School & District Management

‘Truth Decay’ in American Society: What Is Schools’ Role?

By Stephen Sawchuk — January 16, 2018 5 min read
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“Fake news,” the “post-truth” era, “alternative facts.”

As the line between objective facts and opinion grows increasingly blurred, more and more researchers are raising alarm bells about what these terms could mean for society, including: the erosion of civil discourse, an increasingly polarized Congress, and an inability to solve complex public policy problems.

Now, the Santa Monica, Calif.-based Rand Corporation, a public policy research firm, has laid out an ambitious agenda for understanding this phenomenon and for trying to combat it. In a wide-ranging report, it tries to lay out a common definition and framework for understanding what it calls “truth decay.” Then, it outlines an extensive research agenda that cuts across many disciplines—including K-12 education.

“The consequences of truth decay aren’t just theoretical, they have real consequences on people’s lives—great uncertainty, possible government shudowns—and that makes it even more imperative that we work to address the problem,” said Jennifer Kavanagh, a political scientist at Rand and one of the report’s authors. “The first step is to better understand it and collect the data we don’t have.”

What Is Truth Decay?

The report and research agenda were shaped by interviews with 170 people, most of them Rand researchers in a variety of social science fields, and by a review of more than 250 scholarly articles and books on the media, information consumption, cognitive science, education, and political science.

Truth decay, the report postulates, includes four interrelated phenomena: Increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data; a blurring of the line between fact and opinion; the increasing relative volume (and influence of) opinion and personal anecdote over fact; and declining trust in formerly respected sources of information. Interestingly, it also sees some components, such as the blurring of fact and opinion, as having historical precedent—including the rise of “yellow journalism” in the 1890s and the social upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, culminating in the Watergate scandal.

But other elements, notably the rapid changes in the media environment and the rejection of facts, are new, it says.

The report points to four interrelated “drivers” of truth decay:

  • Changes in the information system: The rise in the 24-hour news cycle, increasingly partisan outlets, and the ease and ability of information flow via social media.
  • Characteristics of cognitive processing: How individuals’ cognitive processing, particularly bias, interacts with this increasing volume of information and polarization and leave people susceptible to misinformation.
  • Political, sociodemographic, and economic polarization: The increasing tendency of Americans to self-segregate into camps has led to insular beliefs and narratives and a lack of awareness of conflicting perspectives.
  • And finally, it identifies the competing demands on the education system, which has reduced efforts to teach students critical thinking skills, media literacy, and civics.

An Education ‘Gap’

The last is, of course, of particular interest to Education Week readers. The Rand researchers say that, between budgetary issues, an increasing number of subjects to cover, and policy focus on reading and math, schools have had a hard time keeping up with the changes in the media landscape, and in helping students develop the ability to become sophisticated consumers of news and to think analytically about what they read.

“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. Specifically, without the training that they need to carefully evaluate sources, to identify and check their own biases, and to separate opinion and fact, students matriculating out of schools that teach kindergarten through 12th grade ... may be highly vulnerable to false and misleading information and easy targets for intentional disinformation campaigns and propaganda,” the report says.

The report doesn’t cast blame, but rather notes that institutions like public schools are often slow to adapt when change, like that in the media landscape, is occurring so rapidly. And there’s been unevenness in efforts already underway that could potentially counteract truth decay: The Common Core State Standards, at one point adopted by 46 states, put an emphasis on information literacy, but their implementation has varied, it says.

Similarly, there have been several efforts to introduce media literacy into the curriculum, but most programs of this nature haven’t yet been studied empirically. Finally, data are limited on how much civics education students receive, how high quality it is, and whether it improves students’ civic participation.

it’s difficult to know even how much the average student knows about statistics—a topic that’s often misrepresented and misunderstood in public discourse.

A Research Agenda

In its final section, the report lays out a massive research agenda, organized around four themes: understanding the historical analogues for truth decay; researching data and trends; understanding the mechanisms and processes of truth decay; and developing solutions and responses. For education, many of the research questions fall into the second category, including these:

  • How have the quality and quantity of civics education in schools, colleges, and universities changed over time?
  • How have the quality and quantity of civics education outreach for adults changed over time?
  • How have the quality and quantity of training in critical thinking changed over time?
  • How do the quality and quantity of civics education and of training in critical thinking vary across states? Across different demographic groups? Across types of schools?
  • How have the critical-thinking skills of students changed over time?
  • How have youth and adult political awareness and media literacy changed over time?

RAND itself plans to explore some of these topics on its own, but most of all, they want other researchers to join in helping them answer these and other questions.

“We don’t think the research agenda is something Rand can do on its own; part of the end of the report is an invitation for other interested stakeholders, and researchers, and educators, and journalists to get involved,” Kavanagh said. “Without a really broad effort that spans organizations, this will be an incredibly difficult problem to overcome.”

Image: Rand’s concept of truth decay, its causes, and its consequences.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.