Nav: Home

Declining trust in facts, institutions imposes real-world costs on US society, RAND report finds

January 16, 2018

Americans' reliance on facts to discuss public issues has declined significantly in the past two decades, leading to political paralysis and collapse of civil discourse, according to a RAND Corporation report.

This phenomenon, referred to as "Truth Decay," is defined by increasing disagreement about facts, a blurring between opinion and fact, an increase in the relative volume of opinion and personal experience over fact, and declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information.

While there is evidence of similar phenomena in earlier eras in U.S. history, the current manifestation of Truth Decay is exacerbated by changes in the ways Americans consume information - particularly via social media and cable news. Other influences that may make Truth Decay more intense today include political, economic and social polarization that segment and divide the citizenry, the study finds.

These factors lead to Truth Decay's damaging consequences, such as political paralysis and uncertainty in national policy, which incur real costs. The government shutdown of 2013, which lasted 16 days, resulted in a $20 billion loss to the U.S. economy, according to estimates cited in the study.

In exploring past periods in U.S. history that resemble Truth Decay, researchers focused on three with similar hallmarks: the 1880s-1890s (rapid industrialization and economic inequality), 1920s-1930s (mistrust of banks and financial institutions) and 1960s-1970s (social upheaval, Vietnam War). Improved government transparency backed by changes in policy and a resurgence of responsible, investigative journalism marked the ends of some of these times, researchers found.

"Although we see some evidence that previous eras also experienced a decline in trust in institutions, this trend seems to be more pronounced now than in the past," said Michael D. Rich, co-author of the report and president and CEO of the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. "Today we see that lack of trust across many more pillars of society - in government, media and financial institutions - and a far lower absolute level of trust in these institutions than before."

Researchers also identify Truth Decay's four causes: humans' natural mental habits, changes in the American information ecosystem, competing demands on the educational system that limit its ability to keep up with changes in that information ecosystem, and political, sociodemographic and economic polarization.

The study cites the immigration debate as a present-day example of the erosion of civil discourse. Without agreement on a common set of facts about the number of immigrants entering the U.S., their economic costs and contributions, and the amount of crime they do or do not commit, it becomes difficult to have important policy debates and come to policy solutions.

"Increasingly, important policy debates are as likely to hinge on opinion or anecdote as they are on objective facts or rigorous analysis," said RAND political scientist and report co-author Jennifer Kavanagh. "However, policy decisions made mostly on the basis of opinion or anecdote - when more rigorous information is available or can be developed - can have deleterious effects on American democracy."

Funding for the report, "Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life," was provided by gifts from RAND supporters and income from operations.

"One of the reasons for tackling Truth Decay is that its four constituent trends might imperil RAND's mission of helping to improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis," Rich said. "Because we believe in and are committed to this mission, we hope that exploring Truth Decay and understanding its drivers and consequences will allow us to reduce any negative effects that these changes could have at the national and individual levels while continuing to pursue our institutional objectives."

RAND researchers are continuing to analyze three Truth Decay-related trends in American life: the changing mix of opinion and objective reporting in journalism, the decline in public trust in major institutions, and initiatives to improve media literacy in light of "fake news."

"We urge individuals and organizations to join with us in promoting the need for facts, data and analysis in civic and political discourse - and in American public life," Rich said. "The challenge posed by Truth Decay is great, but the stakes are too high to permit inaction."

RAND Corporation

Related Research Articles:

More Research News and Research Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Warped Reality
False information on the internet makes it harder and harder to know what's true, and the consequences have been devastating. This hour, TED speakers explore ideas around technology and deception. Guests include law professor Danielle Citron, journalist Andrew Marantz, and computer scientist Joy Buolamwini.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#576 Science Communication in Creative Places
When you think of science communication, you might think of TED talks or museum talks or video talks, or... people giving lectures. It's a lot of people talking. But there's more to sci comm than that. This week host Bethany Brookshire talks to three people who have looked at science communication in places you might not expect it. We'll speak with Mauna Dasari, a graduate student at Notre Dame, about making mammals into a March Madness match. We'll talk with Sarah Garner, director of the Pathologists Assistant Program at Tulane University School of Medicine, who takes pathology instruction out of...
Now Playing: Radiolab

How to Win Friends and Influence Baboons
Baboon troops. We all know they're hierarchical. There's the big brutish alpha male who rules with a hairy iron fist, and then there's everybody else. Which is what Meg Crofoot thought too, before she used GPS collars to track the movements of a troop of baboons for a whole month. What she and her team learned from this data gave them a whole new understanding of baboon troop dynamics, and, moment to moment, who really has the power.  This episode was reported and produced by Annie McEwen. Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at