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 (e.g., "the fact that immigrants are actually less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States"); 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.
Gerrymandering, "assortative mating" (people from the same socio- cultural backgrounds marrying each other), geographic segregation of the like-minded — all these are both causes and effects of living in echo chambers, which produces polarization. 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 — or both, in the service of partisanship — is not a barrier, and toxic digital subcultures proliferate. Kavanagh and Rich say that not only do new media technologies exacerbate cognitive biases, but also they promote "the permeation of partisanship throughout the media landscape. " They dryly say, "When the length of news broadcasts increased from two to 24 hours per day, there was not a 12-fold increase in the amount of reported facts."
Kavanagh and Rich are earnest social scientists with a lengthy list of policy dentistry to combat truth decay. Their suggestions range from the anodyne (schools that teach critical reasoning; imagine that) to the appalling ("public money to support long-form and investigative journalism"). But 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 what happens on campuses does not stay on campuses.
Also, there is simple mendacity: Social justice warriors at Google probably think they are clever and heroic in saying that Lincoln was a member not of the Republican Party but of the National Union Party (the name the national Republican Party, but not most state parties, chose for the exigencies of the wartime 1864 election).
We should regret only unjust distrust; distrust of the untrustworthy is healthy. Considering the preceding 50 years, from the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, through Iraq's missing weapons of mass destruction, and "if you like your health care plan you can keep it," a default position of suspicion 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."
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