Truth Decay: A Conversation with Michael Rich of the RAND Corporation

FtF’s Fall 2020 Policy Tour continued Wednesday evening with a Q&A

If we want our elected officials to make decisions based on facts and analysis, then we need to hold them accountable at the ballot box, Michael D. Rich, president and CEO of the RAND Corporation, told Free the Facts at the second installment of its virtual policy tour Wednesday night.

“If more and more of our electorate, including the very active college-age population, begins to insist that their representatives pledge … to make decisions based on facts and the best scientific evidence, we will see a change in the kind of people sent to represent us,” he said.

Such a shift is crucial in the fight against a phenomenon Rich calls “Truth Decay,” the diminishing role of facts and analysis in American political discourse and the policymaking process.

The decline of facts and analysis is at the top of voters’ minds as the 2020 presidential campaign winds to a close, but Rich argued the problem goes beyond the political arena and is characterized by four accelerating trends in American society: increasing disagreement about objective facts and data, a blurring of the very line between facts and opinion, the growing influence of opinion over facts, and declining trust in previously respected institutions.

“People are increasingly struggling to identify objective information [and] distinguish it from falsehoods,” Rich noted.

“Without a common set of facts, policymakers can’t seriously debate policy options or set long-term priorities . . . [and] individuals can’t make choices about their own lives.”

This isn’t the first time in American history that we’ve seen Truth Decay. In a 2018 study Rich co-authored with his colleague Jennifer Kavanagh, they looked at three periods that bear some resemblance to today: the 1890s, the 1920s, and the 1960s and 70s.

Each of these eras held a few things in common. First, they witnessed the introduction of new communication technology: mass-produced newspapers in the 1890s, radio in the 1920s, and cable television in the 1960s and 70s. And second, they saw widespread economic polarization. Both factors wrought such immense changes in daily life that they led to increasingly fierce political debates between different parts of American society.

That said, Rich argued that today’s bout with Truth Decay is far more dangerous: “We didn’t see in those earlier periods evidence of disagreement about objective facts.” And the stakes are much higher. Because the world is so interconnected, “if we misjudge an enemy threat, it’s much more lethal than it was one or two generations ago,” he noted. For an example of one such deadly threat that could spread rapidly, look no further than COVID-19.

So how do we fight Truth Decay?

Under Rich’s leadership, the RAND Corporation, a nonpartisan, non-profit think tank dedicated to improving decision-making and public policy through research and analysis, is working on a number of projects to halt the spread of Truth Decay over the next year.

“[We’re] addressing such questions as what’s the most effective kind of media literacy training? … how can people better recognize their cognitive biases? … what’s happened to civics instruction? … [and] what’s Truth Decay like in Europe and how are those countries countering it?” he said.

But there are also steps we can take at the individual level. First, “each person now needs to take the time to distinguish between a fact and opinion.” Second, we need “to find a way to bridge these polarized divides and establish some areas of common ground.” And third, we need “to get to a place where not using facts and spreading disinformation is frowned upon.”

That begins by “becoming more thoughtful about how we consume news.” “We often turn to news sources that are aligned with what [we] believe,” he observed. “We’re each going to have to be more conscious about the need to reach outside our normal channels.”

And finally, we’re going to have to demand more from our elected officials.

“The reason that engineers focus on data and measurement and science and calculations and analysis is that, if [they] don’t, the bridge they’re designing could fall,” he said. “Businesses can lose market share and go out of business. There are consequences.”

Likewise with politics. “We expect our business leaders to make decisions based on facts and analysis,” he noted. Now, the next generation of voters and leaders needs to think hard about “how can we get the electorate to hold their elected representatives accountable on the basis of facts and analysis?”

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