Liars by Cass R Sunstein review – in search of the ‘optimal chill’

Who should regulate false information? A ‘nudge’ expert and former adviser to Barack Obama takes on free speech

At the end of February 2020, Cass Sunstein, the academic lawyer and “nudge politics” entrepreneur who was once Barack Obama’s regulatory tsar, wrote an opinion piece about Covid-19 for Bloomberg News. “A lot of people are more scared than they have any reason to be,” he complained; the real peril was “excessive fear”, which might hurt the economy. Within a month, more than 1,000 people had died in New York alone. In his new book about what we can do to mitigate the spread of false information in society, Sunstein castigates the Fox News anchor Sean Hannity for failing to take Covid seriously on 27 February – the day before his own opinion piece, which he mysteriously fails to mention. Must Sunstein now cancel himself?

Sunstein was not lying, any more than Hannity was: they both believed that the risk of coronavirus was being overstated. But Sunstein was doing one thing that Hannity was not: he was presenting himself as an expert by adopting a wonkish pseudo-scientific tone, ascribing the supposedly ungrounded fears about the new virus to cognitive bias: one he himself named “probability neglect”. This appeal to the realm of the “cognitive” lent unearned rhetorical authority to Sunstein’s pronouncements about the virus, which were no less dismissive than the Fox News presenter’s.

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