December 15, 2018

TRUTH DECAY: Should you believe a study that documents the fast erosion of Americans’ belief in documented studies?

There is an irony inherent to a scholarly attempt to convince you that we live in an era of “Truth Decay.” The phrase is the catchy title of a new Rand Corp. study that delves into “an initial exploration of the diminishing role of facts and analysis in American public life.”

The paradox is that the thesis — that we no longer trust facts — undermines the means — a study built on facts.

If this, as the study suggests, is an era in which “Americans are placing less faith in institutions that were once trusted sources of information,” then why would the same Americans trust the Rand Corp. and its findings?

If this is, as the authors argue, an era in which there is “increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data,” then why would they expect the readers to accept their interpretations of facts and data?

The authors, Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich, clearly do have such expectations, maybe because they understand that there is no alternative to data and analysis. They also acknowledge that, alongside this decay, there is a tendency “in many areas of American society” to rely on “facts and data” today more than ever.

In other words, this is a time of both fake news and big data. It is a time of growing reliance on populist punditry “and opinion-based news,” but also a time in which “even baseball, football, and basketball teams increasingly rely on data to determine which players to draft.”

So, is Truth Decay just a polite way to describe the era of Donald Trump, whose long list of misstatements includes repeating more than 50 times the falsehood that his tax cut was the biggest ever (even after Treasury Department data showed it ranked eighth)?

It is and it isn’t. Complaints about the weakening of truth in public life intensified with the rise of Trump, and are clearly linked to it. But Trump is a result of this trend as much as its instigator.

There is hardly a shortage of articles lamenting the end of a supposed era of truth. Roger Cohen, writing in The New York Times two years ago, dated the beginning of this era to 2014, and to Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea. Russian President Vladimir Putin, he wrote, “a pure Soviet product, traffics in lies.” Putin was there before Trump, so “Trump is not alone. There is a global movement of minds,” Cohen wrote.

And Cohen was not alone. Last March, the cover of Time magazine presented the question “Is Truth Dead?” At about the same time, the magazine Democracy held a symposium to consider the question: “Can truth survive Trump?” No wonder that just last week, a political fact-checking website crashed during Trump’s State of the Union address.

The scholars of the Rand Corp. are clearly worried. It is hard not to agree with them that “Truth Decay and its many manifestations pose a direct threat to democracy and have real costs and consequences — economic, political, and diplomatic.”

In analyzing this situation, they identify four trends that together contribute to this time of decay: increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data; a blurring of the line between opinion and fact; the increasing relative volume, and resulting influence, of opinion and personal experience over fact; and declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information.

Trump is a result of this trend as much as its instigator.

Some of these trends hardly need to be proven. A brief glance at the polls reveals the public’s growing distrust in institutions. And just watch cable news for a few hours and you’ll see how much time is filled with conversations that blur the line between opinion and fact.

Of course, this trend of mistrust in the media and nonstop punditry did not begin with Trump. Rather, it made Trump a credible presidential candidate. And now it haunts him. He is both an instigator and a victim of American’s distrust.

Other trends are more difficult to pinpoint. But the authors still make a decent effort to prove their case — by showing, for example, “the recent rise in skepticism about the safety of vaccines.”

The vaccine case reminded me of “The Influential Mind,” a book published in 2017 by Tali Sharot, a professor of cognitive neuroscience. (Full disclosure: I was the editor overseeing the Hebrew edition.) Sharot describes the September 2015 Republican presidential primary debate in which the moderator challenged then-candidate Trump’s assertions — contrary to scientific evidence — that childhood vaccines were linked to autism.

Ben Carson, the neurosurgeon who was then a candidate (now Trump’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development), replied that numerous studies “have not demonstrated that there is any correlation between vaccinations and autism.”

