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Trust Needed to Overcome Dueling Fact Perceptions

David Mulder
Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” the word of the year, and many have since embraced the idea that we are living in a post-truth era. But Morgan Marietta, a political scientist at UMass Lowell and co-author of One Nation, Two Realities, says it’s not truth that’s disappeared. It’s a shared perception of facts and reality that’s declined in recent years.

“Reality is still there. Truth is there, if we can get to it,” Marietta said.  “Facts, unfortunately, are social approximations of truth.”

Those approximations are built on data and evidence, but also on shared trust in the institutions that produce and disseminate factual information. ‘The media’ is as fractured as the country at large and has lost a lot of public trust. Marietta says that even universities have lost their luster, as the idea that they are liberal bastions has degraded trust among conservatives.  

“It's not about a lack of actual information – data, facts, evidence – being there. That's not the problem,” Marietta asserted. “The problem is people don't listen to it, and they have these very deep psychological ways of only listening to what they want.”

Marietta says the problem is far more pervasive than a few high-profile issues like climate change or vaccine safety. He has a long list of questions and issues where a person’s deeply-held values (e.g. individualism versus collectivism) are the best indicator of what they say is true: the state of the economy, origins of sexual orientation, the role of racism in contemporary society, crime rates and rates of false convictions.

In some cases, facts are easily verifiable; in others, the truth may be almost unknowable. Either way, Marietta says those on both sides of the issue are disconcertingly certain that their version of the facts is the true one.

Marietta points to a whole host of factors that play into what Marietta and co-author David Barker have dubbed “dueling fact perceptions” – religion, culture, geography, wealth.

“We started collecting data on this in 2013 and up to 2017,” Marietta said. “And one of the huge points we want to make is that this really is not a Trump phenomenon.”

While the 2016 election may have highlighted and exacerbated the problem, Marietta says this is an “unavoidable and long-term issue.”

It’s also difficult to solve, and Marietta says the most commonly prescribed solutions – fact-checking and education – miss the mark. Fact-checking may hold public figures accountable, but it doesn’t change minds.

“Conservatives reject liberal fact-checking. Liberals reject a conservative conclusion on fact-checking,” Marietta said. “Fact-checking really, simply doesn't work.”

As for education, it can actually make the problem worse.

“The fascinating thing about what education does is it provides a kind of arrogance,” Marietta explained. “It also provides this set of skills, and if people are more skilled and more cognitively developed, what they can do is when they are asking these questions about the world they're much better at attaching their values to their perceptions.”

Marietta says that after years of studying the problem, the only solution he sees is to rebuild trust in public institutions – and each other.

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Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.