Jennifer Kavanagh is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation and associate director of the Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program in RAND’s Arroyo Center. She co-authored Truth Decay with RAND president and CEO Michael Rich. Her research focuses on U.S. political institutions, public opinion, and their implications for U.S. foreign and domestic policy. Before taking part in a Zócalo/Getty event titled “Did Truth Ever Matter?” that took place in Los Angeles, she spoke in the green room about what she’s like behind the wheel, when “truth decay” began, and the difference between fact and opinion.
You went to grad school in Michigan. What do you miss about it?
The summer. The summer is so fantastic. It’s not so hot and, after the winter which is so, so, so cold, it just feels so good to have it be warm. And the undergrads leave so you have all of Ann Arbor to yourself, which means it’s not crowded. And it’s much more laid back because you don’t have classes to teach so you can just kind of do your own research. So you don’t have meetings and commitments, so it’s very relaxed. I also miss the football. I really am a big football fan, so I loved the football games and stuff like that. But the thing I miss the least is winter which is just awful. It was good motivation to finish my dissertation because I don’t think I would have survived another winter. So I defended in December and left.
What question do your students ask you most?
Is that going to be on the test? Obviously, my students ask me lots of questions about the requirements for the class. I teach masters students in a policy school, so what they’re most interested in is hearing about is RAND and learning about what my job is like because they’re obviously thinking about what their jobs are going to be after school.
How are you different from who you were 10 years ago?
Ten years ago, I was 27. Well, I was in grad school so I had no idea what I was doing with anything. What else. I mean, guess I feel like my life is totally different. I would get stressed out at very little things. I really had no idea what I wanted out of life. I knew I was here getting a Ph.D., and I knew I wanted to go back and probably work at RAND—I had worked at RAND as an undergrad as well—but I don’t think I had a good sense of where I was going and what I was capable of. And I was caught up a lot in things that you’re caught up with when you’re in 20s, like what do other people think of me, and a lot of those types of things. And I think it wasn’t until a few years ago, when I was 34, 35, where I was kind of like, OK, well, this is what I want, and this is how I imagine my life being when I’m 50. I didn’t have that vision, so I think I wish I had been a little more relaxed and easier on myself, but grad school is hard.
What magazines and newspapers do you currently subscribe to?
I subscribe to The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. I sometimes also read the L.A. Times. Magazines, I subscribe to Sports Illustrated, Entertainment Weekly, Time Magazine. I often read The Economist, but I can’t keep up. It’s too much reading.
What’s your favorite place to eat in Santa Monica?
I don’t go out to eat that much because I work all the time, and I travel a ton for my job. I’m actually moving to Washington, D.C., tomorrow so I don’t have to travel so much. So, I’m often in D.C. and not in Santa Monica, but I really like that True Food Kitchen which is actually in the mall—that’s kind of lame. I also like eating at Casa del Mar. The food is good but I really love the view, so I love to go there and watch the sunset.
When do you think “truth decay” started?
Well, it’s hard to put a specific date on it. I think Michael [Rich] and I would place it at the beginning of the 2000s. Maybe not in 2000 but around that time. Partly that’s because we see a lot of the data trends that we’re interested in, like vaccine skepticism and this divergence between actual data and people’s beliefs, really start to take off. Just to give you an example, in the ’90s and the 2000s about 20 percent of Americans believed that GMOs were not safe to eat, and in 2015, 57 percent of Americans believed that GMOs are not safe to eat. Scientists have always had a pretty strong consensus that they’re safe to eat, and, if anything, the data has gotten stronger since 2000, but you see the opposite trend in popular opinion. That’s also when you see polarization in politics start to get worse, and that’s when the internet and social media—well the internet, certainly—reached 50 percent saturation mark. Social media starts a little bit later but you know you have early versions like Myspace and things like that.
What do you think can be done to close the gap between opinion and truth?
I would make a distinction between truth and fact, to start. You know, truth, there’s a long-standing debate about “What is truth?” and there’s a philosophical thing going back centuries. I don’t know how qualified I am to weigh in on “What is truth?” But I do think that—at least in my world view, and the world view of most people who are scientists and work in academia and research—there are facts. There are things we can objectively verify.
And the difference between that and opinion is pretty stark. Facts we can verify, they are objectively observable, and we should be able to verify them, and opinions are our interpretation of those facts. And into opinions come things like our values and our priorities, and our experiences in life. It’s not to say that our opinions are not valid. Opinions are very valid, but they’re different than facts and they shouldn’t be used interchangeably. I think there needs to be a better system and a stronger emphasis on distinguishing between what is a fact and what is an opinion. And that distinction is pretty clear.
Where it gets murky is in the middle. For example, if we’re interpreting data, and it’s not really an opinion, but it’s not yet a fact, like we don’t have enough evidence to say it’s a fact. That’s where I think the gray area is, and that’s where it’s really difficult. So I think even newspapers could do a better job of labeling fact and opinion. Even the best newspapers. It used to be, you know, if you go back to the ’70s, there was a pretty firm line between editorial content and news reporting. And in some papers, in some areas, that’s blurred. It’s blurred because it sells better if it’s a little bit edgier, but that’s problematic if people don’t read it carefully and consume opinion as fact.
Do you believe objective truth exists?
Objective truth? I believe objective facts exists. Fact and truth are often used interchangeably, but I think they can be different things. So, people say like, “I know what my truth is,” and I think that means, “I know what my experience is, and my lived experience, and how I feel about this issue.” But that’s different from saying I said that “We’re all here in this room,” and you said that “The room doesn’t exist.” There, I think that the objective fact is that we are here in this room. So, in that sense, it depends on how you’re using truth. I try to be very careful and don’t use them interchangeably.
So, I would say that I do believe there are objective facts that we should be able to agree on and those are things we can agree on by counting them, or measuring them, or observing them. And then there’s truth, and that’s kind of a squishier concept. And to be precise and separate them out, that makes the argument that we should have objective facts less open to criticism.