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The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth Hardcover – June 22, 2021
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In what could be the timeliest book of the year, Rauch aims to arm his readers to engage with reason in an age of illiberalism.
NewsweekA New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
Disinformation. Trolling. Conspiracies. Social media pile-ons. Campus intolerance. On the surface, these recent additions to our daily vocabulary appear to have little in common. But together, they are driving an epistemic crisis: a multi-front challenge to America's ability to distinguish fact from fiction and elevate truth above falsehood.
In 2016 Russian trolls and bots nearly drowned the truth in a flood of fake news and conspiracy theories, and Donald Trump and his troll armies continued to do the same. Social media companies struggled to keep up with a flood of falsehoods, and too often didn't even seem to try. Experts and some public officials began wondering if society was losing its grip on truth itself. Meanwhile, another new phenomenon appeared: cancel culture. At the push of a button, those armed with a cellphone could gang up by the thousands on anyone who ran afoul of their sanctimony.
In this pathbreaking book, Jonathan Rauch reaches back to the parallel eighteenth-century developments of liberal democracy and science to explain what he calls the Constitution of Knowledgeour social system for turning disagreement into truth.
By explicating the Constitution of Knowledge and probing the war on reality, Rauch arms defenders of truth with a clearer understanding of what they must protect, why they must doand how they can do it. His book is a sweeping and readable description of how every American can help defend objective truth and free inquiry from threats as far away as Russia and as close as the cellphone.
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From the Publisher
The digital age was supposed to bring about the blessings of unlimited knowledge fueled by radically egalitarian free speech allowing everyone to access, share, and learn from freely available information to the benefit and progress of all. Instead, an epistemic crisis supercharged by viral disinformation and indifference to truth has bred deep cynicism about the benefits of free speech and the liberal ideals that underpin this increasingly unpopular idea. In his unputdownable new book, Jonathan Rauch provides both a surgically precise diagnosis and a promising cure for the ailments that torment the twenty-first century with its crisis of authority, distrust, and rampant tribalism. We ignore Rauch’s warning and prescription at our own peril.
Jacob Mchangama, founder and executive director of Justitia; author of Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media
Liberty, of course, requires constant vigilance, but who would have thought until recently that the idea of truth needed defending? Sadly, we now see that it does, but happily, Jonathan Rauch has come to the rescue of both truth and liberty in this thought-provoking, essential work.
Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., president of Purdue University and former governor of Indiana
Rauch's graceful and accessible writing takes us into the abyss of a dark new age, where Trumpian disinformation and even stifling wokeness threaten the search for truth, but then shows us the path to reality-based uplands. Rauch proves there really is a constitution of knowledge, if we can only keep it.
James Comey, former FBI director; author of A Higher Loyalty and Saving Justice
The ability to talk in good faith about a shared reality is a foundational element of civics that we didn’t know we had until we suddenly and surprisingly lost it. Jonathan Rauch explains how we got it in the first place and how we are now letting it slip away. His telling of the story is well grounded in history and philosophy as well as in the very latest dispatches from the meme wars. Readers will come away from The Constitution of Knowledge not just concerned about the mess we’re in, but also with new ideas as to how we might dig ourselves out of it.
Neal Stephenson, author of Snow Crash and Fall; or Dodge in Hell
Why can't we have shared facts anymore? The most profound and useful answer is contained in this book. Jonathan Rauch shows us how it is that societies ever come to know things. It is only after we appreciate the miracle of knowledge production (the constitution of knowledge) that we can understand the tragedy befalling us now, as key institutions and practices decay. This book is a magnificent integration of psychology, epistemology, and history. It is among the three or so most important books I have read in the last five years. It is a joy to readdeep insight after deep insight, embedded in playful writing, about one of the most important problems of the 2020s.
Jonathan Haidt, Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership, NYU-Stern School of Business; author of The Righteous Mind; co-author of The Coddling of the American Mind
Long one of the country’s wisest and most honest voices, Jonathan Rauch has written a hugely valuable and necessary book, an illuminating exploration of the flight from fact. If, as the Gospel of John put it, the truth shall set us free, then count Rauch among the liberators.
Jon Meacham, historian; author of His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope
Thanks to a global epidemic of nihilistic trolling, manipulative disinformation, and addictive outrage, modern democracies are facing an existential challenge: it's not merely that their citizens don't agree on politics, they don't agree on the nature of truth itself. In The Constitution of Knowledge, Jonathan Rauch offers an original definition of this epistemological crisis, as well as a range of innovative solutions. It’s no exaggeration to say that this is a book that anyone who cares about truth and democracy needs to read.
