The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth by Jonathan Rauch

Originally this post was going to be a book review page–one of the many I use as references in Chicago Fog’s essays and other posts. But as I read Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge I realized I had a lot of thoughts on the book, and most of those thoughts were critical. So I wrote this very long post.

I’ll start with an anecdote that demonstrates my biggest problem with The Constitution of Knowledge. Shortly after I finished this book, I listened to the December 19th News Briefing podcast from the Financial Times which had a story about Senator Joe Manchin’s continued opposition to the “Build Back Better” social spending bill (this coverage starts around minute 1:30 in the podcast). The segment focused on reporting from FT’s “US Labour & Equality Correspondent”. She reported many American families continue to rely on aid payments for child care, especially during the ongoing Covid pandemic. As evidence, the report dropped in a few quick soundbites from interviews with aid recipients. I will grant the FT podcast is not long-form and is only a “briefing”–true to its name. However, the truncated nature of the FT’s report made it easier to recognize its editorial bias. A complex, $1.75 trillion (at least) spending bill with multiple programs was boiled down to a human interest story. Disregard the huge economic and political implications! This is a heartless denial of financial aid to needy children! This is an ideological narrative, a rhetorical argument that started at a conclusion and then sought its confirming evidence. It’s also propagandistic, a work of pathos with no appeal to reason. Looked at through the framework of Rauch’s book, there are no epistemic claims made in the FT’s report. There’s no data, no dialogue, no countervailing ideas offered. There’s not even a smart argument.

Overview of The Constitution of Knowledge

Unsurprisingly, The Constitution of Knowledge holds journalism as one of the key components of the “reality-based community” that protects knowledge and promotes truth. The terminology is important here, so let’s start with the Rauch’s definition of “The Constitution of Knowledge” (page 5):

[O]ur conversations are mediated through institutions like journals and newspapers and social-media platforms; and they rely on a dense network of norms and rules, like truthfulness and fact-checking; and they depend on expertise of professionals, like peer reviewers and editors–and the entire system rests on a foundation of values: a shared understanding that there are right and wrong ways to make knowledge. Those values and rules and institutions do for knowledge what the U.S. Constitution does for politics: they create a governing structure, forcing social contestation onto peaceful and productive pathways. And so I call them, collectively, the Constitution of Knowledge.

Rauch argues we face an “epistemological crisis” where the Constitution of Knowledge is under assault. His diagnosis isn’t very original: the crisis is caused by social media, the Very Online (rightist troll culture and leftist cancel culture), and Trump and his cult of fools. Unsurprisingly, Rauch spends a lot of time on Trump, laying a “knowledge crisis” at his feet because of his campaign’s heavy use of misinformation (or “flooding the zone with bullshit,” a Bannonism). Building up the argument, The Constitution of Knowledge revisits social science, history, and current events known to most informed people. Rauch covers cognative bias, groupthink and “the epistemic war of all against all.” Group membership creates a creed among people, leading to tribalism where conflicts between creeds become violent, bringing Rauch to the United States in the early 21st-century: a Hobbesian epistemic conflict over competing realities. If there is a solution to this problem, Rauch concludes, it will come from the centuries of experience arbitrating ideas in institutions, and the institutional production of knowledge overcoming biases and group dynamics. Rauch covers the idea of “networked knowledge” and how humankind outsourced the production of knowledge to a vast network of scientists, engineers, doctors, professors, etc., primarily focusing on the hard sciences. This is a welcome re-endorsement of the Enlightenment, as philosophical and theological debates supplanted violence and religious wars. Combined with the Lockean liberalism that also emerged during the Enlightenment, European society was able to advance thanks to open knowledge networks that produced a useful consensus on science, medicine, and technological innovation. This is the historical basis for the “Constitution of Knowledge” and the “reality-based community” that fosters and protects it.

To further explore the Western process of knowledge production, Rauch makes an analogy to the US Constitution and the brilliance of James Madison’s republican design and the system of checks and balances between government bodies. Rauch describes the reality-based community’s four nodes (academics, journalism, government, and law). These are the nodes for intellectual debate and deciding upon the contents of the canon of human knowledge. Professionals run the reality-based community, and those professionals share common values, professional commitments, and behaviors. I’ll come back to this in the discussion below.

The second half of The Constitution of Knowledge covers the causes of, and potential solution for, the epistemological crisis that Rauch describes. He offers a critique of social media and the digital age that’s become a kind of groupthink in itself. Almost all of the focus is on Facebook, Google, and YouTube (the last two owned by Alphabet Inc.) which serve as megaphones for bad and false ideas. Rauch offers praise for the recent efforts of Google and Facebook to actively manage content and users. Rauch also praises Wikipedia’s decentralized editing framework, holding it up as an example of the Constitution of Knowledge being strengthened by digital media. Frankly, I was dismissive of this part of Rauch’s book because I think we are in the middle of a moral panic over big tech and social media. I remain persuaded by the work Reason’s Robbie Soave has done on this topic.

