The Constitution of Knowledge review: defending truth from Trump

Jonathan Rauch is among America’s more thoughtful and rigorously honest public intellectuals. In his new book, he addresses the rise of disinformation and its pernicious effects on democratic culture.

Through an analogy to the US constitution, he posits that the “values and rules and institutions” of “liberal science” effectively serve as “a governing structure, forcing social contestation onto peaceful and productive pathways. And so I call them, collectively, the Constitution of Knowledge.”

What he calls the “reality based community [is] the social network which adheres to liberal science’s rules and norms … objectivity, factuality, rationality: they live not just within individuals’ minds and practices but on the network”. This community includes not only the hard sciences but also such fields as scholarship, journalism, government and law, in a “marketplace of persuasion” driven by pursuit of truth under clear standards of objectivity.

Rauch puts the Trump era at the heart of the challenge, as Trump felt no “accountability to truth”, telling reporter Lesley Stahl that he did so to “demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you”.

To Rauch, “Trump and his media echo chambers [lied] because their goal was to denude the public’s capacity to make any distinctions.” Thus “every truth was met not just with denial but with inversion … to convey … 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 don’t have shared facts.” What emerges, in Rauch’s term, as “epistemic tribalism” effectively denies “the concept of objective knowledge [which] is inherently social”.

There is much here and the diagnosis is superb, with clear explanations of how and why disinformation spreads. Rauch finds glimmers of hope and positive change, as digital media act “more like publishers … crafting epistemic standards and norms”. Solutions, though, involve self-regulation rather than government action. Rauch cites Twitter’s Jack Dorsey in noting “that the battle against misinformation and abusive online behavior would be won more by product design than by policy design”.

True, yet Rauch admits there are “no comprehensive solutions to the disinformation threat”, instead hoping for reactions that will promote “something like a stronger immune system … less vulnerable”.

Rauch is a “radical incrementalist”. Hearty praise for John Stuart Mill makes clear that he seeks solutions principally from within classical liberalism, which the analogy to a social network reinforces: individuals working as a community, not a collective. Thus he shies from using government to enforce adherence to the Constitution of Knowledge.

“Cause for alarm, yes,” Rauch writes. “Cause for fatalism – no.”

Surely there is a third perspective. Referring to a director of the National Institutes of Health known for rigorous science and deep faith, Rauch states that “a person who applied the Constitution of Knowledge to every daily situation would be Sherlock Holmes or Mr Spock: an otherworldly fictional character. In fact, when I compare Francis Collins’s worldview with my own, I think mine is the more impoverished. He has access to two epistemic realms; I, only one.”

It shows Rauch’s generosity of spirit and intellectual integrity that he recognizes the validity and worth of other epistemic realms. They may, in fact, be a clue to solving the broader problem.

Does the constitutional order contain sufficient self-correcting mechanism? Rauch’s response, in a forceful and heartfelt final chapter, is to renew engagement in defence of truth. This is right so far as it goes. Waving the white flag, or silence (as Mill, not Burke noted) enables and ensures defeat in the face of attacks on the concept of truth.

It’s good that “Wikipedia figured out how to bring the Constitution of Knowledge online”, but that only works with a presumed universal acceptance of truth, a challenge in an era where a 2018 MIT study found falsehoods were 70% more likely to be retweeted than truths.

One may heartily agree with Solzhenitsyn (whom Rauch quotes) that “one word of truth outweighs the world” and yet note with horror (as Rauch does) that a few powerful algorithms can overwhelm it in the heat of a tech-amplified campaign.

Does individual action mean fervent defence in response to every inaccurate social media post? How to judge? (The individual rational response is generally to ignore the false post, hence the collective action issue.) And would that defence guarantee success when disinformation has destroyed trust in institutions and in the concept of truth itself?

Dr Francis Collins listens during a Senate subcommittee hearing.
Dr Francis Collins listens during a Senate subcommittee hearing. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Rauch’s optimism is infectious but it may fall short. The reality-based community seems no longer to have a hold on the common mind, weakening its power in the face of organized and mechanical opposition.

Shorn of an appeal to what Lincoln termed the “mystic chords of memory” – itself not subject to empirical verification – how does the reality-based community avoid consignment to the margins? If a pandemic hasn’t convinced many people of the truth of science, what will?

Calling for “more truth” may not be enough when people don’t want to know the truth or cannot tell what it is. If “Trump was waging warfare against the American body politic”, why should that body not respond collectively? Lincoln’s appeal – a strong use of political savvy and rhetoric to call his hearers to something beyond ourselves – can help.

That is Rauch’s challenge – and ours. One may agree with him about the progress of science and support its extension to fields of social and political science. But the very urgency of the situation demands wise prediction on whether that will be sufficient. Rauch states his case as well as possible, but repairing the breaches in the body politic may require more than he is willing to endorse.

Rauch begins with Socrates (“the sense of wonder is the mark of the philosopher”) and describes continued debate towards truth in Socrates’ words: “Let us meet here again.”

Indeed, and with Rauch, we will. In the meanwhile, less Mill, more Lincoln.

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