Opinion: Some policy dentistry could combat truth decay

Jan 27, 2018

WASHINGTON — It cannot be a sign of social health that the number of tweets per day worldwide exploded from 5,000 in 2007 to 500 million six years later. And this might be related, by a few degrees of separation, to the fact that whereas in the 1992 presidential election more than one-third of America’s 3,113 counties or their equivalents had a single-digit margin of victory, in 2016 presidential, fewer than 10 percent did. And to the fact that in 2016, 1,196 counties — about 2.5 times the average over the preceding 20 years — were decided by margins larger than 50 percent. All of which are perhaps related to rising skepticism, without scientific warrant, about the safety of vaccinations and genetically modified foods. And to the fact that newspaper subscriptions have declined about 38 percent in the last 20 years. And that between 1974 and 2016, the percentage of Americans who said they spent significant time with a neighbor declined from 30 percent to 19 percent.

These developments and others worry two of the virtuoso worriers at the Rand Corp., the research institution now celebrating its 70th birthday. Michael D. Rich, Rand’s president, and his colleague Jennifer Kavanagh, are not feeling celebratory in their 255-page report “Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life.” They suggest that the public’s mental bandwidth is being stressed by today’s torrent of information pouring from the internet, social media, cable television and talk radio, all of which might be producing — partly because the media’s audience has difficulty sorting fact from opinions — a net subtraction from the public’s stock of truth and trust.

The authors discern four trends inimical to fact-based discourse and policymaking: increasing disagreement about facts and the interpretation of them; the blurring of the line between fact and opinion; the increasing quantity of opinion relative to facts; and declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information. The volume and velocity of the information flow, combined with the new ability to curate a la carte information menus, erode society’s assumption of a shared set of facts. They also deepen the human proclivity for “confirmation bias” and “motivated reasoning” — people inhabiting information silos, seeking and receiving only congenial facts.

Furthermore, when, on social media and elsewhere, filters and gatekeepers are dispensed with, barriers to entry into public discourse become negligible, so being intemperate or ignorant are not barriers, and toxic digital subcultures proliferate. Kavanagh and Rich say that not only do new media technologies exacerbate cognitive biases, they promote “the permeation of partisanship throughout the media landscape.”

Their main purpose is, appropriately, to suggest research projects that will yield facts about the consequences of the new media and intellectual landscape. Unfortunately, truth decay also spreads because campuses have become safe spaces for dime-store Nietzscheans (there are no facts, only interpretations), and that what happens on campuses does not stay on campuses.

We should regret only unjust distrust; distrust of the untrustworthy is healthy. The preceding 50 years, from Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, through Iraq’s missing weapons of mass destruction and “if you like your health care plan you can keep it,” a default position of skepticism is defensible. And consumers of media products should remember Jerry Seinfeld’s oblique skepticism: “It’s amazing that the amount of news that happens in the world every day always just exactly fits the newspaper.”