The best books on the perils facing democracy

Stephan Lewandowsky Author Of The Debunking Handbook 2020
By Stephan Lewandowsky

Who am I?

I have had a lifelong interest in history and in particular the history of democracy. When I became a cognitive scientist, I initially studied basic memory processes using a mix of computer simulations and experimentation. I became interested in misinformation during the invasion of Iraq in 2003 when the purported “Weapons of Mass Destruction” never materialized but large segments of the American public continued to believe in their existence. Some 20 years later, misinformation has taken center stage in public life and has metastasized into a danger to democracy in many countries around the world. The books on this list should present a warning and inspiration to all of us.

I wrote...

The Debunking Handbook 2020

By Stephan Lewandowsky, And Colleagues,

Book cover of The Debunking Handbook 2020

What is my book about?

This is one of several free handbooks that I have published with colleagues during the last few years that provide practical and simple-to-use information about how to debunk misinformation and conspiracy theories.

As a cognitive scientist, I am intrigued by misinformation because it is “sticky” – that is, when it is corrected, people may still continue to rely on it even if they say that the information is now wrong. This is because our mind finds it difficult to let go of information—even if it is false—if we don’t know what to replace it with. The Debunking Handbook explains how we can maximize the effectiveness of corrections so we can deal with misinformation.

This book is available for free here.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia

Why did I love this book?

This is a page-turner that I read in one go from front to finish. It reads like a thriller and keeps you hooked, although it is also a very serious analysis of contemporary Russia by one of the UK’s most skilled journalists and authors. It is as thrilling as it is frightening because there are so many signs that western countries are heading in a similar direction—a country that “is a dictatorship in the morning, a democracy at lunch, an oligarchy by suppertime, while, backstage, oil companies are expropriated, journalists killed, billions siphoned away”, as Peter put it in one of his memorable phrases.

By Peter Pomerantsev,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the new Russia, even dictatorship is a reality show. Professional killers with the souls of artists, would-be theater directors turned Kremlin puppet-masters, suicidal supermodels, Hell's Angels who hallucinate themselves as holy warriors, and oligarch revolutionaries: welcome to the glittering, surreal heart of twenty-first-century Russia. It is a world erupting with new money and new power, changing so fast it breaks all sense of reality, home to a form of dictatorship--far subtler than twentieth-century strains--that is rapidly rising to challenge the West. When British producer Peter Pomerantsev plunges into the booming Russian TV industry, he gains access to every nook…

Book cover of Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends

Why did I love this book?

An intimate and heartfelt portrayal of how Poland turned away from democratic values after a few brief decades of hope and tolerance following the collapse of Communism. Applebaum was herself caught up in these events, which cut right through families and friendships, and which have led to a situation in which fealty to bizarre conspiracy theories is a prerequisite for political advancement in a declining democracy. 

By Anne Applebaum,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Twilight of Democracy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


'The most important non-fiction book of the year' David Hare

In the years just before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall, people from across the political spectrum in Europe and America celebrated a great achievement, felt a common purpose and, very often, forged personal friendships. Yet over the following decades the euphoria evaporated, the common purpose and centre ground gradually disappeared, extremism rose once more and eventually - as this book compellingly relates - the relationships soured too.

Anne Applebaum traces this history in an unfamiliar…

Book cover of The Attention Merchants: The Epic Scramble to Get Inside Our Heads

Why did I love this book?

If you use something on the internet for free, then you are the product. Your attention and your personal data are being sold to advertisers, either directly or through the social media platforms that have disrupted long-standing business models of media and advertising. Wu sketches the history of the commodification of human attention, and what the consequences are. As a cognitive scientist, I know that people’s attention is attracted by things that attract outrage and anger—whether we like it or not, we are attracted to negative emotive material. Put that aspect of human attention together with today’s social media algorithms and the platforms’ business model, and you have a recipe for disaster because fake news and polarizing information, including hate speech, will rise to the top of your newsfeed.

By Tim Wu,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Attention Merchants as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Attention merchant: an industrial-scale harvester of human attention. A firm whose business model is the mass capture of attention for resale to advertisers.
In nearly every moment of our waking lives, we face a barrage of advertising enticements, branding efforts, sponsored social media, commercials and other efforts to harvest our attention. Over the last century, few times or spaces have remained uncultivated by the 'attention merchants', contributing to the distracted, unfocused tenor of our times. Tim Wu argues that this is not simply the byproduct of recent inventions but the end result of more than a century's growth and expansion…

Dark Money

By Jane Mayer,

Book cover of Dark Money

Why did I love this book?

Real conspiracies do exist. Sometimes. And sometimes they play out in broad daylight or just below the surface. Mayer scratches that surface and reveals the incredible influence that is wielded by just a handful of American oligarchs, who use their wealth to determine the direction of America. This is a page-turner on the one hand, but on the other, it is also a serious scholarly effort that amply documents how money drives politics in the U.S. 

By Jane Mayer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Dark Money as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


The US is one of the largest democracies in the world - or is it?

America is experiencing an age of profound economic inequality. Employee protections have been decimated, and state welfare is virtually non-existent, while hedge fund billionaires are grossly under-taxed and big businesses make astounding profits at the expense of the environment and of their workers.

How did this come about, and who were the driving forces behind it?

In this powerful and meticulously researched work of investigative journalism, New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer exposes the network of billionaires trying to…

Book cover of Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Climate Change

Why did I love this book?

The tobacco industry knew that its products were killing people long before the risks from smoking were understood by the public, and decades before politicians acted on this public health risk #1. Oreskes and Conway analyze how the tobacco industry was able to forestall policy action for so long. They show how the same playbook is now playing out with climate change, and how the fossil fuel industry is using some of the same actors that worked for Big Tobacco to delay action on climate change.

By Naomi Oreskes, Erik M. Conway,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Merchants of Doubt as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The U.S. scientific community has long led the world in research on such areas as public health, environmental science, and issues affecting quality of life. Our scientists have produced landmark studies on the dangers of DDT, tobacco smoke, acid rain, and global warming. But at the same time, a small yet potent subset of this community leads the world in vehement denial of these dangers. Merchants of Doubt tells the story of how a loose-knit group of high-level scientists and scientific advisers, with deep connections in politics and industry, ran effective campaigns to mislead the public and deny well-established scientific…

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