Skip to content

The United States suffers from a case of “truth decay’’ that degrades the nation’s political and civil discourse and decision making. America’s schools have contributed to the infection – and should play a key role in its alleviation.

“Truth Decay’’ is the title of a 324-page report published last week by the RAND Corporation, the nonpartisan, mega-think tank based in California. It explores the causes and costs of the declining trust in facts and institutions over the past two decades.

In today’s America, says the report, “disagreement over facts appears to be greater than ever. Opinions are crowding out and overwhelming facts in the media, and Americans are placing less faith in institutions that were once-trusted sources of information. This shift away from facts and data in political debate and policy decisions has far-reaching implications: It erodes civil discourse; weakens key institutions; and imposes economic, diplomatic, and cultural costs.”

The authors of the report – RAND president Michael D. Rich and political scientist Jennifer Kavanagh – define “four main drivers of Truth Decay”:

  • The tendency of people to seek information that confirms their own sentiments.
  • The rise of social media and 24-hour news coverage that permits misinformation and disinformation to spread quickly and widely.
  • A polarized society in which insular communities arise with their own worldview.
  • An education system, under stress from competing demands and fiscal constraints, that cannot keep pace with media dynamics

There is, the report says, a “gap between the rapidly evolving challenges of the new information system and the curricula offered to students in most public schools.” 

“This gap drives and perpetuates Truth Decay by contributing centrally to the development of a citizenry that is susceptible to consuming and disseminating disinformation, misinformation and information that blurs the line between fact and opinion,’’ says the report, which focuses on K-12 schools but also suggests a need for more civic and media literacy education of college students and adults.

The RAND scholars decry the “crowding out of civics education and the reduced time spent on training students in critical-thinking skills.” Still, they acknowledge recent efforts to rejuvenate social studies and civics classes— in particular, pointing to the Common Core State Standards as a movement toward requiring digital and media literacy and infusing critical-thinking skills into curricula.

“In suggesting that school curricula need a greater focus on civics, media literacy and critical thinking,’’ say the authors, “we understand that placing new demands on an already-overburdened educational system could create still more challenges for teachers and administrators.’’ They recommend integrating this focus into existing courses and into extracurricular activities and community service programs.

As the report indicates, “truth decay’’ can infect not only policymakers but also voters and not only national but also state-level decision making. Legislation often rests more on anecdotes, talking points and personal pre-dispositions than on a foundation of mutually recognized facts. There remains plenty of room for debate, in education and other policy arenas, on how to respond to the facts.

Civics education, says the report, “can be effective in increasing students’ political knowledge and awareness, especially when that training encourages students to openly question and discuss ideas, including current and controversial events. Voters with greater political understanding are likely to base their vote on national interests rather than personal ones and to be more open-minded to diverse ideas.’’

Here’s a link to the full report and summaries.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and the Vice Chairman of EducationNC.