‘Truth Decay’ Makes Facts Subjective and Polarization More Extreme … Disagreements over policy have always existed—but disagreements over basic facts have not. It’s a phenomenon that RAND CEO Michael Rich calls “truth decay.” –Rand Corporation blog
Michael Rich, head of Rand Corporation has come up with a new phrase to describe “fake news,“ calling it “truth decay.” The Rand Corporation is a leading military-industrial think tank with thousands of employees including scientists from around the world and domestic and international offices.
These reports are part of a larger criticism Rich is making, one having to do with a news trend in America that involves citizens not only selecting their opinions, but also the “facts” that support them.
It’s been on his mind since long before the election results brought the topic into sharp relief, he told the audience Friday night as part of a Politics Aside discussion called Erosion of Truth.
“This is to me really a dangerous and unusual time in history. Because Americans not only feel entitled to their opinions—and rightly so—but many of them, a growing number of them, frankly, across the political spectrum also feel entitled to cherry pick facts to support their opinion, or even commission up new ‘facts’ if necessary,” Rich said.
“…When everyone has their own facts, then nobody really has any facts at all.” Truth decay is a threat to a research organization like RAND, whose very existence is based on facts and objectivity, he said, but more importantly it’s a threat to society. It pushes political polarization to even greater extremes and prevents policymakers from reaching consensus on solutions to the nation’s biggest challenges.
As we can see, Rich is apparently worried that Americans inability to discern truth from fiction is making the US virtually ungovernable. He calls “polarization” the gravest threat facing America and his descriptive phrase, “truth decay” attempts to clarify the process.
If citizens cannot agree on facts than society’s political and business leaders cannot create common sense compromises that will buttress America as a unique success among nations.
Rich gave one example regarding the phase out chlorofluorocarbons — “organic compounds used as aerosol propellants, refrigerants, and solvents—that researchers said were depleting the ozone layer.”
While many did not believe that aerosol propellants were a danger to survival, RAND was able to use “best available evidence” to reframe the debate based on probabilities rather than certainty.
As a result, the Senate passed the treaty that banned CFCs. But today, thanks to the Internet, it is perfectly possible that RAND could not have presented “facts as probabilities” with such confidence because opponents would have used the Internet to gather opposing facts.
In fact, a quick search of the Internet turns up the following from the website “American Thinker,” as follows, here:
The global ban on CFCs was enacted based on a theory that continues to be challenged to this day. Chemists remain uncertain of the rate and extent of ozone depletion due to chlorine. In fact, the exact role of atmospheric CFCs remains uncertain. It appears that the primary catalyst of ozone depletion is atmospheric chlorine, and the most atmospheric chlorine by far is out-gassed from the oceans or emitted by volcanoes. Mankind’s contribution is miniscule (does this sound familiar?). Further, natural processes have by far the greatest influence on the ozone layer (e.g., solar influence).
Additionally, this article points out that DuPont’s patent on CFCs was lapsing when the campaign against CFCs was initiated. The inference is that DuPont wanted CFCs banned so that it could create profit-making alternatives.
This inference parallels (controversial) accusations that DuPont helped ban marijuana because a better procedure for hemp processing had just been developed at the time, one that would make hemp cloth competitive with DuPont products. The “decorticator” allowed for efficient extraction of hemp fiber from stalks.
The CFC debate and resolution, can be seen as an antecedent to the global warming movement itself. If Rand has not had the capability at the time to assert “probabilities,” the global warming crusade might have foundered before it began.
Spirited public debate is part of the political process, Rich concluded, but policy-making itself must be rooted in rigorous research and analysis of the facts.
The trouble is that ample evidence has accrued during this Internet era that even the most perceptive politicians may occasionally fail to select the correct fact pattern. Regardless, Rich seems to believe this is a risk worth taking. He is quoted as saying that the lack of an ”agreed-upon common set of facts [is] a recipe for [governmental] gridlock.”
Rich believes that the only solution is to return somehow to an environment where appropriate leaders are able to select accurate facts without fear of alternatives. Indeed, this may make for more efficient government. However, it is still unclear, despite Rich’s eloquence, whether promoting the primacy of governmental and industrial technocracy insures the validity of a given fact pattern. In fact, history seems to show, at least on occasion, that it does not.
Conclusion: Suppression of alternative fact-patterns may lead to government efficiency, but not necessarily government accuracy. And basing large government programs on inaccurate facts can lead to difficulties that too-often can turn into disasters. A factual monopoly is not always the same as a credible one.