Michael Rich & Jennifer Kavanagh

Truth Decay in America

Air Date: October 9, 2018

RAND CEO Michael Rich and political scientist Jennifer Kavanagh discuss their new book “Truth Decay” and the importance of media literacy.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Hefner, your host on The Open Mind. In his recent update to friends on what he’s reading, watching and listening to, President Barack Obama recommended to the American people “Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life” by Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael Rich. He wrote, “The title is self explanatory, but the findings are very interesting: a look at how a selective sorting of facts and evidence isn’t just dishonest, but self-defeating to a society that has always worked best when reason, debate and practical problem solving thrive.” Those are the ever-rational words of are sorely missed, factual, not alternative or counterfactual President. Today, the coauthors join me. Jennifer Kavanagh is a political scientist at the Rand Corporation and associate director of the Strategy Doctrine and Resources program. Her research focuses on American political institutions, public opinion, and their implications for US foreign and domestic policy. Michael Rich is president and chief executive officer of the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit. nonpartisan research organization that helps improve policy and decision making through research and analysis. For more than 40 years Rich has helped RAND guide us through expertise and evidence based decision-making in an increasingly complex and polarized environment. Welcome to you both. Congratulations on this. Okay. Or you can find the Twitter version. “Truth Decay” follows four sets of trends that you outline the growing disagreement about facts, blurring between opinion and fact arise in the relative volume of opinion, and personal experience over fact and declining trust in respected sources. Michael, how does this crisis of misinformation fit historically in the picture of what RAND has done over these past decades and this country as a whole?

RICH: Well, this period isn’t brand new, in the sense that it has no precedence at all. The book explores three periods in American history since the Civil War that have some similarities to the current crisis of truth decay. But there are some differences. And we outlined the differences between this period and those previous periods.

HEFFNER: What are those central differences, Jennifer.

KAVANAUGH: Well, we looked at three periods specifically and we were able to find evidence of our four Truth Decay trends in, in each of those periods with some exceptions. So the periods that we looked at where the 1880s to 1890s which is the Gilded Age, the time of Yellow Journalism, the 192os, 1930s, the roaring twenties, the Great Depression when radio became the primary means of sharing information and the late 1960s to early 1970s. So the Vietnam era when television really emerged as the primary form of entertainment and news information. And so we were able to find evidence of this blurring of the line between fact and opinion and the increasing relative volumes of opinion in each of those periods. So to give an example, in the 1880s to 1890s we had yellow journalism, which was sensationalized exaggerated stories included in papers to sway public opinion and sell more newspapers. So that should sound very familiar to some of the things that we observe today. We also see evidence of declining trust in institutions in these periods. A really good example is that similar to today or the late sixties, early seventies when there was a similar severe decline in trust in media and government institutions, which we also see today, but the biggest difference, what we don’t see, is this increasing disagreement about objective facts. There have always been skeptics, there have always been people who challenged the conventional interpretation, but what we see now is a divergence between evidence and data and people’s opinions, so in areas like the safety of vaccines or the safety of GMOs where the evidence in support of the safety of these scientific advances is increasingly strong and overwhelming, really an increasing number of people are skeptical of their safety and so this divergence is something that’s new. It’s something that we haven’t seen before based on our research thus far, and it makes the current manifestation of truth decay both more concerning and potentially more dangerous.

HEFFNER: I want you both to embellish on your findings and what data you’re still seeking, but to me it’s always seemed like the emotive source of individual anecdotes, as opposed to the data, is what tends to perpetuate the conspiracies because if you take one person’s story that might be an outlier or an aberration and extrapolate, to that one person. It’s their truth.

RICH: Of course. One difference in the current environment from earlier environments is the speed at which information, opinion and facts can be transmitted, and so now a person with a personal experience or an anecdote a can reach large numbers of people around the world through social media channels. And so that’s one key difference.

KAVANAGH: You’re absolutely right that anecdotes and personal experiences can be more powerful than facts and data and that’s what allows them to spread so quickly and to perpetuate for such a long period of time. And I think that’s a challenge that we face as researchers and that the scientific community faces broadly and that we’re grappling with. How do we communicate facts and data in a way that is as emotionally powerful and as tangible to people as their personal experiences.

HEFFNER: In terms of the historical context, Michael, what do you think we’ve achieved as an American society through RAND’s research in other arenas that could be particularly useful in solving this crisis?

