hairy and saggy and old? You cannot! As I say in Perfect Me ‘muffin tops’ and ‘love handles’ are not features of any version of thinness.

Evidencing the global nature of the ideal is the main focus of Chapter 3, ‘A New (Miss) World Order?’. In this chapter I document the narrowing of the normal range everywhere and the emergence of a global mean. The global beauty ideal is one of thinness in some form (catwalk thin, thin with curves), firm (buff, shapely, athletic), smooth (hairless, with golden, bronze or coffee-coloured skin) and young-looking. 

This is not a mere expansion of Western ideals, but a global ideal, which is demanding of all racial groups. No racial group is good enough without ‘help’ – all need to be changed or added to. Everybody needs body work – diet and exercise, surgical and non-surgical technical fixes – to be ‘perfect’, or just ‘good enough’. While not all can, or afford to engage – all can aspire to. Poverty is no barrier to aspiration and I use the evidence of engagement in affordable trends (such as seeking thinness or using skin-lightening cream) as indicating engagement and aspiration, and supporting the global trend.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Contributory Injustice in Psychiatry

This post is by Alex Miller Tate, who works in the philosophy of the cognitive sciences, and is currently completing a PhD at the University of Birmingham. Here, he summarises his paper "Contributory Injustice in Psychiatry" recently published in the Journal of Medical Ethics.

Significant service user involvement in the provision of and decisions surrounding psychiatric care (both for themselves as individuals and in the formation of policy and best practice) is, generally-speaking, officially supported by members of the medical profession (see e.g. Newman et al 2015; Tait & Lester 2005). Service user advocacy organisations and others, however, note that the experience of service users (especially in primary care) is of having their beliefs about, feelings regarding, and perspectives on their conditions ignored or otherwise thoughtlessly invalidated. Some deleterious consequences of this have been noted before, including impoverished clinical knowledge of mental health conditions and worse health outcomes for service users (see e.g. Simpson & House 2002).

Not much attention has been paid to the structure and nature of these practices of exclusion themselves, however, until relatively recently. In the past couple of years there has been a small surge of work from both philosophers and practicing psychiatrists (sometimes in collaboration) identifying various kinds of epistemic injustice experienced by psychiatric service users and evaluating their significance (see e.g. Crichton, Carel & Kidd 2016; Kurs & Grinshpoon 2017Johnstone & Boyle 2018). Epistemic injustices are those which harm people specifically in their capacity as knowers (Fricker 2007). My article introduces the notion of contributory injustice (due to Dotson 2012 and a lesser-studied sub-type of epistemic injustice) to this evolving field of discussion.

To understand the notion of contributory injustice, we must first appreciate the notions of a) an interpretive resource and b) an interpretive gap. An interpretive resource is something that we use to help us make sense of the world; our collections of concepts, our lexicons, and our methods of investigating the world to obtain knowledge (amongst other things) are all important interpretive resources (Pohlhaus 2012). An interpretive gap is present when we lack some resource/s that would help us to obtain a better understanding of some phenomenon or state of affairs.

There are at least two ways in which interpretive gaps may lead straightforwardly to epistemic injustice. The first is when a whole society’s pool of shared interpretive resources lacks those required to make sense of (some of) a marginalised group’s day-to-day experiences. In such a case, these experiences remain somehow ephemeral, or otherwise difficult or impossible to properly capture, from the perspective of both the marginalised and the dominant parties alike. This is Fricker’s (2007) notion of hermeneutical injustice. The second (and in my view more common) situation is when a dominant group has an interpretive gap regarding a marginalised group’s experiences, which the marginalised individuals have already identified and overcome within their own community. In such a case, insights that individuals themselves have into their own experiences are ignored and persistently misunderstood by ignorant others. This is Dotson’s (2012) notion of contributory injustice.

In my article, I argue that psychiatric service users, in particular those who hear voices, are regularly subject to contributory injustice when interacting with clinicians. I draw on the work of the Hearing Voices Network (an organisation dedicated to open and welcoming discussion of all perspectives on voice-hearing, centering on those who experience it) to argue that the harm done by this is both significant and readily avoidable. I argue that clinicians are obliged to take seriously the potential therapeutic benefit of service users’ individual, and sometimes unique, perspectives on and explanations of voice-hearing. I suggest that this is especially important where these perspectives and explanations are alien to them, overtly strange, or otherwise contrary to the dominant medical understanding of psychological distress. In so doing, clinicians will begin to treat their service users both more justly and as they actually are; indispensably knowledgeable and equal partners in the search for a helpful resolution of their difficulties, rather than an object of clinical investigation, diagnosis, and intervention.

Alex’s website, where interested parties can keep updated on his current research, and where he hopes to soon begin regularly blogging on a variety of philosophical topics, is here. Those who appreciate silly jokes and the occasional bit of philosophical insight (usually from somebody else) are welcome to follow Alex on twitter.