When Facts Became Irrelevant

A couple of weeks ago, a reader tipped me off to an article in a science journal, highlighting a study that traced the decline of public rationality. It was profoundly depressing

Scientists from Wageningen University and Research (WUR) and Indiana University have discovered that the increasing irrelevance of factual truth in public discourse is part of a groundswell trend that started decades ago.

While the current “post-truth era” has taken many by surprise, the study shows that over the past forty years, public interest has undergone an accelerating shift from the collective to the individual, and from rationality toward emotion.

The researchers analyzed language from millions of books, and found that words  we associate with logic and reasoning, such as “determine” and “conclusion,”  began a steady rise around 1850; at the same time, words expressing emotion, like “feel” and “believe” began to decline. That pattern , however, reversed over the past 40 years. At the same time, the research found a shift from what they termed  “a collectivistic to an individualistic focus” as reflected by the ratio of singular to plural pronouns such as “I”/”we.”

Interpreting this synchronous sea-change in book language remains challenging,” says co-author Johan Bollen of Indiana University. “However, as we show, the nature of this reversal occurs in fiction as well as non-fiction. Moreover, we observe the same pattern of change between sentiment and rationality flag words in New York Times articles, suggesting that it is not an artifact of the book corpora we analyzed.”

Determining that a shift occurred, while a complicated research problem, is obviously much less complicated than figuring out why it occurred.  One intriguing (and concerning) factor was the finding that the shift from rationality to sentiment in book language accelerated around 2007, a date that coincides with the rise of social media.

At that point, the researchers found that– across languages– the frequency of fact-related words dropped and emotion-laden language surged, and there was a similar shift from collectivistic to individualistic language.

I suppose the two language changes–from collective to individual and from rational to emotional–could be coincidental, but I doubt it. When the focus of one’s life moves from community to individual, from “us” to “me,” the importance of exterior reality ebbs and the significance of interiority expands.

The ancient Greeks talked about a “golden mean” between extremes. They were onto something.

I’m a civil libertarian and a longtime advocate for individual rights, but I understand that concern for protecting the “unalienable rights” of the individual cannot and should not erase concern for the common good. (For that matter, self-interest properly understood actually requires a concern for the health of the community in which one lives.)

In so many ways, contemporary humans–and certainly, contemporary Americans–are encountering the considerable downside of a lopsided emphasis on individualism. The research cited in the article found an erosion in the use of reason and logic, and an increased emphasis on the individual; the”freedom lovers” who endanger others and slow recovery from the pandemic by refusing to be vaccinated are a perfect example of both.

The health of the broader community–not just public health, important as that is, but measures of justice, fairness,  appropriate and honorable governance–is ultimately the guarantor of individual wellbeing. We’ve evidently lost that insight, and with it, an appreciation for the importance of objective reality.


  1. Ayn Rand broadcast the siren-song of self-interest over communal focus in her unexamined resistance to Communism. Objectivism is exactly the opposite; it concentrates on the individual which is by it very nature, subjective.

  2. When ….become irrelevant: “justice”, “crudeness”, “vulgarness” and on and on…

  3. The problem is the “feeling” and “believing” are on behalf of the self; not the rest of humanity. If a person can just extend it a little further …

  4. From which “Indiana University” does the researcher come? IU-South Bend? IU-East in Richmond? or IU-Kokomo? Or maybe even Indiana University in Pennsylvania?

    Ah, a little digital detective work tells me Prof. Johan Bollen is associated with the IU campus in that little town in Monroe County–Bloomington.

    Snark aside, people associated with Indiana University in the state of Indiana need to identify with what campus they are associated.

  5. Absolutely true Sheila!

    When people spend an inordinate amount of time on social media, in some ways they are searching for something they know is missing. Hence they become vulnerable.

    So many people reach a Crux or possibly Cruces in their lives, they would turn to family? They might turn to their pastor, or, a trusted confidant.

    Now they look for solace in social media, where it tends to be a Nexus of lunatics for the most part. The squeaky wheel gets the oil? The loudest voice is the one heard! In a collective, every individual does not have a strong constitution. The weak are picked off based on subjective leanings.

    The social media Nexus absolutely tries to purvey all things to all people. But it fails, it allows social Nexus anarchists and deviates the same platform as those who believe in rationality.

    A rational individual would not hate someone because they’re of a different religion, they would not hate someone because they speak a different language, they would not hate someone because they have a different culture.

    Ah, but the Nexus will tell them to be very afraid. That all of the bad things in life that you’ve experienced are caused by those who are different. Politicians recognize this and take full advantage for the sake of gaining power. Religious groups use this Nexus for controlling and extorting their so-called flocks.(going to heaven or burning in hell) This social Nexus spreads much more adverse rantings and conspiracies than beneficial information based on truth and knowledge.

    It really is amazing how, today, people will idolize themselves, a well-known example of this would be the Kardashians.

    Self idolization or self idolatry really is a source of disunity and disinformation. Folks have realized that you can be an influencer on social media, and gain a certain amount of power sometimes a lot of power. Unfortunately, these influencers don’t seek to do good, they seek to get rich and Gain power. So, anything goes! Love your neighbor? Or even, love your enemy? Why? There’s no money to be made there!

  6. This quote came to me yesterday. It fits here.

    “The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.”
    The Second Coming
    William Butler Yeats

  7. We live cocooned in comfort. We stay indoors alone watching entertainment to wile away our time. The world is delivered to us on a screen, or several. We go to the political screen colosseum everyday to watch the slaughter and cheer when our heroes win. Reality is no longer magic but ordinary. When we do meet other people we compete with them. Our heads are filled with advertising telling us that we could be happy if we only had more.

