4 out of 5 Epistemologists Recommend Critical Thinking to Fight Truth Decay

4 out of 5 Epistemologists Recommend Critical Thinking to Fight Truth Decay August 15, 2018

The RAND Corporation has a lengthy and detailed new report on what it labels “truth decay,” a phenomenon that has become the defining problem of the current era in American politics. Trump is the culmination of a long trend toward what Stephen Colbert once called “truthiness,” and RAND identifies the sources of the problem. But first, it defines truth decay as:

Truth Decay is defined as a set of four related trends: increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data; a blurring of the line between opinion and fact; an increase in the relative volume, and resulting influence, of opinion and personal experience over fact; and declining trust in formerly respected sources of factual information.

I’d go much further than that. I’d argue that we have gone far beyond this level of un-concern about the truth and into an era when outright lying about the facts has become so normalized that we grow weary of even talking about it. We just accept it as normal and expected in politics and justify it with tribalism — hey, the other side does it, so we have to do it too. But the dangers of accepting this as the new norm go far beyond the dangers of any particular lie, and beyond the danger of merely losing an election or two.

The report also points at what they think are the primary causes of the problem:

Four drivers, or causes, of Truth Decay are described: cognitive bias, changes in the information system (including the rise of social media and the 24-hour news cycle), competing demands on the educational system that limit its ability to keep pace with changes in the information system, and political, sociodemographic, and economic polarization. Various agents also amplify Truth Decay’s trends.

But I don’t think there’s much evidence that education is a solution to the problem because the problem doesn’t seem to be one of ignorance but of putting other priorities ahead of intellectual honesty (at least for newsmakers, as opposed to news consumers, who are indeed abysmally ignorant). But the whole report is worth reading because it contains many insights that I think are important.

I’ve said recently that what we’re seeing from Trump goes way beyond mere dishonesty and it isn’t just a war on democracy, it’s a war on reality itself. In Orwellian fashion, he expects people to believe everything he says, in its more recent variation, no matter what the evidence says and no matter how often he lies or contradicts himself. And the fact that about a third of the country will do so is dangerous far beyond the acceptance of any particular lie or contradiction. It is evidence and logic itself that is being torn down, brick by brick. And that should scare the hell out of us.

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