Truth Decay – Book Review

Written by Argumentful

When looking up the book Truth Decay by Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich on Amazon, we stumbled upon the following comment from a person who had purchased the paperback version:

Truth Decay Amazon comment

A person buying a book on Truth Decay doesn’t like that it uses too many attributions and seven people who found this feedback helpful…

We truly enjoyed this book and would like to highlight a few aspects and how they relate to many of the objectives of the Argumentful tool. In fact, the authors themselves propose harnessing new technologies as a research route to champion facts and analysis over opinion and experience (Table 6.4, section 4.E). Of course, we agree with the book’s conclusion that Truth Decay is driven by a complex system of inter-dependencies between various factors, which is why one solution such as our tool will only work if used in conjunction with other interventions.

The following notes are in no way a summary. Actually, the book itself provides a very good summary in its preface and one of the authors actually tweeted a thread with the key points they’re making.

Blurring of lines between fact and opinion as a driver of Truth Decay

The authors cite several studies to justify the finding that people nowadays find it hard to recognise opinions from facts. On page 29 they cite the study from Wineburg et al (2016) which found that students were unable to distinguish true stories from false ones, identify ads or biased content. On page 30 they also invoke a controversial topic, immigration, and rightfully point out that many people don’t even realise that immigration data exists and, if critical thinking was applied, discussions would start from that point rather than personal experience or anecdotal evidence.

Although it’s not referenced in the book but very relevant for the UK, there was a study about EU immigration from Oxford Exconomics which concluded that EU migrants contribute £2,300 more per year to the public purse than they take out in benefits. The leave campaign failed to mention or to even take such data into consideration which seems to have contributed to Truth Decay in the exact ways cited by the authors.

How Argumentful helps: The tags applied to sources establish a relative ranking that favours primary research over opinions. Opinions are rated very low. Expert opinion is less than 50%. Non-expert or expert in a wrong domain is rated even lower. Argumentful assigns the highest confidence to peer-reviewed meta-analysis or randomised control trial studies.

Media as a cause for Truth Decay

Like any business, media institutions are driven largely by profit. As outlets now need to meet the public’s expectation of having a 24 hours news cycle, the quality has decreased in several ways:

  • sensational news is prefered
  • biased reports are disseminated without mentioning conflict of interest (e.g. political presssure)
  • focus is placed on debates rather than investigative journalism to reduce cost

As a nice aside: there was a day, 18 April 1930, when the BBC reported in the evening news that they didn’t have any news for the day so they played piano music for the rest of the 15 minute segment.

How Argumentful helps: one post we’ll be publishing shortly is how recent news articles would look like as argument maps and, more generally, how Argumentful can be used as a tool to constructively critique content. Apart from not clearly answering the key 5W+H questions (what, when, where, who, why + how), many articles don’t even provide a link to the primary information although such a link exists and is in a fact trustworthy.

The Educational system as a driver for Truth Decay

The authors are very considerate and diplomatically refer to the problems the educational system is facing as “competing demands”, which, granted, sounds better than saying they’re skint. On page 142, they mention that lack of money and time were cited as reasons for not implementing measures to teach civics or critical thinking. They cite on page 146 a 2012 survey which found that only half of the teachers taught students how to use tables, charts or graphs to represent or analyse data. Another factor is the focus on test results combined with tests aimed at memorising and repetition rather than critical analysis (page 148). All this makes students less equipped to navigate the increasingly complex and untrustworthy media (page 138). The authors also references studies (page 150) which show that critical thinking is best taught together with other subjects rather than stand-alone, so the best results would be achieved if teachers from related subjects like maths or history augmented their study books.

How Argumentful helps: One of the things we’re aiming to do with this blog is to apply critical thinking to real-life situations. We’ve already posted about food and a tutorial about getting to primary sources like weather data. We have many more nice topics in the pipeline so watch this space.

Academia as a driver of Truth Decay

The authors mention several ways in which researches nourish Truth Decay rather than fighting it pg 178. Some key ways are wrongful interpretation of data (e.g. overfitting of statistical models), no publishing negative findings, bias caused by corporate or political sponsorship.

How Argumentful helps: We acknowledge that relying on studies is not bulletproof because of the cited reasons. However, there are many good things:

  • link is provided – can automatically check if study retracted (upcoming feature)
  • increased confidence for peer-reviewed studies
  • more confidence in multiple studies (with replicated results) that reach similar conclusions
  • tags for funding conflict (e.g. food studies funded by meat or dairy industries)
  • type of studies
  • clearly linking study to conclusion it supports which allows a what-if analysis to see how 0% trust in that study would impact the argumentation.

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