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Jonathan Rauch and the Knowledge Problem

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  • In this book I have supplemented “liberal science” with the term “reality-based community,” by which I mean the social network which adheres to liberal science’s rules and norms…. The community’s interactions are structured and elaborate and amount to much more than just the sum of its individuals’ doings, and the essential enablers, connectors, and transmitters are institutions. Institutions propagate and enforce norms and rules, evaluate and certify credentials, set agendas and direct resources, enforce accountability, and train future generations… today, the institutions and norms of liberal science, not individuals, are the real targets of attack by nihilists and bullies.
  • —Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge (p. 26)

In his latest book, Jonathan Rauch attributes human success in accumulating knowledge to our willingness to abide by what he calls the Constitution of Knowledge. By that, he means a set of institutions and norms that allow ideas to be freely contested in a process that is fair, open, peaceful, and able to arrive at sensible outcomes. He draws an analogy with the American Constitution, which allows political issues to be contested similarly.

“Where Rauch focuses on the attacks on the twentieth-century information order from without, I would emphasize the rot from within.”

Four aspects of Rauch’s thinking struck this reviewer. First, I was impressed and persuaded by his emphasis on knowledge emerging from a social process. Second, I concur with his view that this process is undermined by what he calls “trolling” on the one hand and “cancel culture” on the other. Third, I agree that social media has disrupted the information order of the last century, and that this works to our detriment. And fourth, Rauch writes as if a return to the twentieth-century information order can be achieved by taming the disruptive forces. I think that this ignores the decay and corruption that have afflicted the key institutions of journalism and academia. Where Rauch focuses on the attacks on the twentieth-century information order from without, I would emphasize the rot from within.

Epistemology as a Social Process

In 2021, a number of prominent authors published books on the topic of truth and error in human thought. In philosophy, the issue of determining what is true is known as the problem of epistemology. Recent and forthcoming books that deal with this issue include:

  • • Adam Grant, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know
  • • Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro, Minds Wide Shut: How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us
  • • Julia Galef, The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t
  • • Cass Sunstein, Daniel Kahneman, and Oliver Sibony. Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment
  • • Steven Pinker, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters

These authors, as well as most philosophers, emphasize what an individual should do in order to arrive at true beliefs and avoid error. For example, Julia Galef suggests that we are prone to error when we become too emotionally invested in our beliefs.

Rauch puts the emphasis on the social process of acquiring knowledge. He favorably cites the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce:

  • He saw more clearly than anyone before him, and also more clearly than almost everyone today, that the concept of objective knowledge is inherently social… “Unless truth be recognized as public—as that of which any person would come to be convinced if he carried his inquiry, his sincere search for immovable belief, far enough—then there will be nothing to prevent each one of us from adopting an utterly futile belief of his own which all the rest will disbelieve,” he wrote. (p. 74)

Rauch takes seriously the fact that human beings differ in our beliefs. This can turn out very badly. He cites the religious wars of the 16th century as a trauma that informed both the political theory that ultimately produced the American Constitution and the intellectual network that, in parallel, produced the Constitution of Knowledge.

Rauch sees John Locke as a central figure in both. In the field of politics, Rauch credits John Locke with formulating three fundamental principles: natural rights, which apply to every person; rule by consent; and religious toleration.

In epistemology, Locke championed empiricism:

  • What Locke was doing, here, was expelling from intellectual respectability—from the epistemic rule book—claims which, because they are not checkable, are not adjudicable…. Locke saw how untestable certitudes sparked irreconcilable social disputes. (p. 68)

Once we accept the Constitution of Knowledge and its norms for toleration and empiricism, differences of beliefs can serve a constructive purpose. When our ideas are contested and evaluated in an agreed-upon manner, using the scientific method as much as possible, the more accurate ideas tend to win out in the end. Thus, as a society we accumulate knowledge effectively, even though as individuals our nature is to be biased and emotionally attached to our beliefs.