RICH: Well, there’s plenty of examples where I’m just discovering basic facts, phenomenon, how trends are developing, have shaped policies. There are examples of how policy options have been selected, from one another, from a menu based on facts and analysis. And this has happened in many times the national security arena, but also in areas related to social and economic policy. And in fact, we’re seeing those trends, the use of data and analysis, more and more in decision making in many walks of life.

We’re just not seeing that trend in civil discourse and political discussions.

HEFFNER: The particular examples that you identify as posing threats to democracy are the erosion of civil discourse, political paralysis at the federal and state level, individual disengagement from political and civic life, uncertainty in national policy, those all really do seem to capture this moment in history and it’s like a perfect storm. In the absence of a war or an economic crisis that brings the country together, what can your data do to inform how we tackle this problem?

KAVANAGH: Well, one of the things that we’re trying to use our historical research for that we spoke about previously is to see why those periods ended and to try to see if there are lessons there that we can apply to today and we’re still working on that question, but we do have some observations. The first is the role that investigative journalism plays in restoring the emphasis and trust in facts and data and part of that increase in investigative journalism appears to be bottom up: people demanding it and part of it is top down, journalists recognizing the responsibility and influence that they can have. Another thing that we see change is the level of transparency and accountability both in government and in media in terms of providing the public with a window into what’s happening. We saw that in the sixties and early seventies with the Church Commission. That was one of the things that helped to end that period of truth decay was government commissions and investigations and changes in policy that provided this accountability and this check that helped to restore trust in institutions. But there’s a number of other factors that I think we need to look at. One is economic prosperity, another is economic inequality and the role that that plays in creating a unifying or a disunifying message and a third is changes in the political alignment. So one of the key factors now that we talk about in the book is the role of that political polarization place and part of that is due to our party structure. So it’s possible that changes in the party structure or changes in political affiliations: a realignment could be another solution. So I think there’s a number of things that we need to look into and that’s what we’re doing now.

HEFFNER: What Michael, in the fabric of our democracy do you think is viable among those pads that we could emerge out of this, without truth decay.

RICH: Well, I, I don’t think either one of us believes that this situation will be self-correcting, but I don’t think either of us think that it’s not possible to reverse the decay and our research is still ongoing, but we’re focused both on the provision of information, how information is provided, but also how it’s consumed and how people distinguish good information from bad information. There’s going to have to be efforts to change how both sides of the information transaction if you will, are performed.

HEFFNER: One of the things that I’ve pointed to often on the show is the classification system, when you go into a library you expect there to be clearly identified genres, different platforms, different content, fiction and nonfiction and on YouTube and a lot of the emerging platforms, new media not so new anymore, they just don’t have the incentive to distinguish between fact and fiction. And that seems to me to be the most pressing issue. I don’t know if you agree with that.

KAVANAGH: Well, it’s certainly, certainly part of the problem. One of the things that’s driving that, which we refer to as the blurring of the line between fact and opinion is, is the economics of the media industry now, it’s a lot cheaper to produce opinion and analysis and commentary than it is to produce investigative journalism. And so mixing the two of them, mixing some facts with some opinion and analysis is a pretty cheap way to provide information to the public. It can also be more provocative and more attention grabbing, which is another thing that media companies need if they’re going to earn a profit, especially as competition increases and profit margins decrease. So there’s a number of factors that are driving media companies, both traditional media outlets and social media or new media as you called it, to pursue this approach. But it is a problem because people don’t necessarily know what is a fact and what is an opinion, and we’re not doing a good job of training students in how to do that yet in how to navigate this information space.

So this is, this is a key part of the problem. I would agree with you.

HEFFNER: The difference between now and the Vietnam era when you had investigative journalists exposing the truth and the Watergate era too, is that there were not these brigades of yellow citizen journalists online. And I wouldn’t even denigrate yellow journalists that way because while there were exaggerations, it was largely; correct me if I’m wrong, truthful. Whereas now, we’re not talking about exaggeration so much as painting absolutely false, false deliberately conceived misinformation and in the Vietnam age, all the media actors were working collaboratively together, and documented later on what was that the Kennedy and Nixon and Johnson administrations withholding of critical facts, if not outright deception about that is, isn’t that a problem that historically journalists and the media have been a unifying force to hold politicians accountable?