In Chapter 6, the book deals with disinformation and misinformation, full of well-worn anecdotes about Russian troll farms, Breitbart, Milo, Gamergate, and Pizzagate. Rauch points to Russia for spreading disinformation to undermine its enemies, describing the tactic of the “firehose of falsehoods” used to obfuscate the attempted assassination of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Rauch thinks the reality-based community is learning how to counter troll culture, misinformation, and disinformation. (While I would like to think the worst of it may be behind us, this latest idiotic idea for state intervention to be led by this buffoon does not inspire confidence.) Rauch also points his critique towards the political left and addresses cancel culture. I think this is his best chapter as he uses John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty to argue that intimidation and social coercion aimed at suppressing intellectual diversity threatens the Constitution of Knowledge, and are thus unacceptable behaviors for members of the reality-based community. The liberal traditions of free speech and intellectual openness preserve the Constitution of Knowledge. Like troll culture, the worst of it may be behind us: Rauch believes a small cadre of activists propelled cancel culture and the anti-intellectual environment of universities, and they can be easily countered. Rauch concludes the book rather weakly, offering prescriptions to encourage ideological diversity, counter misinformation, and stop bullying tactics. To his credit, Rauch looks to individuals and institutions to step-up as advocates of truth and free expression. Unfortunately, he also calls for vague laws increasing employment protection as well as further insulating bureaucrats from political pressures.

Discussion

I like Jonathan Rauch as a journalist and a public intellectual. I’ve been reading him since the ’90s when he wrote for The New Republic. As a liberal-minded person, I appreciate Rauch’s efforts in this book and his career in general. However, in the end, The Constitution of Knowledge has too many problems. While I’m all for “three cheers for liberalism,” on balance Rauch falls short in his diagnosis on what threatens the liberal epistemic order. And given an inaccurate diagnosis, his proposed treatments either underwhelm or completely miss the mark.

I think it all begins and ends with Rauch’s precious “reality-based community”. The book’s purpose is to confront the “epistemological crisis” we face, but in doing this he only scratches the surface of larger issues. First and foremost, Rauch ignores the societal position of the individuals who staff the institutions empowered with truth making and gatekeeping. Academics, journalism, government, and law draw the ranks of the educated, successful elite. Empirically, whether by privilege or meritocracy, the reality-based community is part of the elite class in the position of holding the most influence over government and society.  By definition, common people are simply not part of the reality-based community. The upshot of Rauch’s analysis is populist movements that disrupt truth-making institutions have to be resisted in order to promote the greater good in society.

In that sense, The Constitution of Knowledge makes a Burkean argument. The liberal democratic project needs to maintain societal order and the reality-based community is one of pillars of that order. Rauch calls for the protection of the societal institutions that have the greatest influence over the epistemic order: Rauch’s “four nodes” of academics, journalism, government, and law. There is no question that protecting the institutions also means protecting the elites within them–not every individual, but certainly protecting elite knowledge-workers, technocrats, academicians, and jurists as a class.

Why does the reality-based community need protection? Rauch was eager to provide a parade of horribles (Facebook memes, Russian bots, Trump’s lies); but that does not tell us why rebellion and discord broke out in the first place. To use Rauch’s terminology, I think the epistemological crisis within the Constitution of Knowledge existed prior to the problems brought about by social media, the Very Online, MAGA World, Russian disinformation, etc. The epistemological crisis started with the Constitution of Knowledge being corrupted by insular, homogeneous, and self-serving elites. This started in the early 1970s when the professoriate, newsrooms, and law schools became dominated by the politically center-left or far-left, and career bureaucrats were almost uniformly aligned with the Democratic Party and public sector unions. At the same time, conservatives, centrists, and heterodox organizations and individuals were rendered to minorities in the reality-based community. Over the decades, the reality-based community became a calcified group of elites that supplied narratives in service of the leftist intellectual and political project: what is true and false, just and unjust, legal and illegal, socially good and bad, etc. A public choice framework is useful here: the reality-based community is a focused and assertive special interest group that positioned itself to impose costs on the public. The elites in the reality-based community simply respond to incentives which help them maintain and expand power, influence, and economic rewards. Nontheless, it is important to note the elites in the reality-based community are only part of a broader elite in liberal-democratic countries. To be clear, I’m not maintaining the reality-based community runs the world; far from it, as recent events have proven. Still, the reality-based community’s elite are aligned with political, business, financial, and cultural elites that maintain cultural hegemony and steer the liberal-democratic state.