Under the Constitution of Knowledge, the question of truth is never finally settled. Instead, there is an ongoing evolutionary process. New ideas, like new mutations or new businesses, mostly fail. But a few succeed dramatically well, and society moves ahead by exploiting the successful ideas and discarding the failures.

For this evolutionary process to work well, we need to agree to abide by certain rules and norms. For example, because scientific data are important to the process, we need a strong norm against falsifying or misrepresenting data. But in the 21st century, Americans are suffering from rule-breakers in our midst.

Trolls and Cancelers

In contemporary jargon, a troll is someone who makes provocative statements in order to attract attention. Trolls do not contribute to the reality-based community. On the contrary, they make a mockery of truth seeking. They promulgate falsehoods and conspiracy theories. When refuted, they merely repeat a lie or go on to tell another. Rauch points out that these are the very same disinformation techniques employed by Communist regimes against democracies.

The heart of a troll is nihilist.

  • Studying the spread of hostile political rumors, several researchers… found that many trolls were motivated by a “need for chaos” and “a desire to tear down the system as such.”
  • … From the beginning, troll culture leaned to the right…. People like Alex Jones, who were nonentities in the reality-based world, discovered they could build commercial empires as conspiracy theorists. (p. 180)

Rauch recalls that

  • In 2013 someone using the handle @backupwraith tweeted: “I firmly believe that @realDonaldTrump is the most superior troll on the whole of twitter.” Trump quoted the tweet with the comment: “A great compliment!” (p. 16)

Note that this was years before Mr. Trump campaigned for the Presidency. Rauch argues that Mr. Trump knowingly used information-warfare tactics in order to undermine confidence in mainstream media, thereby creating a space in which he could lie and get away with it.

While the Right was lining up behind the troller-in-chief, the Left was producing its own pathology: cancel culture. This form of information warfare uses threats and coercion.

Rauch reminds us that in 1989, Iran’s autocrat, Ayatollah Khomeini reacted to Salman Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses by issuing a fatwa calling for the murder of Rushdie and anyone who assisted with the book’s publication. Although Rushdie survived by going into hiding, others were killed as Muslims carried out the fatwa. Many people who were not harmed physically were nonetheless intimidated.

In the past few years, young progressives have issued their own fatwas, against people whose views they find offensive. Although they have not inspired the murder of their victims, they have caused them to be fired, shunned, and humiliated. This is cancel culture.

Beyond the price that individuals have paid under cancel culture, Rauch argues that the intimidation of the rest of us threatens to ruin the Constitution of Knowledge. It replaces open debate with what Rauch refers to as “spirals of silence”:

  • In principle, a view which may initially not represent a consensus at all, which indeed is in the distinct minority, can make itself first seem dominant and then actually become dominant as holdouts fall silent, succumb to doubt, or convert to what they think is the prevalent view. Spoofed consensus can become real consensus, or at least close enough to be indistinguishable. Moreover, as we know from totalitarian states, once the spiral forms, even obvious facts can fail for a long time to interrupt it. (p. 219)

Social or Anti-social?

In theory, the Internet might have produced a golden age for the Constitution of Knowledge. It could speed up the evolution of ideas. “Unfortunately,” Rauch writes,

  • … we forgot that staying in touch with reality depends on rules and institutions. We forgot that overcoming our cognitive and tribal biases depends on privileging those rules and institutions, not flattening them into featureless, formless “platforms.” In other words, we forgot that information technology is very different from knowledge technology. Information can be simply emitted, but knowledge, the product of rich social interaction, must be achieved. Converting information into knowledge requires getting some important incentives and design choices right. Unfortunately, digital media got them wrong.
  • … The metrics and optimization tools were sensitive to popularity but indifferent to truth. (pp. 143-144)

Social media as currently structured serves to reward those who foster outrage and beat tribal drums, rather than reward those who are open minded and empiricist.

