Neal Stephenson's new novel, Termination Shock, focuses on looming climate disaster. But the influential science fiction author has also been focused on another mounting concern: information manipulation. Below, he recommends six books on the topic.
The Philosophical Writings of Peirce edited by Justus Buchler (1940).
The Victorian style of American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce can be heavy reading, but writing in 1877, Peirce somehow summed up the weirdly symmetrical right/left hostility toward free discourse that afflicts the public sphere almost 150 years later. Most of the relevant bits appear in the essay "The Fixation of Belief," which focuses on the different ways people come to believe things. Buy it here.
The Constitution of Knowledge by Jonathan Rauch (2021).
I found Peirce's writings through this recent book, in which Rauch calmly articulates the problem our civilization is having with separating truth from falsehood. Peirce, as Rauch explains, established the doctrine of fallibilism: the disarmingly simple idea that none of us can ever be sure that our beliefs are correct, which is why we need a process for agreeing on what's true. Buy it here.
Twilight of Democracy by Anne Applebaum (2020).
Applebaum explores the rise of populist authoritarian regimes in Eastern Europe and applies the lessons to what's been going on in the U.K. and U.S. This is a useful guide to the playbook used by bad actors seeking to undermine and overthrow democracies. Buy it here.
The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch (2011).
This profound book, by one of the leading physicists of our age, also addresses fallibilism. But it is primarily about the transformative power of explanations and the almost unlimited power to create new knowledge through the systematic application of reason. Buy it here.
A Lot of People Are Saying by Russell Muir-head and Nancy L. Rosenblum (2019).
This book focuses on conspiracy theories and their systematic use to undermine democracy. As such, it's largely about what the Right has been up to, and the things we were all dumbfounded witnesses to during the Trump era. Buy it here.
Post-Truth by Lee McIntyre (2018).
Paying roughly equal attention to what's happening with the Left and Right, this excellent book is slim and to the point, generating its rhetorical force by addressing recent events. An account of how postmodern thinking spread from the Left to the Right leads to a final chapter on how to fight post-truth forces. Buy it here.
This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.