“Truth decay” is a term I have been seeing pop up incrementally in the Homeland Security field, ever since the 2016 Election campaign. It is not a new term; nor is it a new phenomenon. Some level of it is usually present in our society and culture, though it seems to have its high and low tides. We are in a high tide period.
According to the Rand Corporation, we have been in a high tide period for the last two decades, it has dominated the United States in terms of civil, political, and national discourse. Truth decay is short hand for four related trends that make up a process. These trends are the following:
- Disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data
- Blurring of the line between opinion and fact
- Increase in the relative volume and influence of opinion and personal experience over fact
- Lowered trust in respected sources of factual information
According to Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael Rich, in their book Truth decay: An initial exploration of the diminishing role of facts and analysis in American public life, there are several causes of truth decay. In their book they focus on four causes:
- Characteristics of human cognitive processing such as cognitive bias
- Changes in the information system including social media and the 24-hour news cycle
- Competing demands on the education system that diminish time spent on media literacy and critical thinking
- Polarization, both political and demographic
What does that mean exactly? human cognitive processing is a fancy way of saying our ability to process information; it’s the way we think, and cognitive bias refers to how we feel about what we are thinking about, the assumptions and short-cuts we have about what we think. We can be either negatively or positively biased about different topics.
The changes in the information system is a very neutral way of saying how information is delivered to us, how much of it arrives at a time, how much we can absorb, how much we are willing to absorb. Another way of describing this second cause is the term “information overload”. We feel like we are drowning in too much information.
The third cause is a nice way of saying the educational system is not teaching children who grow up to be adults, about the strengths and weaknesses of media literacy. It is also not teaching children how, or why, they need to think critically for themselves. It teaches them to memorize, absorb, but not how to ask questions or think of logical conclusions.
The last alludes to the fact that marketing departments of every persuasion are actively trying to affect everything you think or feel about everything. They want to know your demographic characteristics so they can figure out how to get you to buy what they are selling. This includes political parties, and religious leaders and churches.
It is all about getting you to buy whatever it is they are selling you; that can be a product or a service, it can be ideas, it can be emotions. In the flood of everyone trying to sell you God, the American Dream, whatever narrative makes you feel better about your past, present, and future, the result of all of this is truth decay.
We are losing our reason; or ability to rationalize; to think for ourselves based on evidence because the evidence is being systemically destroyed, and the sources of the evidence are being systemically discredited, disenfranchised, and all but destroyed. Of course, the problem with this is that facts don’t stop being facts. Facts don’t change.
The only thing that does, is our ability to make decisions for ourselves; our self-determination is being destroyed.
Go here to download a free e-book copy of Truth decay: An initial exploration of the diminishing role of facts and analysis in American public life by Jennifer Kavanaugh and Michael D. Rich https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2314.html