  • The Constitution of Knowledge depersonalizes persuasion by attacking the hypothesis, not the person. In the reality-based community you can challenge someone’s credentials or track record, but your challenge needs to be measured, evidence-based, and impersonal—and your reputation will suffer if your challenge is abusive. By contrast, in the outrage industry, smearing and trolling are easy and effective ways to capture attention…
  • The reality-based community is a professional network which rewards knowledge and expertise. By contrast, on social media, where attention is the coin of the realm, celebrity and virality are self-justifying… the medium turned out to favor professionals in the arts of manipulative outrage. (pp. 153-154)

In short, social media facilitates and rewards trolling and canceling. It acts as an enabler for the enemies of the Constitution of Knowledge.

What About the Enemy Within?

Rauch’s recommendations presume that twentieth-century institutions, especially journalism and academia, are basically healthy. The threat comes from outside those institutions. In the case of journalism, the barbarians are the technology companies and the trolls that they enable. In academia, it is the students who grew up in a culture that views disagreement and debate as a threat rather than as an opportunity.

He believes that journalism can be fixed by changing the culture of new media giants to be more conducive to truth seeking. For example, he is optimistic that Facebook’s content moderation board can set standards that will bring Facebook content more in line with the Constitution of Knowledge.

In the case of academia, Rauch sees one problem as an absence of ideological diversity. Although the Constitution of Knowledge can be served by a faculty that is mostly on the left, it cannot function where conservatives are absent altogether, as is the case in many disciplines nowadays.

The other problem in academia is that too many students and faculty remain silent while the cancelers get their way. Rauch believes that they need to be more proactive in their defense of free speech.

If Rauch has a blind spot, it is that he overlooks the deterioration that has taken place within twentieth-century institutions. He is unable or unwilling to recognize institutional decay.

As one trivial example, Rauch quotes Lisa Page in one place and Peter Strzok elsewhere to buttress minor points. Rauch refers to each only as “a former FBI agent.” In fact, they were infamously lovers who boasted to one another in text messages about their intentions to bring down the Trump Presidency. When this was revealed, their superiors felt it necessary to take punitive action. Rauch mentions none of this, not even in a footnote. For me, this is equivalent to quoting Michael Milken on financial institutions without mentioning that he served time in prison for insider trading. As a professional journalist, if you view the accusations against Page and Strzok (or Milken) as overblown, then you owe it to the reader to say so, rather than going on as if their records were unblemished.

A more significant example is when Rauch writes:

  • Many people, to be sure, will pay a premium for reality-based content (aka “news”). As I drafted this chapter, the New York Times announced that its subscription base had topped 5 million. (p. 156)</li

That is a very cheerful interpretation of the rise in NYT subscriptions in the Trump era. A quite different interpretation comes from Andrey Mir in Postjournalism and the Death of Newspapers. Mir sees the NYT not as beating the social media disinformation warriors, but joining them. In Mir’s view, opposition to Mr. Trump became a business model, gathering in subscribers who donated to the cause. Along the way, the NYT discarded the values of truth and journalistic integrity.

Similarly, Rauch is unwilling to address the decay in academia. The culture of excellence has been undermined in many ways. Mediocrity has become endemic at all levels.

Students gain admission by manipulating the process. With grade inflation and a generally forgiving environment, many graduate having undertaken little effort and accomplished minimal learning. But many others do not graduate at all, with only a debt burden to show for their excursion into higher education.

Among faculty, new “disciplines” have emerged that lack standards for intellectual rigor. The intellectual weakness of these “___ studies” departments once was a source of embarrassment and insecurity for their faculty. Today, they are the tail that wags the academic dog. It is the traditional disciplines that now suffer embarrassment and insecurity, as they stand accused of having angered the Gods of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.

When Rauch argues that the Constitution of Knowledge depends on strong institutions, I believe that he is correct. But to me, it does not look as though the twentieth-century institutions are going to come back. To revive the Constitution of Knowledge, we will need new institutions, where the incentive systems have not been gamed and the search for truth and excellence has not been undermined by power plays and conformity rituals.


*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of several books, including Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Knowledge and Power Caused the Financial Crisis and Threatens Democracy; and Specialization and Trade: A Re-introduction to Economics. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 through August 2012.

Read more of what Arnold Kling’s been reading. For more book reviews and articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.


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