People outside of the reality-based community have always questioned certain facets of the Constitution of Knowledge, including the motives of the reality-based community. I think far-left and center-left editorial biases sold to the public as “objective news” have done more damage to the Constitution of Knowledge than anything else. The government response to the trio of disasters befalling the US in the 21st century (9-11, the Financial Crisis, and the Covid-19 pandemic) undermined faith in technocratic expertise. Furthermore, extreme examples of ideological overreach in the academy have tended to alienate common people from academia. The spread of social media enabled common people who were once outsiders to engage in public dialogue, sharing and spreading their ideas. There are now millions more people expressing themselves, including registering profound disagreements with Constitution of Knowledge’s current state. There are also new voices and opinion-leaders who vie for attendtion. I will grant the vast majority of these new voices offer nothing new. It is also patently obvious there are substantial numbers of idiots, racists, and sociopaths active online. Still, we should not forget Rauch looked to John Stuart Mill’s wisdom regarding intellectual diversity and free speech. Despite the ugliness and rancor, there is now greater competition within the reality-based community as well as broader participation in the production of knowledge. There is more “bottom-up” involvement among outsiders who question the predominate narratives protected by elites in the reality-based community and want to participate in the governing structure of knowledge production.

For that matter, I’m not sold on the lawyerly concept of a “governing structure” for knowledge. I think Rauch makes it all sound too orderly and clean. I think he should have considered postmodern epistemology. What we call “knowledge” often reflects the beliefs of those with societal power, adhering to a dominate cultural narrative. Yet, at any given time, that governing structure could harbor knowledge that is epistemically inferior to the competing claims of outsiders. If anything, knowledge production is closer to a spontaneous order as described by Friedrich Hayek. Sometimes the academy produces new knowledge, and sometimes it just reinforces dogma. And sometimes a patent clerk re-writes Newtonian physics. In other words, to advance knowledge sometimes the “values and rules and institutions” need to violated, broken, and dissolved. This is what we are in the midst of today.

I also think Rauch has it wrong on “cancel culture”–not that I deny it exists, only that I think activists and politicos going after each should not worry us. The problem is the establishment media’s newsrooms became overly politicized. Establishment media is what propels cancel culture: it’s the megaphone that announces the banishment of subjected individuals. Yet Rauch would have us doubling down and strengthening establishment media, while only offering a begrudging admission that mainstream media newsrooms need more ideological diversity. I think Rauch forgot that the calls are coming from inside the house: the leftist woke propelling cancel culture are card-carrying members of the reality-based community. In this sense, cancel culture is the reality-based community’s immune system going haywire, defending itself by defenestrating heretics using the cudgel of political incorrectness. Rauch is right to criticize cancel culture, but he fails to see it as a byproduct of the elite class he calls the reality-based community.

Furthermore, Rauch is stuck to a producer–consumer model of information production Rauch’s handwringing about disinformation and misinformation reminded me of prosecutions under the Espionage Act during World War I. In determining guilt, Federal judges used a legal standard known as the “bad tendency” test, which equated speech with legal intent, making antiwar speech a criminal attempt to undermine the war effort. In essence, it did not matter if a defendant was in a situation where he or she could actually disrupt military operations. Nor did it matter if the defendant’s speech was reasonably capable of causing a disruption of military operations. What mattered was the content of the words expressed and whether those ideas tended to be against the war effort, the military, conscription, the British and other Allies, or was pro-German in any way. In studying this history, I came across an anthology named Free Speech on Trial: Communication Perspectives on Landmark Supreme Court Decisions which explores how communication theories play into free speech cases. There is a chapter on Schenck by a communications professor named Stephen A. Smith who argued the opinion was influenced by the contemporary belief in a “mechanistic ‘magic bullet’ theory of message effects: the helpless audience was assumed to have no choice but direct response, even in cases where there was no evidence of any response to the messages.” He goes on to state, “[t]he primary tenet of the magic bullet theory was that mass media served as a supreme weapon that allowed originators of messages to shoot ideas into a passive, uncritical audience, thereby resulting in the easy shaping of a unified and universal public opinion.” (According to Smith, the “magic bullet” theory was “rudimentary” and later replaced by Paul Lazarsfeld’s “limited-effects model.”)

Like other liberals and leftists, I think Rauch believes in the magic bullet theory. Overreaction to disinformation and misinformation expresses a lack of faith in liberal-democratic processes, and underestimates the intelligence of common people. Trolls, Russian disinformation, and MAGA World’s fantasies about the 2020 election are the uglier, dumber aspects of free expression that usually disappear as quickly as they emerge (for example, Milo). Efforts to suppress speech risk too much collateral damage and reveal disturbing motivations. De-platforming is far worse than anything else described by Rauch. Clownish Alex Jones became an archetype to discredit and silence the growing number of heterodox opinion makers: independent journalists and media organizations, documentary film makers, podcasters, alternative educators, and independent intellectuals.

Clearly, there is a need for added checks and balances in the Constitution of Knowledge. This is not achieved through state action or a further tightening on free speech. I favor more competition between the elites in the reality-based community. I favor more speech and more debate. After all, two can play at the parade of horribles. Here is an abridged list of recent stories, topics, and issues that Rauch’s precious reality-based community–and mostly the journalists in the establishment media–got completely wrong (in order of importance): Wuhan lab leak theory, effectiveness of Covid vaccines to provide immunity, Steele dossier/Trump campaign’s association with the Russian government, the veracity of Hunter Biden’s laptop, and disregarding social distancing during Floyd protests. As of the date of this post, the reality-based community has not repaired the Constitution of Knowledge on any of those topics.

What do you think?

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