Not hesitating to respond, Trump asserted that, “Autism has become an epidemic … it has gotten totally out of control. … You take this little beautiful baby, and you pump — I mean, it looks just like it’s meant for a horse, not for a child.” He went on to describe a colleague’s young child who became ill after being vaccinated, and, he alleged, “now is autistic.”

Sharot writes about this moment with a sense of awe. “My response was immediate and visceral. An image of a nurse inserting a horse-sized syringe into my tiny baby emerged inside my head and would not fade away. It did not matter that I knew perfectly well that the syringe used for immunization was a normal size — I panicked.”

She recounts this moment to make a point she illustrates time and again in her book: Evidence does not work. In fact, as she later explains, “presenting people with information that contradicts their opinion can cause them to come up with altogether new counterarguments that further strengthen their original view.”

Sharot is not listed as a source in “Truth Decay,” but her sobering argument should serve as a warning. The Rand scholars portray our current era as different from previous times: Once, we were more prone to listen to evidence; now, we are less prone to do this. But is that really true? Were people really more rational in the past, making decisions based on evidence more than we do today?

The authors do not argue that today’s trend is unprecedented. In a chapter on past Truth Decays, they count three earlier periods in which truth diminished to make room for non-truths: the 1880s-90s, the 1920s-30s, and the 1960s-70s. Their aim is to provide these parallels to help explain what we see today.

In all three examples, the authors note, the media were changing. Yellow Journalism thrived in the Gilded Age; radio and tabloids emerged in the ’20s and ’30s; and New Journalism and the era of television were hallmarks of the ’60s and ’70s. As they compare these three periods to today’s supposed Truth Decay period, they carefully conclude: “Perhaps the clearest similarity across the four periods is that each offers examples of the erosion of the line between opinion and fact and of ways in which the relative volume, and resulting influence, of opinion over fact seems to have increased.”

And yet, historical parallels are a tricky tool, and the authors readily admit that “although each of the periods … exhibited a significant rise in disagreement over social, economic, and political policies and norms, there is little evidence that agreement about the veracity and legitimacy of basic facts declined in previous eras.”

What are “basic facts”? Americans, by and large, agree that the earth is spherical, that the sun rises in the east, and that water boils at a certain temperature. They disagree — and this is nothing new — on evolution, on global warming, on UFOs. In 2008, not all of them were convinced that Barack Obama was an American citizen. That was years before Trump’s election, and before Russia’s invasion of the Crimea.

Watch cable news for a few hours and you’ll see how much time is filled with conversations that blur the line between opinion and fact.

Today, they can’t agree on the facts — or “facts” — detailed in the memo released last week by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). Was the FBI trying to assist Hillary Clinton? Was it trying to sabotage the election of Trump? The memo contains some facts that are indisputable and some that mean little without context. The context is often what makes facts more elusive than the Rand report tends to admit.

In analyzing the factors behind Truth Decay, the authors, to their credit, attempt to put these causes on a scale of those having more and less impact on how people debate truth and facts. Their conclusion: It is Facebook, Twitter and the other social media phenomena that make us easy prey for falsehoods: “Changes in the information system play an outsize role in the challenges presented by Truth Decay because those changes affect the supply of both fact-based information and disinformation.”

It’s not an earth-shattering conclusion, but it is an interesting comment on the human condition and on the human ability to process information.

Yes, our leaders tend to lie from time to time — some more than others. Yes, the current leader of the United States is especially flexible with the facts and especially bold in making unfounded statements. This boldness, it is worth saying, occasionally also gives him the ability to cut through vagueness and expose simple truths.

But leaving Trump aside for a moment, and reading carefully through the long Rand study, one realizes that Truth Decay — if you accept this analysis, and look at the historical parallels — is as much about too much information as too little. In other words, it stems not just from evildoers who deliberately hide the truth from us, but also from do-gooders who drown us in so much information that we no longer know what’s true and what’s not.


Shmuel Rosner is senior political editor. For more analysis of Israeli and international politics, visit Rosner’s Domain at jewishjournal.com/rosnersdomain.