RICH: You know, I think there are outliers in every era. I think what’s different about this era is the quantity of opinion and the ease with which it can be … and speed with which it can be disseminated. That I think is the distinguishing feature, but I think we could find untruthful, exaggerated accounts in each of the earlier periods that we examined, but the quantity now and the speed of transmission is, that there are different today.

HEFFNER: Even though it’s the outgoing president, 44 not 45 who is acknowledging your study, you must have taken some real appreciation that there is at that level an acknowledgement that facts are being eroded and that the truth is in jeopardy.

RICH: Well, we’ve, I think we’ve been encouraged by the reception on, if you will, both sides of the political spectrum. Right after it was published, there was a nice column that George Will devoted to the book and having that plus President Obama and people in other points on the political spectrum has, has been gratifying and I think it reflects the nature of this problem. This is a problem that isn’t limited to one part of the protocol spectrum or one region of the country. It’s a much more, I think, serious, a fundamental systemic problem and that’s how we’ve attacked it.

HEFFNER: What have you found works for media and citizen literacy?

KAVANAGH: Well, what we’ve done is to collect data on all the programs that are being offered currently by civil society organizations and private companies and what we’re trying to do is understand what are the differences between these different programs and how should we be evaluating them. One of the key challenges is there hasn’t been good rigorous evaluations of these programs to know whether they’re having the outcomes that we would want to have. We don’t even really have agreement on what the metrics are that we should be measuring and so in order to improve these programs to make sure that the media literacy and civic literacy programs that we offer to students and to adults to make sure these programs are working. We need to be evaluating them, figuring out what’s working and what doesn’t. So one of the projects that we have going on right now to help implement the research agenda that we outlined in the book is to think about what an evaluative framework looks like. What should we be evaluating these programs on? Which criteria? And what are the outcomes, the student outcomes or the adult outcomes should we be measuring when we conduct these evaluations.

HEFFNER: And so based on what you found, which organizations are engaged at a level to make inroads into the problem?

KAVANAGH: Well, we haven’t completed the project yet and our goal with this product isn’t necessarily to rank organizations. It’s more to set up this framework and get feedback on that framework and then begin implementing it,

HAFFNER: I understand, but our viewers will want to know not which nonprofit that they should go run and donate to, but from a general standpoint, what’s working because we host on The Open Mind leaders, really at the intersection of the research and the practice of solving the problem. Can you give us any preliminary assessment of what kinds of tools are working?

KAVANAGH: So, I can tell you the emerging consensus that seems to be coming from the field, and this comes from our research generally on this project, which is that to be effective media literacy education needs to be integrated into every class that a student takes…

HEFFNER: Across disciplines…

KAVANAGH: Across disciplines. So in math, teach students statistics so they can understand how to read an article with statistics or polling data in it. In science, teach students about the scientific issues that are policy relevant that they need to understand in order to engage in that debate. Teach civics and social studies education, use online sources in reading comprehension courses. This is a way that you can teach media literacy in a way that changes students’ mindset so that it’s a part of how they think and not something extra that they have to do.

HAFFNER: I was taught, when you Google, you can’t just accept what comes up. I was actually taught and this was many, many years ago, relatively. You have to discriminate and so I had librarians who said if you complete a search on Google, you have to add site SITE colon.edu, so that what is yielded are only educational or dot orgs. One of the problems you point to is that people don’t trust the edu or the orgs anymore. The digital piece is pretty noteworthy given that younger people and even millennials spend the majority of their days online. Are there specific efforts right now to explore the truth decay that is occurring virtually in cyber space that occupies such a disproportionate amount of our attention today?

KAVANAGH: We have a number of research efforts that are looking at the social media space. Some of them are focused more heavily on Russian disinformation and some of them are thinking about how can we improve the quality of online information without sacrificing the things that make social media great. Social media has many advantages. It gives people access to more information. It allows people to connect. It gives a way people a way to tap into communities that they might not have tapped into or otherwise. But there does seem to be a quality problem. And so one of the things we’re thinking about is what is the appropriate role for different actors within this space? The debate is often framed as government regulation or no government regulation, but in reality there’s many different policy levers that the government could employ to become involved in the issue without actually regulating. One question that we often ask is, is social media more like a newspaper or more like a utility or is it something completely different, because we have many different models for how the government can be involved in these different industries. Another question is what role should the tech companies be playing themselves either in identifying bots or regulating the use of bots or doing a better job policing their own information? So one of the things we’re doing is trying to lay out all these options in a very systematic way to help inform that debate.