Anne Applebaum, author of Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism
Twenty-five years ago, Jonathan Rauch’s Demosclerosis ignited interest in the problem of government immobilized, like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, by thousands of threads of transactions on behalf of factions. Now this singularly talented analyst addresses an even more dangerous problemthe collapse of shared standards of truth. He is a James Madison for this era, a framer of a Constitution of Knowledge.
George F. Will, author of The Conservative Sensibility
In what could be the timeliest book of the year, Rauch aims to arm his readers to engage with reason in an age of illiberalism. Nothing is off limits in this ingenious work which builds on his Kindly Inquisitors. Anyone curious about the state of American discourse and culture will devour it.Juliana Rose Pignataro, Newsweek
“Mr Rauch’s book is a manifesto for liberals and eccentrics, which explains how carefully the great, distributed knowledge-making network has been assembled, how enduring it has proved—yet how fragile it seems.”
"In 'The Constitution of Knowledge,' Jonathan Rauch makes a convincing case that we still need our institutions of expertise and the people who work for them. . . . Mr. Rauch’s defense of the constitution of knowledge is an insightful and important reminder of the real goods produced by expertise."
—The Wall Street Journal
"It’s a great book, truly important in the pantheon of defenses of free speech, free thought, and the commitment to truth, the perfect counter to post-truth claims on the left and populist truth claims on the right. Destined to be a classic, in the tradition of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.”
—Michael Shermer, Publisher Skeptic magazine, Presidential Fellow Chapman University, author of The Moral Arc and Giving the Devil His Due
About the Author
- Publisher : Brookings Institution Press (June 22, 2021)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 280 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0815738862
- ISBN-13 : 978-0815738862
- Item Weight : 1.49 pounds
- Dimensions : 6 x 1.3 x 9.1 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #47,191 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
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Rauch first describes the rules of reality in a sound epistemic order. The first is the fallibilist rule: No one gets the final say. Here he invokes Karl Popper and the concept of falsifiability. An idea must withstand continuous attempts to render it incorrect. A claim cannot be asserted as true if it is not open to critique or open to be falsified. And if it is an unfalsifiable idea in theory, it is impossible to verify its veracity. The second is the empirical rule: No one has personal authority. A claim has to be true based on the methods used to establish it, and can be corroborated by a multiplicity of independent checkers. In other words, nothing is true because one person or text or edict says it is true. Rauch then makes the argument that knowledge is ultimately social and shared. His point here is just that free speech, free expression, diversity, and pluralism function to diminish error in the epistemic order.
There are two big problems facing the epistemic order, two that Rauch identifies in depth. The first is “troll epistemology” on the political right, a nihilist doctrine that serves to confuse and paralyze. The second is what he calls the “coercive conformity” of cancel culture on the left.
Donald Trump is propped up as a prime example of the first problem, epitomizing the destruction of truth by incessant, indiscriminate lying. He and his troll army utilized techniques straight from the Soviet Communist playbook. Says Rauch: “Trump and his media echo chambers were normalizing lying in order to obliterate the distinction, in the public realm, between truth and untruth. […] They lied in trivial ways, when there was no point in lying except to show contempt for truth…” Rauch argues that they lied in this way “because their goal was to denude the public’s capacity to make any distinctions at all.” The goal with this is not to offer an alternative set of opinions or hypotheses, but merely to confuse and ultimately paralyze the epistemic wanderers, ensuring they never find true north. “The goal was demoralization,” and to “annihilate truth.”
The second problem is cancel culture on the “illiberal left,” as it is sometimes called. Rauch digs into the authoritarian (and utterly contraindicative) commandments stemming from this corner of our epistemic world. This series of “silencing” campaigns have seemingly corrupted our universities, striking fear into professors and students alike, lest their careers and livelihoods be tarnished. As Rauch points out, though, this seems to be the tyranny of a few; most people are coerced into a spiral of silence but don’t themselves agree with the ideology of the wicked few, the zealous ideologues of aggrieved purity. And it also seems to be the case that the university and social media Jacobins (as I have called them) don’t really believe their own calls for utopian social justice. “Because canceling is performative – a show one puts on for one’s social group – rather than argumentative, it has no interest in evaluating an idea. Normally, it has no real interest in ideas at all. For that reason, there is no telling what might trigger a campaign.”
