Poll after poll shows that Republicans and Democrats respond to the coronavirus crisis in very different ways. One of ABC News and Ipsos For example, last week it emerged that 65 percent of Republicans want the U.S. economy to reopen now, while only 6 percent of Democrats do. And their behavior, 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 apolitical as a virus?
A 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 an issue 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 has on the country’s coronavirus response, and whether this crisis could be the major shock that ultimately convinces Americans of the importance of objective facts.
She told me that the coronavirus crisis has so far been “not the unifying event we had hoped for, such as during the Great Depression or World War II,” largely because “different segments of society have been affected differently.”
Still, she remains hopeful that America’s “truth decay” will improve one day: “I don’t know what it takes, but I’m not ready to give up.”
Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, is below.
The project you’re working on is called “truth decay.” What does that mean, and how does it apply to the US coronavirus situation?
Truth decay includes four trends, all of which are relevant to what we are experiencing now.
The first is increasing disagreement about facts and data. An example in this context is the disagreement on the safety of vaccines and whether people will use them once they are created and distributed.
The second trend is the increasing blurring of the line between fact and opinion. This is much caused by commentary in cable news or social media, places where facts and opinions mix together and make it very difficult to determine what is real and what someone’s opinion or analysis is.
The third trend is the increasing volume of opinion compared to facts. You see a lot more opinions there. If you’re looking for facts, you have to work pretty hard to sort through all that commentary before you can actually find the raw facts you’re looking for.
Finally, the declining confidence in important institutions that provide information. We are now experiencing this with the government and the media.
All in all, people aren’t sure what’s true, what’s not, and they don’t even know where to turn to find the factual information they’re looking for.
Let’s focus on the government piece. Dr. For example, Anthony Fauci appears to be the man who now provides the media and the public with the necessary facts about the coronavirus. But because the President is undermining him and disagree with much of what he says, he has become somewhat of a polarizing figure. If you are a Trump fan you may not be a Fauci fan and vice versa.
How can the expertise of someone like Fauci or other public health experts be trusted by nature at such a crucial moment?
Confidence in experts has been declining for a while. It is not a new phenomenon during the coronavirus and it is part of the four trends I have outlined earlier.
But to go further, the ability to access information online gives us a strong feeling. It can also lead to some kind of self-confidence. Getting a medical degree is different from going to WebMD and reading about an illness, but sometimes people confuse the two. This has undermined authority and respect for expertise through the dissemination of information.
The second problem here is that people like to confirm their own beliefs. They don’t necessarily want to hear information that disagrees with their opinion, and it leads people to turn down information from experts that doesn’t fit their story.
And there now seem to be two stories of the coronavirus forming left and right. This can influence confidence in expertise. If the information provided by the experts and the government is portrayed differently in two different communities, you can end up with experts falling victim to that branched world view.
It seems that these trends and long-term problems come together at an inappropriate time. If there was ever a time when Americans would come to the same page, it would be the coronavirus epidemic.
Without experts who provide the facts, the government that supplies the rules, and a society that follows the right guidelines, the country’s response will be hampered.
These problems hinder the response of the American coronavirus in a number of ways.
Most importantly, people really aren’t sure who to trust. It is unclear whether they should trust that what government agencies say is correct, especially if different authorities come up with different information and recommendations at different times.
And when there are reversals in the policy, it sometimes reflects new data. This can be confusing if messages are not sent properly. If you’re not a scientist, it can be confusing to see scientists ‘recommendations change drastically or models’ recommendations change drastically if you don’t understand the underlying reasons.
What worries us is that as we move into a recovery phase, public confidence is probably already lost. Regardless of who will be in the White House in a year, in two or ten years, or in ten years, confidence must be restored.
So America’s recovery will start in a lower place as the government tries to get people to believe in its message again. This is of course important for public health, but also for economic reasons. The economic recovery depends on people who believe that the public health problem has been addressed. However, if that confidence remains low, the one in the White House will really, really be challenged to get that economy going again.
How do we solve this? We have only been in this crisis for a few months and all indications indicate that the coronavirus is a long-term problem. Yet we see people in camps polarizing about all kinds of things related to the pandemic, especially about how and when the country should be reopened.
Is there a way to get everyone on the same page quickly?
One piece is only the individual taking the initiative. It’s not time to be lazy and read the same news sources, or just one source, without challenging anyone’s perspective. That’s a change everyone can make now.
Another is to make sure you know where you are getting your information from. The sources I’m most interested in hearing about coronavirus are scientists and public health officials. They must have the most accurate information. While I can hear many other facts or opinions, they seem to be the authority to rely on this matter.
That is individual responsibility and the media side. What about the government?
That’s a much more challenging long-term problem.
We did something historical analysis to see if there was such mistrust in government and official institutions before. We see some of these periods in the past, such as the emergence of “yellow journalismAnd even in the 1920s and 1930s around the Great Depression.
One of the things that seem to take people out of their willingness to reject facts and expertise is an awareness of the consequences, especially in terms of getting sick or the economic consequences. It is possible that this will reaffirm for people who doubted that facts matter.
But there must be both a bottom-up and a top-down component for this. There must be a role for the government to provide us with consistent and clear messages.
I’ll be honest I’m skeptical, this moment will lead to only facts coming from above and an extra effort from below looking for facts. Tens of thousands of Americans have died, millions have fallen illand yet there seems to be no change. The United States is not rising at the moment.
Am I wrong to be pessimistic that the coronavirus – one of the most serious moments in modern history – is enough to get the US on track?
No, I don’t think you’re wrong to be worried or cynical. My whole fear was always that what reverses the decline of the truth is a kind of disaster. What I don’t know is how serious that disaster should be, but it seems that it should be enough.
But the virus didn’t affect everyone the same way, so it wasn’t the unifying event we hoped for, such as during the Great Depression or World War II. And not only has the virus affected different parts of the country in different ways, but different segments of society have also been affected differently.
Maybe we need more time?
Could be. Maybe we should be on the other side and look back at what happened. It may take more than a year of waiting in limbo without a vaccine to change people’s minds.
I don’t know what it takes, but I’m not ready to give up yet. However, I agree that it seems that it has not been enough so far.
So let me ask this directly: Does the US have a major truth problem? And if so, is it a problem on the fringes of American society or a national failure we’re going through?
I would say the latter because it gets through to basically every major problem we have, be it health, immigration, unemployment or poverty and homelessness. All of these things require facts and data, and they are all difficult problems that last more than two or four years. If we disagree on the underlying facts of the problem, we can never provide a lasting answer to actually overcome these challenges.
So for me, this is a national failure because it prevents us from moving forward on the major problems facing our country if we want to remain a prosperous country and maintain our position in the world.