Why Have So Many Americans Lost Their Trust in Facts?

A new report deconstructs the “Truth Decay” epidemic in the United States.

Posted Jan 16, 2018

 Piotr Krzeslak/Shutterstock
Source: Piotr Krzeslak/Shutterstock

Over the past two decades, Americans have become increasingly skeptical of factual information and rely less on facts, according to a new RAND Corporation study published today. This report, “Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life," was co-authored by Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich.

Kavanagh and Rich refer to the growing lack of trust in facts as “Truth Decay.” This phenomenon is marked by the blurring of anecdotal and empirical evidence along with uncertainty about what “facts” are evidence-based, science-based, or opinion-based.

The decrease in Americans’ reliance on facts when discussing public issues and policy-making decisions has far-reaching consequences. As the authors write: "The most damaging effects might be the erosion of civil discourse, political paralysis, alienation and disengagement of individuals from political and civic institutions, and uncertainty about U.S. policy."

What Is the Rand Corporation?

The RAND Corporation is a global nonprofit, nonpartisan organization founded in 1948 with headquarters in Santa Monica, California. The mission of this “think tank” is to improve policy and decision making around the globe through research and analysis.

"Because we believe in and are committed to this mission, we hope that exploring Truth Decay and understanding its drivers and consequences will allow us to reduce any negative effects that these changes could have at the national and individual levels while continuing to pursue our institutional objectives," co-author Michael Rich said in a statement.

The RAND researchers have isolated four interrelated trends that are driving Truth Decay:

  1. Surging disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data.
  2. Blurring of the line between opinion and fact.
  3. Uptick in the relative volume (and resulting influence) of opinion and personal experience over fact.
  4. Less trust in formerly respected sources of factual information.

What Is Causing Truth Decay?

Although Truth Decay has many causes, Kavanagh and Rich focus on four primary factors:

  1. Characteristics of human cognitive processing, such as cognitive bias.
  2. Changes in the information system, including social media and the 24-hour news cycle. 
  3. Competing demands on the education system that diminish time spent on media literacy and critical thinking.
  4. Political and demographic polarization.

The recent study cites the ongoing debate about immigration policy as a real-time example of the erosion of civil discourse fueled by Truth Decay. There is no way to have evidence-based policy debates if politicians can't agree on a common set of facts—such as 40 years of evidence showing no correlation between immigration and higher crime rates.

In a statement, Jennifer Kavanagh said: "Increasingly, important policy debates are as likely to hinge on opinion or anecdote as they are on objective facts or rigorous analysis. However, policy decisions made mostly on the basis of opinion or anecdote—when more rigorous information is available or can be developed—can have deleterious effects on American democracy."

According to estimates cited in this report, the political paralysis caused by Truth Decay is costing taxpayers exorbitant amounts of money. For example, the 16-day government shutdown in 2013 cost the American economy $20 billion. If lawmakers in Washington, D.C. cannot resolve the current immigration debate in the next few days, the U.S. government will shut down again on Jan. 19, 2018

History Repeats Itself: 21st-Century Truth Decay Has Historic Antecedents

As part of their latest RAND report, Kavanagh and Rich wanted to explore other periods in U.S. history that echoed the Truth Decay Americans are currently experiencing. So, they analyzed three notorious eras in history that shared similar hallmarks: the 1880s-1890s (rapid industrialization and economic inequality); 1920s-1930s (mistrust of banks and financial institutions); and the 1960s-1970s (social upheaval and Vietnam War).

Notably, investigative journalism has played a pivotal role in restoring public trust during previous times of unrest. As a cinematic example infused with some factual Vietnam-era trivia, in Steven Spielberg’s latest movie, “The Post,” one of the central protagonists (no spoilers!) is a former employee of the RAND Corporation. In 1966, Daniel Ellsberg was sent overseas to immerse himself on the front lines of the Vietnam War and to coexist among American combat soldiers. The objective was for Ellsberg to gain a first-hand, eyewitness account of the conflict. For more on this, see the 1969 RAND report, “Some Lessons from Failure in Vietnam,” by Daniel Ellsberg.

According to the latest 2018 RAND report, despite a sense of mistrust towards institutions and the establishment during previous eras such as the Vietnam War, there is no evidence of people from previous generations systemically disagreeing about actual facts. 

 Mega Pixel/Shutterstock
Source: Mega Pixel/Shutterstock

"Although we see some evidence that previous eras also experienced a decline in trust in institutions, this trend seems to be more pronounced now than in the past," Rich said. "Today we see that lack of trust across many more pillars of society—in government, media and financial institutions—and a far lower absolute level of trust in these institutions than before."

Kavanagh and Rich speculate that the 21st-century epidemic of Truth Decay is being exacerbated by modern technology, social media (Twitter, Facebook, etc.), and the 24-hour news cycle. 

What Are Next Steps We Can Take to Combat Truth Decay?

An interdisciplinary team of researchers at the RAND Corporation continues their ongoing analysis of three Truth Decay-related trends in American life: (1) the changing mix of opinion and objective reporting in journalism; (2) the decline in public trust in major institutions; (3) initiatives to improve media literacy in light of "fake news." 

The researchers at RAND are also investigating a wide range of potential solutions and practical ways to stop the spread of Truth Decay. Some key areas of focus include psychological and cognitive-based educational interventions and various strategies for bridging social and political divides.

"We urge individuals and organizations to join with us in promoting the need for facts, data and analysis in civic and political discourse—and in American public life," Rich concluded. "The challenge posed by Truth Decay is great, but the stakes are too high to permit inaction."

References

Kavanagh, Jennifer, and Michael D. Rich. "Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life." (First published: January 16, 2018) Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018.

Ellsberg, Daniel. "Some Lessons from Failure in Vietnam." Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 1969.

Adelman, Robert, Lesley Williams Reid, Gail Markle, Saskia Weiss, Charles Jaret. "Urban Crime Rates and the Changing Face of Immigration: Evidence Across Four Decades." Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice (Published online: December 18, 2016) DOI: 10.1080/15377938.2016.1261057

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