Jennifer Kavanagh on Fact-Based Policymaking

‘Everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not to his own facts.” — Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Here’s a riddle for my listeners. Where would you turn if you wanted to find the most reliable information on Russian interference in American politics?

Do you go first to the billionaire-owned Washington Post or New York Times?

Perhaps you check your Twitter feed, browse YouTube, or scroll through Facebook, but if we’re to believe what we’re told, these site are infected with the very misinformation we’re trying to identify.

Would you rely on Google, which has been caught tampering with search results and developing a a censored search engine for the Chinese government?

Maybe you would use a fact-checking site, like the Pulitzer-prize winning Politifact, in spite of the inevitable bias that such an effort entails.

In academia, there is a “crisis of replicability,” in which the results of most papers can’t demonstrated a second time achieved with any reliability. And even the most trusted encyclopedias are written by scholar with a well-known Anglo-centric bias. 

If I hadn’t read Ilya Somin’s Democracy and Political Ignorance, I’d probably be spending all of my time at the library consulting primary sources.

Instead, most of us seem to cobble together our political opinions based on some combination of our upbringing, our friends’ opinions, and whatever news and analysis we can find that upholds those biases. Today, this process of “confirmation bias” happens faster than ever, and the effect of polarization on our politics is strong.

The RAND (Research ANd Development) Corporation has been worrying about problems like this for over 70 years. Jennifer Kavanagh, a senior political scientist at the DC-based research institute, recently penned a book with the organization’s President and CEO Michael D. Rich titled, Truth Decay: An Initial Exploration of the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life. The premise is simple but the solution is anything but. Facts and data rule everything around us, from military strategy to technology and business development. It is only in the area of politics that there is so little reliance and so little agreement on the facts — what they are, and what they imply for policy.

Kavanagh joined me to diagnose the growing disregard for facts in the civic discourse, and offer solutions to the widening gap in what “We the People” believe to be true about our public institutions.

This is a particularly difficult enterprise, since we all have biases and journalism has forgone its traditional role of truth-telling in favor of blatant editorializing. The left points to Fox News as the epitome of the problem, while the right points to Vox.com. Both sides convince themselves that the other side has a monopoly on mendacity, and we hunker down deeper in our intellectual echo chambers.

My Take:

I always do my best to feature a wide spectrum of opinion (this is the show of ideas, not attitude) and this show is no exception. Did I defend my own biases and preferred news sources to Kavanagh coherently? You be the judge.

The RAND Corporation exists to make policy suggestions, but I will probe whether government can do anything about this problem, or if its interference in the free market for information can only make things worse. In most industries, getting the facts wrong quickly leads entrepreneurs to go out of business. It is only in the realm of government that “policy entrepreneurs” (i.e., politicians) can remain wrong on basic matters of fact and continue to control the purse strings. 

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