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George Rebane: Country suffering from severe ‘Truth Decay’

Other Voices
George Rebane

We are now such a tragically polarized nation that almost all of us believe we are being misled through the various media.

We believe that disinformation and “fake news” make up the major fare we are exposed to, and its source is, of course, from the other side.

Observing this growing socio-political crisis over the recent years, the well-respected and non-partisan Rand Corporation has launched a research program to discover the nature, extent, causes, and possible solutions to what it calls “Truth Decay.” They recently published a report, actually a 326-page book, that describes the problem along with an outline for future research.

The Rand authors, Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael Rich, start by giving a working definition of Truth Decay. Its four dominant trends are:

One of the prime causes of Truth Decay is in the confusing of personal opinions and anecdotal experiences with relevant facts.

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;

declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information.

One of the prime causes of Truth Decay is in the confusing of personal opinions and anecdotal experiences with relevant facts. And today these reports issue from an explosion of sources ranging from government agencies, through the various network, cable, and online news outlets, to the social media dominated by Facebook and Twitter.

Another identified Truth Decay contribution is from our schools that have not been up to the task of turning out enough people with the knowledge and critical thinking skills needed to filter and make sense of the flood of data, information, and opinions that constantly wash over us.

People defend against such uncertainty, and gain some measure of comfort by becoming insular. They develop habits of communicating only with sources and parties that confirm their biases and share their worldviews or ontologies. Because they start with widely varying premises which are seldom brought into the discussion, the polarized populations more often than not reason within different logical developments that to the other side seem to be literally insane.

And then, of course, the world is full of agents and agencies with the intent to mislead their audiences. Governments, including the United States, have become expert at using different information channels to influence what other countries’ populations believe, how they vote, and conduct business. The Rand report also points out that today’s goings on in misinformation are not new. In the U.S. we have had three notable periods during which Truth Decay was rampant — the late 19th century, the roaring ’20s and the Great Depression, and during the social turmoil of 1960s and ’70s.

While this work is both important and timely, I do believe the authors have missed a critical factor that drives today’s Truth Decay, and thereby constrains the available solutions. And that is the diametrically opposite ways to organize society that our polarized fellow Americans seek. These opposing futures substantiate for each their overarching and sincere belief of how to maximize the blessings of civil society. Moreover, each cohort believes that yielding to the other’s goal will initiate another Dark Age of Man which must be avoided at all costs. In this context promoting Truth Decay is an acceptable burden to bear or weapon to use if it will confirm your beliefs and enable your desired future.

I urge you to read the report, or at least its opening summary. In a future Other Voices, I intend to update the progress of the Rand Corporation researchers. The Rand report can be accessed here – https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2314.html

George Rebane, PhD, lives in Nevada City.


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