by Jonathan Rauch (Brookings Institution Press, 346 pp., $27.99)
Is the American experiment in self-government drawing to an end? The prospect is no longer unthinkable. One of our two major political parties has attached itself to a deranged and dangerous personality and embraced his most pernicious lie: that the 2020 election was stolen from him. Millions of Americans have accepted the lie as gospel. Extremists have already taken it as a summons to violence. How did we arrive at this juncture? One thing should be obvious: It is not Donald Trump’s doing alone. Historians will study this moment—and the entire Trump disaster—for as long as history is taught.
Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution, the author of a number of well-regarded volumes and a perspicacious observer of the contemporary scene, has found an unusual pathway into the puzzle. In his new book, The Constitution of Knowledge, he takes a searching look into the nature of truth and the institutions that support it. No less intently, he examines the strengths and weaknesses of the now-legion enemies of truth. As he shows, the way in which truth and falsehood are manufactured bears heavily on our current predicament.
Rauch begins, productively, at a high level of abstraction. “What is knowledge?”, he asks. “What is error?” What follows, in the first half of his book, is a tour of epistemological inquiry, ancient and modern, from Plato to the mostly forgotten Charles Sanders Peirce, with stops along the way at Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Mill, and Montaigne, among other leading thinkers.
From Socrates we learn the intrinsic difficulty of answering the most seemingly elementary questions. The Socratic dialogue on the question of knowledge takes one nowhere: Rauch calls it “an exercise in relentless deconstruction” of the very idea of truth. Still, it is “not nihilism or a waste of time.” Instead, what Socrates teaches is that, though we can seek truth, it is very difficult to find. The real lesson is that of “rigor and humility, the foundations of the truth-seeking attitude.” The most important words in the Socratic exchange, Rauch writes, are the five at the very end: “Let us meet here again.” We are left to conclude, in Rauch’s words, that acquiring knowledge is a social phenomenon, “a process, a journey—a journey we take together, not alone.”
Modern philosophy has taken a pessimistic view of the human ability to separate truth from falsehood. In Hume’s famous words, “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” A wealth of contemporary scholarship, to which Rauch introduces us, suggests that Hume was right. In evolutionary terms, natural selection has developed the human mind “not for the ability to reason in a way which leads to truth, necessarily, but for the ability to reason in a way which persuades.” [Rauch’s emphasis]
Of the manifold biases from which we suffer, many “exist to solidify the social allegiances upon which our ancestors’ survival depended.” Rauch puts before the reader fascinating social science experiments that reveal the distorting effects of group or tribal membership on our thinking. One consequence highly pertinent to our situation today is the construction of “mass alternative realities.”
For those in the grip of such alternative realities, “ordinary questions of fact turn into chasms of incommensurable conflict.” Was Barack Obama born in the United States? In answering this straightforward question in a 2016 poll, only a quarter of Republicans agreed, while Democrats tilted overwhelmingly in the other direction. As we see today, such differences can have profound consequences for societal cohesion.
The obvious question presented by this bleak assessment of human rationality is that of how society can function at all, let alone develop into the advanced and generally peaceful civilization in which we live today. The answer is that, whatever the limits of our rationality, we have developed a wealth of truth-seeking mechanisms that lead to the central argument of Rauch’s book and explains its title:
[O]ur conversations are mediated through institutions … and they rely on a dense network of norms and rules … and they depend on the expertise of professionals … and the entire system rests on a foundation of values.… 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.
But the values, rules, and institutions that comprise the Constitution of Knowledge are under assault today from multiple directions.
One vector of assault is technological: The commercial internet, Rauch writes, was born with “an epistemic defect.” Traditional media companies maintained their audience in no small part by building trust: A reputation for truthfulness and accuracy was at the core of their business model. In contrast, the business model fostered by the internet rests on attracting eyeballs and generating clicks. Regard for accuracy has gone out the door: “The metrics and algorithms and optimization tools [are] sensitive to popularity but indifferent to truth.”
Worse, the digital world tends to “splinter” reality. The Constitution of Knowledge puts facts and ideas through a dynamic testing process that ultimately generates a shared understanding or, at the very least, reasonable parameters for debate. Internet algorithms, on the other hand, provide us only with the information we want to hear.
Among other things, the result is fertile ground for those who would spread disinformation. Steve Bannon, Trump’s senior strategist both in his political campaigns and for part of his presidency, is a master of the genre. His method of undermining the generally fact-based mainstream media, as he candidly put it with characteristic crudity, is to “flood the zone with shit.”
No less a threat comes, primarily from the Left, in the form of cancellation, which Rauch calls “the despotism of the few.” It is a type of enforced conformism that often travels under the banner of “words that wound”—the pernicious notion that words themselves are a form of violence—and, therefore, must be suppressed. Rauch vociferously rejects this idea, noting that the claim of verbal violence “catastrophizes everyday interactions,” trivializes genuine violence, and “ends the conversation.” This kind of assertion is an egregious violation of the Constitution of Knowledge.
Despite the mounting challenges to the reality-based world, Rauch remains surprisingly optimistic that the Constitution of Knowledge will retain its vigor and truth will ultimately triumph over lies. For one thing, the internet is not quite as hopelessly flawed as it might seem. Rauch points to the extraordinary example of Wikipedia, which, when one thinks seriously about it, as Rauch does, is a kind of miracle of accurate information-gathering on a grand scale.
Rauch stresses that, from the start, Wikipedia “committed itself to a single reality and to norms of neutrality and objectivity, and it understood itself as a community, not a platform.” He believes that the various platforms—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and so forth—can be reformed to be more truth-friendly and suggests various means by which that change might be accomplished. Some such reforms are already under way.
Rauch points to the “striking example” of Facebook, which has formed an outside review panel to consider what content to remove or demote. This “dramatic innovation,” he writes, is an instance of “setting up professional bodies to develop standards and bring order from chaos.” But one wonders how a body like this can exercise control over such a massive domain. It is one thing to censor (itself not a problem-free practice) the inflammatory posts of Trump, as Facebook has done. It is entirely another to police Facebook’s 2.8 billion monthly users. Then, there is the question of the political biases that will inevitably creep into the process. Who, if anyone, will review the work of the reviewers? WikiLeaks aside, looking at the current dismal picture, I have my doubts that the flaws of the internet can be set right.
But there is no doubt that Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge is a significant achievement, fruitfully bringing serious works of political philosophy into conversation with the nitty-gritty of the American scene. It is difficult to do justice to this ambitious and wide-ranging book within the limited scope of a review, but one puts it down with many fresh insights into the depredations of the Trump era and a deeper understanding of some large and important questions.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.
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