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Opinion
Tyler Cowen

Misinformation About Misinformation

The idea that there was ever a golden age of accurate information, especially about public health, is suspect.

Not a doctored image.

Not a doctored image.

Photographer: Mario Tama/Getty Images North America

It is conventional wisdom that misinformation — particularly about Covid and vaccines, and often enabled by social and other media — is worse than it’s ever been. It’s hard to measure misinformation over time. But the premise that there was ever a golden age of accurate information, especially about public health, is suspect.

I just turned 60, so my youth is now fairly distant. Still, I can recall debates about smoking: not so much whether it was bad for you — that science was established, and the federal government had already initiated an anti-smoking campaign — but whether it was really all that bad. And I’m not talking about the occasional cigarette, but one or two packs a day. The scientific knowledge wasn’t nearly as socially salient as it is today, and there were many millions more smokers. That meant social opinion was invariably somewhat split.