How Truth Decay Happens

The shrinking role of facts and evidence-based analysis in American public life poses a threat to democracy, to policymaking, and to the very notion of civic discourse. RAND has launched an ambitious research project, Truth Decay, to define and study the problem with the ultimate goal of working toward innovative solutions.

RAND defines Truth Decay as the diminishing role of facts and data in American public life. There are four trends that characterize Truth Decay:

  1. increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data
  2. a blurring of the line between opinion and fact
  3. the increasing relative volume and resulting influence of opinion and personal experience over fact
  4. declining trust in formerly respected sources of facts.

Most of these trends are not unprecedented in American history. But today's level of disagreement over objective facts is a new phenomenon. So how did we get here?

Transcript

We hear a lot about fake news, but in the United States, we're facing a much bigger problem. We've reached a point where we no longer agree on basic facts. And if we can't agree on what is objectively true, how can we tackle big issues like improving education, the economy, or the environment?

The RAND Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institution, found a complex set of phenomena at work.

Truth Decay happens when people disagree about basic objective facts. People no longer trust credible sources of information. Opinions drown out facts, and the line between opinion and fact blurs to the point where facts are not only disputed more, but rejected and ignored.

We've seen a similar phenomenon at least three times before in U.S. history, but the increasing disagreement over basic facts is something new. It's unique to our time and has been escalating since before 9/11.

Our brains are hardwired to reject information that contradicts our beliefs. Round-the-clock news and social media spread information, real and fake. Political and economic polarization make it hard to talk to each other. And a strained education system struggles to keep up with a rapidly changing information system and to provide us with the critical tools we need to recognize false information and resist bias.

Intentionally or not, the agents of Truth Decay make the problem worse and often do so for political or economic gain, leaving us unable to have serious debates, facing serious political stalemate, and struggling with alienation and disengagement from civic and political institutions.

So, have we lost our grip on reality? Not yet. In business, technology, even in sports, we depend on hard, honest data to make good decisions. It's mainly in our civil and political discourse that we see the most corrosive effects of Truth Decay and where it stands to do the most damage.

The challenge presented by Truth Decay is great, but the cost of inaction is far greater. RAND has an ambitious plan for future research to identify workable solutions and to promote a simple and once-universal idea: That facts matter.

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