  8. The rise of the Libertarian movement has been a byproduct of this hyper-individualism. This is a phenomena I became aware of as an undergraduate way back in the 1970s. Without belaboring the point, I think the late Christopher Hitchens summed it up best by saying: “On this continent Libertarianism is a political philosophy that supposes Americans are not yet sufficiently selfish.”

  9. I think the only time I recall the collective good being discussed was in my economics class and your class–the public good in referencing taxes, etc…

    Individualism and this idea you have to pull yourself by your own boot straps is a myth that has been shoved down our throats and too many believe in this nonsense. ‘Greed is good’ mantra from the movie Wall Street seems to epitomize America. We have trampled on the Golden Rule, our society is unraveling— You can’t make mistakes in today’s America, you can’t give compliments to others, asking for help is a sign of weakness or relying on others is a sign of weakness. The single mom with a child–gets the too bad for you, ain’t my child and its your fault and so ‘no help for you.’

    Every other day you hear of how someone is shooting at others on the highway, injuring innocents, or see the scenes of rage from people tantruming for having to wait d/t staff shortages for a damn cheap cheeseburger at a fast food establishments or ‘going off’ on Walmart or Kroger employees. The only thing I can see that is ‘collective’ in Americans right now is too many are losing their collective minds and civility.

    I live in Nashvhille, TN and I work at the Aging and Memory clinic/Geriatric Psychiatry Clinic at Vanderbilt. The way this country treats the most vulnerable, elderly, children, people with any form of disabilities,etc…is a travesty. A complete travesty. I might need to retire in Europe where tax dollars goes towards people.

  10. Melinda beat me to the punch. The trick (if there is one) is to have the hoi polloi identify self-interest with the common good.

  11. When your life and behavior is all about “me” and/or “my team” the facts are simply what I choose them to be….FREEDOM!

  12. “(For that matter, self-interest properly understood actually requires a concern for the health of the community in which one lives.)”
    This is so clearly the case that it is ridiculous that it has to be emphasized. But, my “Personal choice” acquaintance would
    be moved to take issue with it.
    Ayn Rand, BTW, was born Alisa Rosenbaum, in Bolshevik Russia, in 1926-“These Truths,” Pg. 553. So, aside from her,
    apparently reactive, individualism, she was not quite who she claimed to be.
    Dysrationalia,” The inability to think and behave rationally despite adequate intelligence,” may be taking over, assuming
    that some of the folks who can’t be bothered to consider the world through the twin lenses of logic and reasoning, have “adequate
    intelligence.” The “ME” generation, born in the last 20 years of the previous century, may have played, and still be playing, a role in this.
    I can recall hearing the concept that “If I feel it, it is real,” confusing the reality of inner life with that of outer life.

  13. I have to say that I am a bit disappointed in this post, which is a most unsual occurance.

    First, I don’t think that a decline in rationality and an increase in emotionality is necessarily a bad thing. Rationailty comes to us courtesy of the englihtenment, and Newton in particular. The apparent miracle at the time of a mathematical explanation of the orbits of the planets is the original mover in the ascent of rationality. And it gave us, for instance, scientists examing the details of life by dissecting living dogs without anesthesia because it was believed they didn’t feel anything, because they were “just a mechanism”. People were considered different because we have a soul. Humans have a soul – now there an untestable hypothesis if ever there was one. Rationality, science, is based on the separation of the observer from the observed. But this separation this “forcing of a gap between man and world”, as Ursula K Le Guin said in her 1986 Bryn Mawr Commencement Address, adding “. . . So the continuous growth of technology and science fuels itself; . . . and still by breaking the continuum into unequal parts we keep the imbalance from which our society draws the power that enables it to dominate every other culture, so that everywhere now everybody speaks the same language in laboratories and government buildings and head¬quarters and offices of business, and those who don’t know it or won’t speak it are silent, or silenced, or unheard.” Rationality alone is a cancer on our world. It is only interested in growth, ignoring what is destroyed to create that growth, and so it destroys our our atmosphere, our planet and our cultures.

    Emotion on the otherhand, with the coming or rationality, became an evil, and women, who were (and by some estimations still are) supposedly uncontrollably emotional, became evil as well and had to be controlled, by men of course. But what is it women were good for? It was caring for children, making a safe space for children to grow up. But what is raising children about (as long as you keep the men out of it)? Caring, connection , sensitivity, community. And what do you do with caring, connection, sensitivity? These are the attributes that make people feel safe, feel that they belong, feel that they can trust so they can share their . . . dare I say it? emotions. These “feminine” emotions are about building community, which is what we so greatly lack, and so badly need.

    And if building community comes from the feminine tools that are used to mangage emotions, then there is abosolutely nothing wrong with emotions per se. Emotions are not the problem. The problem is people lying to others to make them afraid and and angry, using the negative emotions to create chaos. Don’t blam emotions, blame the instigators.

    Emotions and their ability to connect you to those around you are what is best used to know those around you, and it is by knowing those around you that you understand the world that you act on with the power of your rationality, your science. Feminine informs you about the world around you so that you can act on that world with knowledge and insite of what you are doing to others. Please, we need to respect and honor femininity, for the understanding it gives us about what we do.

  14. I have been talking about the rise of “newsertainment” for years. This is low content, high emotion coverage. This has been going on since maybe 2000 and has vastly accelerated in the last few years.

    It makes absolute sense that with the rise of “me”, you don’t need outside reality to confirm the narrative in your head.

  15. Back to my roots
    “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”
    “If I am only for me, WHAT AM I?”
    Hillel the Elder, 1st century BCE — emphasis added.

    What, indeed, are the selfish among us?

    On a positive note, youth and adversity give me hope.
    Youth, who in every generation (or most generations) ask for more universal truths.
    Adversity, in the stories of how many people have welcomed the Ukrainian refugees.

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