A common theme in U.S. inaugural addresses is for the newly sworn-in president to identify what he sees as the country’s biggest problem. For Ronald Reagan, it was government overreach. For Barack Obama, it was “our collective failure to make hard choices.” For Franklin Roosevelt, it was fear itself.
For Joe Biden, it was a breakdown of national cohesion, common purpose, and reality’s most fundamental distinction.
“There is truth, and there are lies,” said President Biden. “And each of us has a duty and responsibility ... to defend the truth and to defeat the lies.”
That an incoming U.S. president devoted part of his inaugural address to insist that facts are, in fact, factual reveals just how much of a beating the truth has taken. Over the past five years, politics have motivated huge swaths of the American public to abandon not just facts, but also the system of logic and standards of evidence used to establish facts in the first place. This phenomenon is widely known as “post truth.”
But faith in falsehoods is by no means irreversible. The political scientists Ethan Porter of George Washington University and Thomas J. Wood of Ohio State University have been testing the issue in survey research since 2016. “We found that when presented with factually accurate information, Americans – liberals, conservatives and everyone in between – generally respond by becoming more accurate,” they wrote in Politico last year.