Truth: Information, Misinformation, and Democracy

The public’s ability to distinguish truth from falsehood seems to have deteriorated significantly in recent years. There is a widespread deficit in the ability to recognize subject expertise, critically evaluate sources, and synthesize ideas. The very notion that facts exist has been called into question through phrases like “alternative facts.” This deficit has proven catastrophic during the Covid-19 health crisis, where conspiracy theories and YouTube health “experts” have carried more weight for some than the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Meanwhile, unproven and debunked claims about widespread election fraud threaten to undermine our democracy.

While these problems can be explained in part by technologies that allow for the rapid spread of information regardless of quality, intentional efforts to misinform the public have resulted in frequent questioning of the existence of scientific truths like climate change, racial and sexual discrimination, and the health benefits of masks and vaccinations. Common CAHSS 21-22 will explore the role of the modern university in supporting the "continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found,” which has been part of the University of Wisconsin identity for over a century.

In an era where information--both true and false--can be readily accessed from our phones, the function of higher educational institutions must include not only generating and sharing high-quality information but also teaching the critical information literacy skills required to navigate a complex terrain. Such skills are essential to democracy and to making progress on the key issues of our time, including human rights, racial justice, and sustainability.