In the end and throughout, Rauch offers us weapons in the service of epistemic combat. He itemizes ways to confront the enemies of free speech and viewpoint diversity, and in the process authenticate ourselves by defending truth and the messy process by which we obtain it. The “constitution of knowledge” is similar to our political constitution – it’s messy and democratic (certainly on the front end), and it is absolutely essential to defend and uphold with honor and integrity. He ends the book optimistically, and one is inspired in thrusting out one’s chest in pursuit of truth and intellectual honesty. But it is hard to overlook the deep epistemic confusion and nihilism and insanity germinating from the cavernous cesspools of the online world, or perhaps throttling up in the universities and leeching out disingenuously into corporate America. No matter the disillusionment or uphill climb, one thing is certain: we are to lace up our gloves. The reality-based community does not have a real choice here. We have to close the nozzle on the firehose of falsehoods, and it is difficult work that must be done all the time. Rauch’s book is a fantastic and important step in this effort, and he articulates the problem – as well as the promise – with fervor and aplomb.
And guess what? We might have a couple of Mr. Rauch’s named bad actors, Fox News and Donald Trump, to thank for it.
The Geneva Accords on the conduct of warfare are self-enforcing. Nations and armies at war respect them—not because there’s some divine agency monitoring their conduct—but because all sides in a conflict are prepared to conduct reprisals against violators. Hitler didn’t avoid using poison gas against the Western Allies out of the goodness of his heart (six million gassed Jews are unavailable for comment); he didn’t use poison gas because the Americans and British had stockpiles of poison gas and delivery systems in theatre ready to go if the German military crossed that line.
For each of Mr. Rauch’s examples of Donald Trump’s casual respect for truth, I can counter with an example of a Democrat politician’s lies. (E.g., Hillary Clinton’s claim that the attack on our consulate in Benghazi was caused by a YouTube video.) For each of his examples of Fox News reporting sensationalized but not-well-fact-checked stories that pander to those of us on the right, I can counter with an example of a “mainstream” outlet pushing a story that panders to my friends on the left. (Recall that “fake but accurate” was how the New York Times described the forged memos claiming George W. Bush tried to avoid Vietnam service.) And for each example of Donald Trump using the Federal bureaucracy against his political opponents, I can counter with examples from his predecessor’s presidency. (Anyone recall Lois Lerner trying to explain why the IRS was denying and slow-walking tax exempt status for Tea Party organizations?)
So Mr. Rauch, welcome to my world. I regret that my side of the political aisle has been forced to implement the information warfare equivalent of Geneva Convention physical warfare reprisals to motivate leftist thinkers like you to call for a return to the principles and practices of the Constitution of Knowledge. Frankly, I voted for Donald Trump not because I thought he was a good man, but “because he fights”.
But even as late as you are to the party, again I say “welcome” and “well stated”. You have convinced me to shift my personal charitable donations from a Wikipedia competitor to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
I hope your book signals the beginning of the breaking of the delirium fever of self-righteous closed epistemology that I’ve seen on the left for too many decades.
But I can’t resist asking two questions: (1) Since publication more facts have come out tending to confirm the hypothesis that COVID-19 was developed in a laboratory; want to revisit your casual dismissal of that as a conspiracy theory? And (2) perhaps in your next edition you might examine the phenomenon of scientists and policy makers falling back on statements like “the science is settled” and “a consensus of scientists exists” on the severity of the ‘existential’ threat of anthropogenic global warming and the necessity of drastic government interference with economic freedom?
Top reviews from other countries
Jonathan sees truth as a consensus regarding our understanding of the world. The consensus is built through a transformation of observations, opinions and insights into facts through a network of reputable institutions. The truth is not immutable, when new idea are offered, they are processed by these institutions. Poor ideas fall by the wayside, good ideas drive the evolution of new consensus. How Wikipedia works is a good (but not perfect) way to think about how the bigger truth making ecosystem works. He hypothesises that this broader ecosystem is corrupted and this has negative consequences for Liberal Democracy.
These institutions are a product of the Enlightenment and linked to the development of Liberal Democracy. It’s a good idea, but light on detail. A fuller historical perspective on the relationship between Liberal Democracy and truth making institutions is better covered in ‘Liberalism’ by Edmund Fawcett.
Liberal Democracy is both fragile and robust, as are the institutions it spawns. Jonathan explains how a new technology can first hobble a liberal democracy and then how new institutions emerge to correct the situation. His example is printing, specifically how the newspaper industry grew rapidly in the 1800s based on the development of printer technology, making printing cheaper and more accessible. This growth caused all sorts of problems for truth making, (fake news was a big thing in the 19th century). Over time new standards for news reporting restored order to the process of truth making. This story elegantly foreshadows how the internet and social media has facilitated the current crisis in truth making.
