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How “truth decay” is harming America’s coronavirus recovery

Americans can’t agree on basic facts. It’s a big threat to coronavirus recovery.

A person’s head in a gas mask and camouflage hood in front of an American flag.
Demonstrators hold a rally in front of the Michigan state capital building to protest the governor’s stay-at-home order on May 14 in Lansing, Michigan.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Poll after poll shows that Republicans and Democrats are responding to the coronavirus crisis in starkly different ways. One from ABC News and Ipsos last week, for example, showed that 65 percent of Republicans want the American economy to reopen right now, while only 6 percent of Democrats do. And their behaviors, ranging from buying extra food to wearing masks, seem to fall along partisan lines.

How is it possible that Americans are polarized along party lines even on something as seemingly apolitical as a virus?

One big reason is what Jennifer Kavanagh, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation, calls “truth decay.” Simply put, Americans no longer rely on facts and data as much as they should. That’s a problem at any time, but it’s especially troubling during a pandemic, when people need the best, most reliable information to stay safe.

I called Kavanagh to talk to her about what her research shows about the causes of truth decay, the impact it’s having on the country’s coronavirus response, and whether this crisis could be the big jolt that finally convinces Americans of the importance of objective facts.

She told me that, so far, the coronavirus crisis “hasn’t been the unifying event we might have hoped for like during the Great Depression or World War II,” in large part because “different segments of society have been differently affected.”

Yet she remains hopeful that America’s “truth decay” will one day improve: “I don’t know what it’ll take, but I’m not willing to give up yet.”

Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.

Alex Ward

The project you work on is called “truth decay.” What does that actually mean, and how does that apply to America’s coronavirus situation?

Jennifer Kavanagh

Truth decay encompasses four trends, each of which is relevant to what we’re experiencing now.

The first is increasing disagreement about facts and data. An example in this context would be the disagreement about the safety of vaccines and whether people will take them once they’re made and distributed.

The second trend is the increased blurring of the line between fact and opinion. This is caused a lot by commentary in cable news or social media, places where facts and opinion are mixed together and make it really hard to determine what’s real and what’s someone’s opinion or analysis.

The third trend is the increasing volume of opinion compared to fact. You’re just seeing a lot more opinion out there. If you’re looking for facts, you have to work pretty hard to dig through all that commentary before you can actually find the raw facts you might be looking for.

Finally, declining trust in key institutions that provide information. We’re experiencing this now with the government and the media.

Put together, people are not sure what’s true what’s not, and they don’t even really know where to turn to find factual information they’re looking for.

Alex Ward

Let’s focus on the government piece. Dr. Anthony Fauci, for example, seems to be the guy providing the media and the public with the necessary facts about the coronavirus right now. But because the president undercuts him and disagrees with a lot of what he says, he’s become somewhat of a polarizing figure. If you’re a Trump fan, you might not be a Fauci fan, and vice versa.

At such a crucial time, how is the expertise of someone like Fauci or other public health experts not innately trusted?

Jennifer Kavanagh

Trust in experts has been on the decline for a while. It’s not a new phenomenon during the coronavirus, and it’s part of the four trends I laid out earlier.

But to go further, the ability to access any information online makes us feel empowered. It can also lead to a kind of overconfidence. Getting a medical degree is different from going on WebMD and reading about an illness, but sometimes people conflate the two. The authority and the respect for expertise, then, have been undermined by the diffusion of information.

The second issue here is that people like to confirm their own beliefs. They don’t necessarily want to hear information that disagrees with their views, and it leads people to reject information from experts that doesn’t fit their narrative.

And there now seem to be two narratives of the coronavirus forming on the left and right. That can have an effect on trust in expertise. If the information provided by the experts and by the government ends up being portrayed in different ways in two different communities, you can end up with experts becoming a casualty of that bifurcated view of the world.

Alex Ward

It seems like these trends and long-term problems have converged at a really inopportune time. If there were ever a time for Americans to get on the same page, the coronavirus epidemic would be it.

Without experts providing the facts, the government providing the rules, and a society abiding by the right guidelines, the country’s response is going to be hindered.

Jennifer Kavanagh

These problems definitely hinder America’s coronavirus response in a couple of ways.

