As a Chicago-area teacher, Kristin O’Meara was no stranger to the childhood vaccines that most students got before attending school. But her three children were.
O’Meara’s children were among a small percentage of American kids who haven’t received the usual childhood vaccines, largely because of their parents’ unfounded fear that the shots could cause autism. Then her entire family contracted rotavirus, which can be prevented by vaccination.
“The guilt was overwhelming,” O’Meara says today of watching her 5-year-old daughter and 3-year-old twins suffer more than a week of horrible stomach pain and diarrhea. Originally driven by misinformation and the influence of people around her, O’Meara’s views began to shift after the rotavirus outbreak. Today, all three children have received their childhood vaccines.
Photo courtesy of Kristin O’Meara
O’Meara’s experience with vaccines echoes a phenomenon affecting people across the political spectrum on many issues. Increasingly, we selectively gather information, have difficulty identifying facts in a sea of opinion, and don’t trust experts. RAND researchers call this phenomenon “Truth Decay” and warn that our growing inability to agree on basic facts imperils our democracy.
“This inability to agree on an established set of facts or to take into account expert analysis is as serious a threat to the United States as any adversary or terrorist group in the world today,” said RAND CEO Michael D. Rich.
Divided on the Issues
Vaccines have virtually eradicated diseases like smallpox, polio, and measles in the United States. Yet polling shows that fewer people support vaccinating children today than a decade ago. A similar divide exists on many other topics: Violent crime has been steadily decreasing, but many people believe the opposite. More Mexican immigrants are leaving the U.S. than are coming in, yet the perception that they’re streaming into the U.S. is used to fuel anti-immigration policies.
Americans have always held opposing opinions, but for perhaps the first time in history, we can’t agree on the very terms of our public debates. This isn’t the nation’s first experience with Truth Decay, but it seems the most intense. Rich and political scientist Jennifer Kavanagh have researched the topic to understand why Truth Decay is on the rise and how to reverse the trend.
What Is Truth Decay, and Why Does It Matter?
RAND researchers found that Truth Decay is having severe impacts on America’s body politic. Since the current trend began in the early 2000s, we’ve seen an erosion in civil discourse, political paralysis in state and federal government, and uncertainty in national policy. Alarmingly, individual Americans are disengaging from political and civic life.
“Politics drift into dysfunction when debate isn’t based on shared facts,” Kavanagh said. “In government, this can lead to delayed decisions, deferred economic investment, and less diplomatic credibility. And we’re seeing that play out today.”
Politics drift into dysfunction when debate isn’t based on shared facts.
The nation has seen Truth Decay before. Those times were marked by yellow journalism in the 1880s–1890s, tabloid journalism and radio in the 1920s–1930s, and the subjective “New Journalism” that took hold during the Vietnam War. The researchers found that, in each of these periods, opinion began to overwhelm facts, the line between fact and opinion blurred, and the public had less trust in institutions. However, previous eras do not appear to have experienced the same increasing disagreement about objective facts. This is one of the hallmarks of Truth Decay, and one of the reasons today’s Truth Decay is so virulent.
Belief in Science—but Not Vaccines
While parents don’t vaccinate for many inaccurate reasons—for instance, that vaccines still contain mercury or that the multiple vaccines overload children’s immune systems—O’Meara’s concern was the supposed link to autism. Her beliefs were largely driven by misinformation and perpetuated by the people around her. “I had my mom’s support and a close friend’s support, so I was in a little bit of a bubble,” she said.
By the time she had her first child in 2010, a 1998 study by Andrew Wakefield that linked vaccines to autism had already been debunked and had just been retracted by the journal that published it. O’Meara decided to seek out information specifically aimed at supporting the anti-vaccines perspective because “of course mainstream medicine would say they were safe.”
O’Meara read several books written by doctors, though she now points out that none of them was a practicing pediatrician. She also read Wakefield’s study and became convinced that he was being unfairly maligned and that the medical community was “out to get him.” Past mistakes by establishment medical institutions also loomed large, she said, citing thalidomide and Vioxx as examples of approved drugs that had dangerous side effects.
Screenshot from Brian Deer’s 2004 film “MMR: What They Didn’t Tell You”
O’Meara now recognizes how her own cognitive bias—a tendency to resist facts that countered her beliefs—led her to what she now sees as a frustrating inconsistency in her views about science.
“Most of the time I’m happy with the brain I was born with; it’s very rational,” she said. “To have that same brain somehow rationalize not vaccinating my children, it was really hard for me.”
How Truth Decay Happens
O’Meara’s experience in part reflects how Truth Decay occurs. One factor is that Americans increasingly live in bubbles among people who are like themselves politically and economically. Also, the rise of 24-hour news coverage and social media have changed the news environment—and not always for the better. Opinion is an inexpensive way to fill the 24-hour news cycle, and misinformation gets disseminated on social media, where algorithms guide you toward stories and information that confirm your expectations and beliefs.
