‘Truth Decay’ Kills Democracy

If we can’t agree on facts, we spend all our time arguing about them, rather than about policies and solutions to an agreed reality.  This is where we are today.  If not remedied, the consequence will be loss of our Democracy.  Two major reference sources are presented below, but in summary, here is the gist of a major trend, called Truth Decay:

Truth Decay is defined as a set of four related trends:

  1. Increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data;
  2. A blurring of the line between opinion and fact;
  3. An increase in the relative volume, and resulting influence, of opinion and personal experience over fact; and
  4. Declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information.

Our political system is at an all-time high of political polarization (see chart at right).  Due to gerrymandering of voter districts, which isolates people of like minds together, there are more landslide elections than ever before. 

In addition, trust in our Government is at an all-time low.  This lack of trust derives from several sources, including: 1) readily observed lies by the U.S. Government (Viet Nam, Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, “If you like your Doctor, you can keep him” [Obamacare]), 2) ideological differences from religious entities which countervail health care and social policies with religious beliefs (abortion, planned parenthood, vaccination, gay rights), and 3) disinformation & propaganda from self-interested parties [described further below].

The “actors” (as they are called in intelligence circles) who benefit from perversion of the truth are as follows:

  1. Political actors, seeking to gain advantage
  2. Foreign governments, seeking to gain advantage
  3. Monied interests, e.g. through false advertising and partisan research organizations & “foundations”
  4. Profit-seeking media and web ‘personalities’, e.g. through ad revenues and clicks (this includes social media firms)

Not only are these parties intentionally lying to you, they are abetted by social media which gives you answers and ‘information’ feeds related to what you already told it you liked or were interested in – including Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc., thus reinforcing natural Confirmation Bias.  Confirmation Bias is a human trait we all share; we like to be Right (Correct).  We tend to filter information we receive in order to support our beliefs and decisions.  Did you ever notice, after buying a car, how many more cars LIKE YOURS you begin to see on the road? 

Our Cognitive Biases promote a privileging of individual opinion and experience over fact and create resistance to new facts among the electorate, on top of Truth Decay’s blurring the line between opinion and fact making the challenge of identifying facts more difficult.

The most damaging consequences of Truth Decay include:

  1. the erosion of civil discourse,
  2. political paralysis,
  3. alienation and disengagement of individuals from political and civic institutions, and
  4. uncertainty over national policy.

A current example where Truth Decay has paralyzed policy action is Immigration, where people cannot accept vetted information sources on:

  • the number of illegal immigrants,
  • the degree to which they cause crime,
  • whether they contribute to, or take from, the national economy,
  • whether they contribute to citizen job loss and wage suppression, and
  • whether our future societal needs are aided or retarded by the volume and skill sets of current immigrants.

Without a shared understanding of facts, it become impossible to debate and adopt an immigration policy in the best interests of the nation.  A similar paralysis exists in our reaction to the Climate Crisis, and a decision about whether the nation is better off adhering to reliance on fossil fuels or building a Green Economy.  Other major issues include Gun Safety, Health Care, and our continued Federal Deficit & Borrowing. There are many other major issues frozen in inaction due to our political paralysis, and there will be consequences – principally for our children – based on the actions we take, or fail to take.  As Today’s Wisdom says: “We can ignore reality, but we cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.” – Ayn Rand

So what? What should we do about Truth Decay?  There are some recommendations in the sources below.  We hope to inform the discussion on these and other topics, here, at Collaborative Wisdom.  And we hope you will contribute to those discussions.

There are two recent and important sources for those willing to read/listen to more:

1) The Rand Corporation study, Truth Decay – An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life, from which I excerpted the points above, and, perhaps easier to digest is…

2) A KQED World Affairs Council Podcast: Jennifer Kavanagh and Tom Nichols: The End of Authority, which you can listen to while driving, running, or working (?!).

A downloaded PDF copy of the full Rand study is also available here [click to download].

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