“Who killed the truth?” Archon Fung speaks on climate change, COVID, and democracy

Archon Fung began this semester’s final installment of the Weston Roundtable Lecture Series with what he called  “a whodunit.”

“Who killed the truth?” he asked.

Fung is the Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Democracy at the Harvard Kennedy School, which works to “improve public policy and leadership so people can live in societies that are more safe, free, just, and sustainably prosperous.” He has published scholarly books about participation in democracy, public transparency, and environmental reform, and his courses explore public policy as well as “politics and ethics in unstable times.”

Fung also worked for COWS, a think tank based at UW–Madison that prioritizes “shared growth and opportunity, environmental sustainability, and resilient democratic institutions.” Last Thursday, he returned to campus because he has been searching for suspects to resolve the crisis of political polarization.

“I was trying to find ways of connecting my concerns with the crisis of democracy with concerns about sustainability and in particular the climate,” he explained. “The way that I’ve connected these two things is by exploring truth and disagreement about what is true in American society these days.”

Fung described three topics on which Democrats and Republicans in America disagree: the validity of the 2020 Presidential Election, the urgency of the climate crisis, and COVID-19. The facts are incontestable: the election was valid; climate change is caused by humans and is already decimating ecosystems and impacting human populations worldwide; COVID-19 is not a hoax and vaccines to protect against its severity do not contain 5G chips that Bill Gates will use to track you and dominate the world.

But political polarization, Fung claimed, “has generated an epistemic polarization in the sense that these different communities have dramatically different views about how our knowledge- and truth-generating institutions can be trusted.” This lack of trust in institutions, Fung argued, leads to “big, big disagreements about what is true with regard to the election, with regard to climate change, with regard to COVID.”

So who killed the truth? Fung identified six culprits. The “deficits model” posits that scientists provide truthful information to “uninformed, scientifically illiterate citizens” who cannot comprehend and act on it. The Cultural Cognition Thesis blames the death of truth on how citizens receive information from experts but reinterpret it through the values of their particular communities. The “bad actors” interpretation blames “public communicators” such as corporations and politicians “who convey information and messages in order primarily to advance their own interests or agendas.”

Fung’s fourth culprit, social media, requires a historical interpretation. From the 1950s to the 2000s, Fung claimed, information was homogenous: white, suited men who spoke in similar tones on broadcast networks, abiding by the principles of journalism, told us what to know. Now, social media provides access to more diverse sources of information—sometimes without fact checking, with bias confirmation, and through algorithms that amplify the influences of “other suspects,” such as the aforementioned bad actors.

Fung also blamed experts. He cited the CDC’s policies on masking and quarantine recommendations. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC advised Americans not to mask. Jerome Adams, the Surgeon General, tweeted in February 2020, “Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus.” Less than two months later, the CDC advised masking to prevent asymptomatic transmission. Fung also referenced the CDC’s current policy of a five-day isolation period for those who test positive with COVID-19, even though one study found 17 percent of people are contagious with the Omicron variant after five days, while another found 43 percent are contagious.

Fung said the CDC’s policies could be honest errors—it wasn’t certain or didn’t know —or they could be what Plato called “noble lies,” which leaders make to mislead the public for some greater good. In this case, the CDC might have been preserving the limited supply of masks for healthcare workers or reducing the isolation period so that airline companies could continue to maximize profits despite the risk to public health. Either way, Fung claimed, both honest errors and noble lies corrode trust in experts and institutions.

Lastly, Fung argued we have lost agreement on truth because “science doesn’t work that way anymore.” Scientists do not exist separate from the world, conducting experiments and producing knowledge before handing it off to citizens. Now, private companies conduct research, while regulation, policies, and funding determine the subject and scope of research studies. We can no longer believe in a pure, independent science that confers knowledge on society.

But can we resuscitate the truth? Once the truth is dead, will democracy—and our species, and the planet—follow?

“How do you create an environment in which people begin in a position of extreme disagreement?” Fung asked. “What kind of space do you need to create so that people can argue that out and maybe come to some sort of agreement at the end of the day?”

“I don’t know,” he answered.

But he offered a few resolutions. For citizens: better science communication and education, as well as shaming bad actors. For institutions: abandoning the two-party system, which leads to polarization; greater transparency; and humility.

“It would benefit these communities who enjoyed a huge amount of trust in the postwar period to be much more humble,” Fung said, suggesting that knowledge-creating institutions can restore trust with the public with transparency. “Part of that humility is being very, very forthright about what you don’t know.”

“I regard this as a huge, huge problem,” Fung concluded, “and unless we can figure out how to make some progress on it,  I don’t see how we’re going to, as a society, come up with reasonable solutions to existential threats like climate change or the decline of democracy.”

By: Marek Makowski