The most important is that people are really uncertain of who to trust. It’s unclear if they should trust that what government agencies say is accurate, especially if different agencies come out with different information and recommendations at different times.

And when there are reversals in policy, they sometimes reflect new data. That can be confusing if it’s not messaged properly. If you aren’t a scientist, then seeing the recommendations of scientists change dramatically or the recommendations of models change dramatically can be disconcerting if you don’t understand the underlying reasons.

What’s worrying is that as we transition into a recovery phase, the public’s trust has likely already been lost. Regardless of who’s in the White House a year from now, two years from now, or 10 years from now, that trust has to be rebuilt.

America’s recovery will thus start from a lower place as government tries to get people believing in its message again. That matters for public health reasons, of course, but also for economic reasons. The economic recovery depends on people believing that the public health issue has been addressed. If that trust remains low, though, then whoever is in the White House is going to be really, really challenged in terms of getting that economy restarted.

Alex Ward

How do we solve this? We’re only a few months into this crisis, and all indications point to the coronavirus being a long-term problem. Yet we’re seeing people polarize into camps about all kinds of things related to the pandemic, most prominently over how and when to reopen the country.

Is there a way to get everyone on the same page anytime soon?

President Donald Trump looks on he as meets with Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum in the Cabinet Room of the White House on May 13 in Washington, DC.
Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

Jennifer Kavanagh

One piece is just the individual taking the initiative. It’s not a time to be lazy and read the same news sources, or just one source, without challenging one’s perspective. That’s a change anyone can make right now.

Another is making sure you know where you’re getting your information from. The sources that I’m most interested in hearing from about coronavirus are scientists and public health officials. They’re the ones who should have the most accurate information. While I may hear lots of other facts or opinions, they seem to be the authority to trust on this issue.

Alex Ward

That’s the individual responsibility and media side. What about the government side?

Jennifer Kavanagh

That’s a much more challenging, long-term problem.

We did some historical analysis to see whether such distrust in government and official institutions existed before. We see some periods like this in the past, such as the rise of “yellow journalism,” and even in the 1920s and ’30s around the Great Depression.

One of the things that seems to snap people out of the willingness to reject facts and expertise is a realization of the consequences, especially in terms of people getting sick or the economic fallout. It’s possible that will reaffirm for people who were doubting that facts do matter.

But there has to be both a bottom-up and a top-down component to that. There has to be a role for the government to be providing us consistent and clear messaging.

Alex Ward

I’ll be honest that I’m skeptical this moment will lead to only facts coming from the top and an extra effort from the bottom to seek facts. Tens of thousands of Americans have died, millions have fallen ill, and yet there doesn’t seem to be a change. The US isn’t rising to the moment.

Am I wrong to feel pessimistic that the coronavirus — one of the most severe moments in modern history — is enough to get the US on the right track?

Jennifer Kavanagh

No, I don’t think you’re wrong to be worried or cynical. My fear all along has been that what reverses truth decay is some kind of disaster. What I don’t know is how severe that disaster would have to be, but it seems like this should be enough.

But the virus hasn’t impacted everyone the same way, so it hasn’t been the unifying event we might have hoped for like during the Great Depression or World War II. And not only has the virus hit different parts of the country in different ways, but different segments of the society have been differently affected.

Alex Ward

Maybe we need more time?

Jennifer Kavanagh

Maybe. Maybe we need to be on the other side of this and look back on what happened. Maybe it’ll take waiting in limbo for over a year without a vaccine to change people’s minds.

I don’t know what it’ll take, but I’m not willing to give up yet. I would agree with you, though, that thus far it doesn’t seem to have been enough.

Alex Ward

So let me ask this directly: Does the US have a major truth problem? And if so, is it a problem at the margins of American society or a national failure we’re living through?

Jennifer Kavanagh

I would say the latter because it’s bleeding through to basically every major issue we have, whether it’s health care, immigration, unemployment, or poverty and homelessness. All these things require facts and data to handle, and they’re all hard problems that take more than two or four years to solve. If we don’t have agreement on the underlying facts of the issue, we can never mount a sustained response to actually overcome these challenges.

So, to me, this is a national failure because it prevents us from making progress on the big issues that our country needs to confront if we want to continue being a prosperous nation and maintain the position we have in the world.

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