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In 'The Constitution of Knowledge,' Scholar Jonathan Rauch's Defense Of Truth

(Robin Worrall/Unsplash)
(Robin Worrall/Unsplash)

Disinformation. Social media trolling. Shutting down speech. What do these realities of modern life have in common? Jonathan Rauch says they’re all signs of a society in the midst of an epistemic crisis. He’s got a rallying cry to defend objective truth.


Jonathan Rauch, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Contributing writer at The Atlantic. Author of “The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.” (@jon_rauch

Interview Highlights

On the definition of an epistemic crisis

“That’s when a society, small tribe, major nation, whatever, loses the ability to agree on what facts are and how we get to facts for public purposes. And symptoms of that include polarization, forking realities, extreme incivility and hostility and the strange disorientation.”

On a further example of strange disorientation 

“A good example is the one that you just began with, what happened in the election in 2020? Two completely different stories. No clear way to bring them together. One side just will not believe what the other side believes. This becomes disorienting and a lot of people in the middle don’t really know what to believe anymore. They’re in a kind of state of confusion, disorientation. Well, which side is right and who hacked the Democratic server in 2016? Was it the Ukrainians or the Russians, we’ll never know. We don’t know who to believe. We don’t know who to trust.”

In your book, you start with the ancient Greeks. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

“It’s a starting question of all philosophy. How do we know truth? And how do we know when we know truth? Because we could at any moment be wrong. Of course, for all of us, there are times we were certain we were right only to discover that we were wrong. This is a problem that plagues humanity. The ancients knew it. Modern psychology has greatly elaborated on it. So we know a lot now. We know that the human brains, we’re very good at distinguishing what’s true in immediate circumstances that involve life and death or major stakes, and where we get immediate feedback.

“Like, is that a tiger in the bush, or is that a breeze? Or, where is the next tribe camp? But on bigger abstract questions like what God do we worship or where does disease come from, we’re bad at that. And we’re wired to believe things that increase our status in our group. And that confirm our identities and our preexisting beliefs, our biases. Well, that’s a recipe for entire societies to go down rabbit holes of confirming what they think to each other, believing what your friends believe, confirming your biases.

“That’s in a small scale, the Reverend James Jones and his cult down there in Guyana. And a very large scale, it’s the Soviet Union. Or, it often ends up the sects will break up into smaller sects, go to war with each other. And on a large scale, that’s the wars of religion, which lasted 100 years, killed maybe 30% of the population of Germany. That’s how people throughout time, most of our 200,000 years as a species, that’s how we dealt with disagreements about truth. We went to war. We split into sects and it did not end well.”

An explanation of the ‘constitution of knowledge’

“This is one of two or three big messages in the book that I really hope to try to make a contribution on. We have this idea, if you ask Americans where does knowledge come from, they’ll say, Well, the marketplace of ideas. And the best idea wins. And that’s fine. That’s good. But it leaves out all the important stuff in the middle. Because it turns out if all you do is open up an unstructured conversation, peer to peer, just people talking to each other, they go right back into their rabbit holes.

“They talk to people who agree with them. They get online, they look up stuff that they like. They get involved in conspiracy theories. And you’re back where you started. So it turns out you need a bunch of structure like the U.S. Constitution, which has checks and balances, institutions like courts, Congress, administrative agencies, the parties, you name it, all of that stuff which structures things so that the only way to make law and policy is to compromise.

“It’s all mirrored in the epistemic world, the world of knowledge. And it was set up, in fact, at the same time by some of the same people who said, Well, look, if you want to make knowledge, you’re going to have to present that knowledge in a structured way to institutions like academic journals, newsrooms, courts of law, government agencies.

“And you’re going to have to make a case for it, and then those institutions are going to follow a bunch of rules, usually using a bunch of experts to inspect the ideas, pass them on to other institutions. It works like the U.S. Constitution because it’s got balance of powers, checks and balances. No one individual can make knowledge. You have to submit it to others. Those others will disagree and refer it to … others. It’s also like the U.S. Constitution, in that it’s based on rules and not individuals.

“So anybody can vote, or votes weigh the same. Anyone can conduct an experiment. It has to work no matter where in the world it’s conducted or by whom. So these things are actually very similar. They’re both open-ended systems that take decision-making out of the hands of particular people and say, you know what, we’re giving it to the social network. And we’re going to trust that network to come out with right answers. And it won’t be perfect, but it will be a heck of a lot better than anything else that we’ve ever tried before.”

What’s your take about how chaos and trolling and misinformation are undermining our ability to ‘know what we know’?

“You’re being manipulated. That’s the second big message of this book. The first is it’s not just a marketplace of ideas, it’s a constitution of knowledge. We need to understand it and defend it. So a lot of norms, a lot of institutions that a lot of people suffered and died to create. Second message, you’re being manipulated.

