The Constitution of Knowledge Magazine: Defending the Truth Against Trump | Books
Jonathan Rauch is one of the most reflexive and rigorously honest public intellectuals. In his new book, he discusses the rise of disinformation and its perverse effects on democratic culture.
By analogy with the American constitution, he postulates that the “values, rules and institutions” of “liberal science” effectively serve as a “governance structure, forcing social protest along peaceful and productive paths. And so I call them, collectively, the Constitution of Knowledge.
What he calls the “reality-based community [is] the social network which adheres to the rules and norms of liberal science… objectivity, factuality, rationality: they live not only in the minds and practices of individuals but on the network ”. This community includes not only the hard sciences, but also fields such as scholarship, journalism, government and law, in a “persuasion market” driven by the search for truth according to clear standards of objectivity. .
Rauch puts the Trump era at the heart of the challenge, as Trump felt no “responsibility to the truth,” telling reporter Lesley Stahl he did it to “put you all down, so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you ”.
To Rauch, “Trump and his media echo chambers [lied] because their purpose was to strip the public’s ability to distinguish. Thus, “every truth has been greeted not only by denial, but also by reversal… to make it understood… that the leader was the supreme authority”.
The result is a crisis of democracy. As Senator Ben Sasse warned, “a republic will not work if we do not share the facts.” What emerges, in Rauch’s words, as “epistemic tribalism” effectively denies “the concept of objective knowledge. [which] is inherently social ”.
There’s a lot here and the diagnosis is superb, with clear explanations of how and why the misinformation spreads. Rauch finds glimmers of hope and positive change, as digital media act “more like publishers … developing epistemic norms and standards.” The solutions, however, involve self-regulation rather than government action. Rauch quotes Twitter’s Jack Dorsey noting “that the battle against misinformation and abusive behavior online would be won more by product design than policy design.”
This is true, but Rauch admits that there are “no comprehensive solutions to the threat of disinformation”, hoping instead for reactions that will promote “something like a stronger immune system … less vulnerable”.
Rauch is a “radical incrementalist”. The warm praise of John Stuart Mill makes it clear that he seeks solutions primarily within classical liberalism, which the analogy with a social network strengthens: individuals working as a community, not as a collective. Thus, he avoids using the government to enforce the Constitution of knowledge.
“Cause of alarm, yes,” writes Rauch. “Cause of fatalism – no.”
There is surely a third perspective. Referring to a director of the National Institutes of Health known for his rigorous science and deep faith, Rauch states that “a person who applied the Constitution of Knowledge to every day to day situation would be Sherlock Holmes or Mr. Spock: a fictional character of ‘another world. In fact, when I compare that of Francis Collins view of the world with mine, I think mine is the poorest. He has access to two epistemic realms; Me, only one.
This shows Rauch’s generosity of spirit and intellectual integrity as he recognizes the validity and value of other epistemic realms. They can, in fact, be a clue to solving the larger problem.
Does the constitutional order contain a sufficient self-correction mechanism? Rauch’s response, in a forceful and heartfelt final chapter, is to renew the commitment to standing up for the truth. It’s just as far as it goes. Waving the white flag, or silence (like Mill, not Burke noted) allows and secures defeat in the face of attacks on the concept of truth.
It is good that “Wikipedia has figured out how to bring the Constitution of Knowledge online”, but it only works with a presumed universal acceptance of the truth, a challenge in an era when one. MIT Study 2018 the lies found were 70% more likely to be retweeted than the truths.
One can fully agree with Solzhenitsyn (whom Rauch quotes) that “a word of truth trumps the world” and yet note with horror (as Rauch does) that a few powerful algorithms can overwhelm him in the world. fire of a campaign amplified by technology.
Does individual action mean a fervent defense in response to every inaccurate social media post? How to judge? (The individual rational response is usually to ignore the false message, hence the question of collective action.) And would this defense guarantee success when disinformation has destroyed trust in institutions and in the concept of truth? himself?
Rauch’s optimism is contagious, but it may be insufficient. The community of reality seems to no longer have a hold on the common spirit, weakening its power in the face of organized and mechanical opposition.
Stripped of an appeal to what Lincoln called the “mystical chords of memory– itself not subject to empirical verification – how does the community of reality avoid being consigned to the margins? If a pandemic hasn’t convinced many people of the truth of the science, what will?
Calling for “more truth” may not be enough when people don’t want to know the truth or can’t speak for what it is. If “Trump were to wage war against the American body politic,” why shouldn’t that body react collectively? Lincoln’s appeal – a strong use of political acumen and rhetoric to call his listeners to something beyond ourselves – can help.
This is Rauch’s challenge – and ours. We can agree with him on the progress of science and support its extension to the fields of social and political sciences. But the sheer urgency of the situation demands a wise prediction as to whether this will be enough. Rauch is making his case as good as he can, but mending the breaches in the body politic may require more than he is prepared to endorse.
Rauch begins with Socrates (“the sense of wonder is the mark of the philosopher”) and describes the ongoing debate towards truth in Socrates’ words: “Let’s meet here.
Indeed, and with Rauch, we will. In the meantime, less Mill, more Lincoln.