HEFFNER: Michael, you envision a Manhattan Project to solve the problem, but at the same time it’s hard to conceive of, as Jennifer is alluding to the multiplicity of dimensions associated with it, that there is no clear cut answer. Which is troubling. But at the same time, there are those of us in the media who wants to say very directly, there are clear-cut answers when it comes to not investing in algorithms that are going to produce conspiracy theories online. Not enabling the monetization of hate speech, not promoting a culture that is going to deny the Holocaust, deny the KKK, deny racism. You know, do you see this as a Manhattan Project-like, exploration or is it something different?

RICH: Well, it’s going to be multifaceted and it’s going to be extended because the problem is complex and it’s taken a long time to get to this stage and some

HEFFNER: Folks thought that there was going to be a digital Pearl Harbor in that the lights were going to go off in that we were all going to be hacked. The, not our energy grids, but our capacity to use the Internet was going to be at one point just diminished because of cyber attacks. Instead, it’s something perhaps more malicious.

RICH: Well, I think this is malicious and it’s not the only malicious threat that we face, but it’s one that’s very difficult. And because of the linkage to the tenets of democracy, we regard it as very serious, which is why we started the research and why we’re committed to extending it until we have more answers.

HEFFNER: And what is your vision as president, as the CEO of RAND?

RICH: Well RAND was founded on the principle that the most complex policy problems can be and in fact should be solved on the basis of rigorous and objective analysis. And really that’s the same principle that’s animating our attack on this problem.

HEFFNER: And who are your allies in that effort?

RICH: Well, anybody interested in solving public problems. And by that I mean problems that affect a large number of people or involve a large amount of public resources. Those, when attacking those problems, facts matter just as much as they do when making business decisions or individual consumer decisions. And you know, we note that most people want to start with facts when they solve those kinds of problems: making an acquisition in a business or investing in a new product line, a company, start with the facts. And government officials, political representatives should do the same.

HEFFNER: Jennifer, how can your research translate so that we are all we’re of the problem and taking steps to resolve in our daily lives and our readership of newspapers or viewership of television? In these remaining minutes we have, what steps should our fellow citizens be taking here?

KAVANAGH: Well, I think that there our first book suggests a number of ways that individuals can act. The first way is to make sure that you stay civically engaged, that you understand your responsibility as a citizen of democracy, to evaluate information, to be in, to be an informed citizen and that’s a responsibility that every individual has and that means not just Googling something and accepting that it’s true, but questioning it and looking at many sources. It also means understanding that everybody is biased. Everybody has cognitive biases, and you need to challenge those biases. Engage with opinions that are different than your own. Be willing to have a difficult conversation with someone who has a different opinion. Those are the types of conversations that we should be having, to move this debate forward. So I think those are small things that everyone can do, and if everybody did them, we’d end up working towards a society in which facts were more valued.

HEFFNER: The problem, Michael, is that George Will is very much an alien to his own, or what was his, his movement or his party. And now there seems to be a partisan truth, but I would stipulate that when it comes to the facts and the policy surrounding the tariff debate and some of the genuine causes of concern, North Korea, that the Republicans on their own independent of this administration want to value facts just as much as Democrats, but we have a President who has exploited people’s lack of access to information, naïveté or there to use that word again, malicious intent to deny what we can collectively call the truth. Last word from you on how we rectify this so it’s not, there’s not a partisan truth, a blue truth, and a red truth.

RICH: Where you asked me how RAND was going to go about addressing that three ways.

One is to attack the causes of truth decay that we outlined in document in the book and we’re in progress.


RICH: Second is to demonstrate over and over again in all of our areas of policy research, national security, social economic policy, how, looking at facts, doing careful analysis, identifying uncertainties can help a decision maker make a better decision for the public. And third, we operate the largest PhD program in policy analysis and so we’re turning out policy innovators, policy implementers who can make decisions based on this approach to facts and analysis.

HEFFNER: And you do see that far more at the state and local level now inspired by your rigor in the policy arena. So there is hope to look towards, I think, innovators in states and local governments, even if not federally just yet, but

RICH: A reason for optimism.

HEFFNER: You’re right. Thank you for leaving us on that positive note. Appreciate your time today.

KAVANAGH: Thank you very much

RICH: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at Thirteen.org /OpenMind to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook at OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.