“There are forces out there, there always have been since day one, since Galileo was in prison, that have said it’s inconvenient to have to follow all these rules to decide what’s true. ‘I know what’s true. I should be able to impose that. I should be able to censor or silence the people who disagree with me. Or, I’m a dictator or a demagogue. Truth, as other people see it, gets in my way. I want to say I won the election. It’s inconvenient that other people say I lost it.’ There have always been enemies.

“The first one that we’re talking about today is a form of information warfare, or actually I call it epistemic warfare, a war on our system for creating truth. So what’s that? That is efforts to organize and manipulate the social and media environment for political advantage, specifically to dominate, divide, disorient and ultimately demoralize a target population. These are old techniques. They’ve been around at least a hundred years since modern media was born.

“Lenin used them. Hitler … used them. Vladimir Putin is a master of them. But the greatest living master of them in the world right now is Donald J. Trump, the greatest propagandist or at least the greatest innovator in propaganda since the 1930s. So specifically, what are we talking about? It turns out censorship, especially in the age of digital media, is clumsy and ineffective. But you can drown out this whole process that we use to sort truth from fiction by … [flooding] every available media channel and many non-media channels like the courts.

“With so many lies, half-truths, conspiracy theories and exaggerations that fact checkers and the media can’t begin to keep up every time they knock down one there are ten more. The public gets confused and disoriented because the stories that are flooding at them, they’re not even consistent with each other. They no longer know what to believe or who to believe.

“They become cynical, divided, polarized. That’s what Putin was doing in 2016, looking for vulnerabilities and then using disinformation to further divide America. And that is what Trump and his forces are doing right now about the 2020 election. This is the most massive and successful disinformation campaign that’s ever been run in the U.S. and it’s being run by Americans against other Americans.”

What are the tools that we have to extract accountability on social media platforms, for example? 

“The big problem here is not the social media companies, it’s the politicians. And in fact, social media is number three on the list of people spreading conspiracy theories like fake news. Number two is cable news and talk radio. And number one is good old fashioned politicians. And yes, we’re talking about Donald Trump. So let’s be careful about shooting the messenger.

“But second, our views are different actually on social media. For a lot of the same reasons that journalism in the 19th century realized its business model was toxic to its long-run interests, that if it was full of extreme partisanship and fakery and hysteria, it would lose readers. The people hate that environment. Social media has also begun to figure that out. And Twitter and Facebook and a lot of the other ones, maybe too slowly.

“But I think in good faith are now looking for ways to change their policies, and especially their platform designs in ways that will be more pro-social and will reward sharing stuff that’s true instead of stuff that’s false. That will try to root out the fake identities, the bots and the trolls. And I’m especially interested in Facebook’s oversight board, which is kind of a Supreme Court that’s trying to set accountable rules for how people behave on Facebook and social media. That’s how we got out of this 100 years ago. We set up rules of the road.

“We had institutions in journalism and elsewhere that said, you know what? Let’s have ethics codes, let’s have guidelines. Let’s be transparent. Let’s set expectations for how you behave here. And over time, that actually worked because it created an environment people wanted to be in, and did not feel manipulated by. If anything works, it’s going to be that. So I see these companies as potential allies that have to be drawn even deeper into the process of reform.”

Book Excerpt

Reprinted with permission from The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth by Jonathan Rauch published by Brookings Institution Press, © 2021 by Jonathan Rauch.

From The Reading List

National Affairs: “The Constitution of Knowledge (2018)” — “Long before Donald Trump began his political career, he explained his attitude toward truth with characteristic brazenness. In a 2004 television interview with Chris Matthews on MSNBC, he marveled at the Republicans’ successful attacks on the wartime heroism of Senator John Kerry, the Democrats’ presidential candidate.”

New York Times: “Speaking Truth to Both the Right and the Left” — “Like many public intellectuals who are worth reading, George Packer and Jonathan Rauch don’t toe a predictable line in American political and intellectual debate. They despise Donald Trump and the disinformation-heavy discord he has spawned.”

Symposium: “Epistemological Madisonianism” — “The signature of our current debate about free speech is that it is not primarily about protecting speech from the government. Rather, it is about the “culture of free speech.” It’s about intellectual openness and diversity as a cultural norm to be embraced by private individuals and private institutions.”

Critical Inquiry: “Jeff Frenkiewich reviews The Constitution of Knowledge” — “It seems that the United States––the world––is undergoing an epistemological crisis. Established facts are put into question as would-be autocrats weaponize social media to spread lies and conspiracy theories, leaving ordinary citizens to question what is true.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.