Truth decayThink Tanks in the Era of Truth Decay

By Michael D. Rich

Published 23 October 2020

We are living through a moment of crisis that will define who we are as a nation; yet we can’t even agree on what’s real and what’s rumor. Our political discourse too often amounts to opinions about opinions, shouted across a cable-television split screen. Asked to describe their feelings toward the federal government, a majority of Americans say either “frustrated” or “angry.” All of this points to a civic disease that I’ve been calling “Truth Decay,” and that has enfeebled our response to everything from climate change to domestic terrorism to a global pandemic.

We are living through a moment of crisis that will define who we are as a nation; yet we can’t even agree on what’s real and what’s rumor. Our political discourse too often amounts to opinions about opinions, shouted across a cable-television split screen. Asked to describe their feelings toward the federal government, a majority of Americans say either “frustrated” or “angry.”

All of this points to a civic disease that I’ve been calling “Truth Decay,” and that has enfeebled our response to everything from climate change to domestic terrorism to a global pandemic. It’s the diminishing role of facts and analysis in American public life, and it cuts much deeper than any political party or demographic. It’s why nonpartisan think tanks like RAND are as important now as they have ever been.

I’ve always said that RAND is an idea as much as a research institute—a belief that the best way to solve the most complex and difficult problems is to begin with facts and objective analysis. In our early days, that meant figuring out how to put a satellite into orbit, or how to manage the threat of global nuclear war. Today, it means saving lives and livelihoods from COVID-19, building a more just and equitable society, and responding to the ever-changing threats of an ever-accelerating world. Our goal throughout has been to make communities safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous.

At RAND, we have never shied away from a problem because it is too difficult or too complex. We’ve made countering Truth Decay one of our highest priorities because it is both, and because it threatens the very foundations of our democracy.

In recent and soon-to-be-published studies, there’s a growing body of evidence showing that people don’t just lack trust in American institutions like Congress or the media. They actively distrust them. They expect those institutions to display some basic competence, to provide accurate information, to perform their duties with integrity. And they just don’t see it.

And so, often, they just walk away from the public square. Last year, we asked hundreds of Americans where they get their news. More than a quarter of them said they know where they could go for reliable facts and information—sources like newspapers or television news shows. They just don’t have the time or interest to bother.

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