Our own brains tend to keep us in our bubble, since cognitive bias attracts people to facts that support their position. And there’s no sign that the digital natives coming up through the nation’s schools will be any more media-savvy than their elders. Competing demands leave educators with less time to teach civics, media literacy, and critical thinking.
Finally, people, organizations, or foreign agents can also intentionally or unintentionally amplify the effects of Truth Decay for their own political or economic gain.
The way vaccines were portrayed as villains is an example of the damage done by Truth Decay.
The way that vaccines were portrayed as villains is a prime example of the damage done by Truth Decay. In the 1950s, people clamored to get the new vaccines at a time when polio, smallpox, measles, and other diseases were crippling and killing people around the world. In 1998, the Lancet published Wakefield’s autism study and then retracted it in 2010 after journalists pointed out his conflicts of interest and editors found falsifications in the manuscript. By 2015, support for vaccinating children had dropped by 10 percent overall compared with 2001—and significantly more among younger parents on both sides of the political spectrum. The median coverage rate for one of the most common vaccines—the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine known as MMR—varies widely by state, from a low of 87.1 percent in Colorado to a high of 99.4 percent in Maryland and Mississippi.
A Respected Friend and a Change of Heart
Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
When her twins were born, O’Meara, already the mother of a daughter, began having concerns about not vaccinating them. She worried about her children—and her integrity: If one child got infected, the others would, too. Was she expecting others to vaccinate so her kids would be safe?
After her family contracted rotavirus, additional events brought her to rethink her position. A California measles outbreak traced to Disneyland occurred a few months later, and her husband began questioning why the children weren’t vaccinated. In addition, her oldest child’s school began requiring a medical reason to exempt a student from the required vaccinations.
Perhaps the most important influence may have been a colleague—a high school science teacher—whom O’Meara admired and respected.
“When I told her my stance on vaccines, she said, ‘You know that makes me angry that someone as smart as you would make that decision.’ She reacted decisively—but kindly,” O’Meara said. “I think that’s probably one of the big missing pieces in changing people’s minds is there has to be someone in your life who you respect who disagrees with you. An influencer who will calmly say, ‘I think you’ve made an error in your logic there.’”
O’Meara decided to do her research again—but this time, she looked specifically for information that supported vaccines. “My mistake early on was that I didn’t go deeper. There’s a common laundry list of anti-vaccine rationales. What I didn’t do and have done since is read the rebuttals from doctors or medical organizations that dissect that laundry list and point out why every single one of those points is mistaken.”
How Did Truth Decay End in the Past?
Although the vaccination battle isn’t over, states like California, Mississippi, and West Virginia are making it more difficult for students to get an exemption from the vaccinations that schools require for enrollment, and parent refusals to vaccinate appear to be leveling off in certain areas. That pattern bears some similarities to how periods of Truth Decay have faded in the past.
First, as in the case of vaccines, science experts, journalists, and government officials got active. A revival of fact-based and investigative journalism ushered in a return to reality, and government reforms to increase accountability and transparency helped reestablish trust in its institutions. Second, social and political turmoil during those periods eventually abated, which eased some societal pressures that might have contributed to Truth Decay. For example, a return to economic prosperity and the patriotism sparked during World War II helped calm societal unrest in the 1940s. Similarly, many vaccine opponents have had a change of heart.
“It’s possible that Truth Decay is a byproduct of these types of unrest and upheaval. It doesn’t seem to end on its own—it requires conscious actions. But we need more research to figure out exactly which actions to take today to put an end to Truth Decay,” RAND’s Kavanagh said.
RAND’s agenda for future research on Truth Decay is ambitious, and we’re hoping other research organizations will join in. Want to help?
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“We All Want the Best for Our Children”
Soon after O’Meara had her change of heart and got her children vaccinated, she wrote an essay for a pro-vaccines website. Several news outlets interviewed her, and her story went viral among vaccine opponents. “Before you know it, my face is plastered all over, and I’m being called a fraud, a paid plant by the pharmaceutical industry,” O’Meara said. “It was so wild seeing how quickly the anti-vaccine people made up their own conspiracy theory about me in order to debunk me.”
She also received “menacing messages” on Facebook. “At the time, I was freaked out and anxious. But now looking back on it I think, ‘That’s how they do it. They didn’t come back with facts. They just tried to shame me into silence. That’s how they deal with their own cognitive dissonance.’”
O’Meara interacted with some of her critics on social media and, though no one admitted changing their minds, most eventually understood her reasoning after some respectful conversations.
“My tack, which I use with concerned parents at work, is this: We all want the best for our children,” she said. “I think being graceful and honoring that with people who are anti-vaccine is the only way any headway will be made.”
Healing Truth Decay
O’Meara’s own conversion and her suggestion that empathetic, respectful dialogue can help create common ground represent one way to attack Truth Decay. RAND will continue to seek insight that helps confront Truth Decay on other fronts. But recognizing our common goals—and agreeing on common facts—are the only real solutions to this damaging phenomenon.