Jonathan shows that it is mainly the right wing playing fast and loose with the truth. He sees Donald Trump and his coterie as the masters of obfuscation and blustery falsehoods. The author offers two characteristics of a truth or ‘Rules for Reality’; 1) No one gets the final say (falsifiability, there is no final say) and 2) No one has personal authority ( in the truth making process). By making unfalsifiable claims and speaking from authority Trump breaks both rules. His attack on Trump is merited, however his prose smacks a little of derangement. Had he made a tighter attack, reminding the reader of how Trump has broken the reality rules, I think Jonathan may have opened the eyes of more centrist Trump supporters to his cavalier handling of facts and his disregard for the important role of mainstream media.
The truth making system is also compromised by other powerful groups. Bad actors inside institutions are stopping the emergence of new ideas or counter perspectives. It’s not just valid facts being killed off, new ideas and observations are not properly evaluated and validated. For example, in the pay inequality debate, if someone comes forward with data suggesting there are legitimate reasons for the inequality, they are censored, cancelled and de-platformed for being sexist, the evidence ignored.
It is mainly the left that engage in this behaviour. Jonathan argues that the University system, the institution that could be called a fact factory is the major culprit. In universities, Democrats outweigh Republicans. It is the universities who censor, cancel and de-platform. He makes two interesting observations, first, that cancelling is not just about muting the target for cancellation, it’s more about sending a warning to others that leads to self-censorship. Secondly, that an organised minority of students, not faculty or administrations agitate for censorship, cancellation, and de-platforming. By implication the faculty and administration enable. Both these ideas show how small, well aimed attacks have a disproportionate effect on truth making. The quote ‘All that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing’ comes to mind.
I think the author is less emotional in his choice of words describing the left’s behaviour. He is however balanced in his criticism of right and left.
Facts are mainly words. There is a subject not covered in this book that enables censoring, cancelling and de-platforming. The left is expert at shifting the meaning of words purposefully. For example, to be anti-racist in the past was about abhorring racist behaviour and calling it out when it’s evident. The new meaning is to affirm that white folk are systematically privileged and implicitly racist. You are racist if you are not vocal in asserting this way of thinking whenever and wherever you can. The left doesn’t falsify like the right, they redefine words, then censor, cancel and de-platform those who refuse to accept the redefinition. Healthy debate and the natural evolution of consensual truth is derailed. It’s a smart strategy that the right still does not understand. It’s as if they have turned up for a competition but haven’t been told the new rules.
Bias is our default setting. The Balkanisation of Western politics in the last few years is testament to this assertion. Jonathan has written a biased book. A point of view implies bias. What I find heart-warming is that his perspective is insightful, and he has worked hard to present a balanced commentary on the parlours state of the constitution of knowledge. However the commentary is not without bias, this is as good as it gets. A thoughtful reader looking for truth should be able to see past his more impassioned concerns regarding the manipulation of facts by the right than his worries about the cancel culture on the left. Few writers on this topic work hard enough to check their bias. I sense Jonathan works hard to check his bias. This is why I would would like him as a friend. A good faith friend with different views trumps (!) a dysfunctional ideologue, even when I agree with the idealogical position.
I really wanted to give this work five stars. In all conscience, I cannot, there are two reasons: Treatment of the historical development of truth making institutions could have been stronger and linked more tightly to the evolutionary arc of Liberal Democracy. Secondly, an exploration of how the left change word meaning to enable cancel culture to thrive, would have offered a deeper insight into process of silencing legitimate enquiry. That said, this effort is worth the time and money for anyone trying to understand the Western world as it is in the 2020s.
Although the epistemic virtues proposed are crucial in the daily operations of Scientific Research , it is not clear how they can be extrapolated to the political world, in order to reconcile entrenched opposing political views on Brexit, or in the American case on gun control, same sex marriage or abortion? While the book’s approach is nuanced and objective, my criticism is that it is too American centric , devoid of comparative international or historical analysis. It would have been interesting to document how the pursuit of Science and knowledge is different, in authoritarian Societies, past and present. What is the evidence that suppression of political divergence and view point diversity impedes scientific progress or technical development in Modern China or Putin’s Russia? Are closed societies impervious to the same critical peer review procedures and objective appraisals in scientific endeavours? After all the great contributions of the Scientific Revolution were equally produced among Protestant libertarian regimes ( Scotland, England, Holland) and Catholic authoritarian societies( France, Italy, Poland). In spite of these reservations , this is a book that has been rightly praised for its intelligent insight into our present political and cultural dilemmas.
Rauch provides a fiery and compelling attack on the twins dangers of Trump/MAGA troll epistemology from the right and cancel culture from the left.
Rauch doesn’t shy away from the reality of how powerful and threatening these forms of epistemic warfare are. We can’t be complacent. But this is an optimistic and hopeful book.