Book ‘The Constitution of Knowledge’ by Jonathan Rauch

Read excerpt from 'The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth' by Jonathan Rauch
A Defense of Truth
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...
Publisher: ‎Brookings Institution Press (June 22, 2021)  Hardcover: ‎280 pages  ISBN-10: ‎0815738862  ISBN-13: ‎978-0815738862  Dimensions:‎ 6 x 1.3 x 9.1 inches

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Book excerpt

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“A Terrible Statement Unless He Gets Away with It”

Chaos and conformity have caused an epistemic crisis

In the public square of Athens, a homely, snub-nosed, bulgy-eyed old man encounters a homely, snub-nosed, bulgy-eyed young man. Hailing the young man and remarking on their resemblance, Socrates begins a conversation with Theaetetus and sets out to determine whether they also resemble each other in their love of philosophy. Theaetetus protests that he is no great intellect; philosophical puzzles make him quite dizzy, “wondering whatever they can mean.” Ah! Then you are a philosopher: “This sense of wonder is the mark of the philosopher,” insists Socrates. “Philosophy indeed has no other origin.”

With that, in a conversation imagined by Plato 2,400 or so years ago, the old man commences to lead his new friend on an expedition into the densest thickets of epistemology. What is knowledge? What is error? How does error arise? Why is error even possible? Each question would seem to have an obvious answer, yet each obvious answer collapses upon examination.

erhaps knowledge is correct perception of the world? But perception varies between individuals; it varies, too, within individuals. A wine which tastes sweet when I am well may taste bitter the next day, when I am ill. There are dreams and hallucinations, all imaginary yet seeming real. Each of us is a parade of changing perceptions, but our shifting personal palimpsest can never be the same as knowledge, as reality.

Well, then, perhaps knowledge is true judgment, true belief? But we may hold random or ignorant views which merely happen to be true; we may guess or conjecture and be proven right through pure luck; yet lucky guesses are surely not the same as knowledge. Our own confidence in our beliefs is no good, for we may feel sure but be in error.

Perhaps, then, knowledge is true belief or true judgment plus an account, an explanation. That seems more like it. But no, Socrates spins us around again. How can we judge the truth of the account without also knowing the truth of the subject of the account? If the account is based on a distinction, for example, and if the distinction is comprehensible and persuasive, then we must already have knowledge of the thing we are explaining: otherwise the distinction would not enlighten us. Relying on an account traps us in circularity: we cannot have knowledge without an account, but we cannot have an account without knowledge.

“So, Theaetetus,” says Socrates to the younger version of himself, “neither perception, nor true belief, nor the addition of an ‘account’ to true belief can be knowledge.” Replies the young man, presumably confirmed in his belief that philosophy is dizzying, “Apparently not.” And here the conversation ends abruptly in defeat, leavened only by Socrates’s assurance that at least the two of them are clearer on what it is they do not know, and therefore will be humbler and more agreeable to their companions.

So much ratiocination, so much spadework, leading nowhere? Perhaps. And surely disappointing. “But tomorrow morning,” says Socrates, “let us meet here again.”1 The conversation will continue. Not, tragically, for Socrates; he would soon be executed for impiety. But the conversation outlived him and continues to this day. At age eighteen, as a college freshman, I encountered Theaetetus with a jolt. I sensed that it asked an important question, yet it provided no answer. Instead, it was an exercise in relentless deconstruction, in gentle but ruthless analytical demolition. Plato’s message came through in bold relief: this business about truth, about distinguishing reality from error—it is not easy, and if you think otherwise, go away!

And yet, as Plato instructs us, our analytical ruthlessness is not nihilism or a waste of time. It teaches rigor and humility, the foundations of the truth-seeking attitude. If Socrates could not on this occasion define or explain knowledge, he could nonetheless demonstrate its spirit. The most important words of the dialogue are those five words at the end. Let us meet here again: acquiring knowledge is a conversation, not a destination. It is a process, a journey—a journey we take together, not alone. Others are always involved. Knowledge is not just something I have; more fundamentally, it is something we have.

Here, implicitly at least, Plato anticipates the richest and most advanced insights of today’s philosophy of science. Yet, in his grand political treatise, The Republic, Plato would take a very different view of knowledge than the one Socrates implies: the ideal regime invests an authoritative leader with the power to distinguish truth from falsehood. That governing model, whenever implemented, proved to be a wrong turn, one which contributed to enturies of human grief. Today, we can say that it was Theaetetus which pointed the way forward, even if more than two millennia would pass before the path it blazed was rediscovered.

In my own way, as a young man, I set out on Theaetetus’s journey. After college I became a journalist and, as such, dedicated myself to finding out what is true and to telling stories which enlighten and instruct. Good journalism, like philosophy, and like science, begins with curiosity, with wonder. Then come the hypothesis, the thesis, the seemingly plausible account. Then come the efforts to test that account against the world, by asking still more questions; and then, often, comes the moment when the hypothesis lists or collapses and my head, like Theaetetus’s, spins. And then, if I am lucky, out of the dizziness comes a stronger hypothesis, something closer to truth; or, if I am not as lucky, out of the dizziness comes a reminder to be humble in the face of reality’s caprice.

However, my personal struggles to find the right questions and assemble mosaic tiles of information to tell the tale coherently—while necessary for journalism—are not in fact journalism. A crackpot, a loner, a conspiracy theorist will engage in the same steps, yet is not a journalist. I became a journalist by being forced outside of myself. From my very first steps into the world of journalism, first on my college newspaper, then as a summer intern at National Journal magazine in Washington, D.C., and then in the newsroom as a cub reporter for the Winston-Salem Journal, I was thrust into contact with the world outside my own head. Apart from the lonely process of writing a first draft, I could do nothing on my own. Facts were gathered from interviews and sources; analysis was checked with experts; every sentence was edited, copy-edited, and often fact-checked; tipsters suggested story ideas, sources waved me off bad leads, and challenges to my claims percolated in conversations within the newsroom and outside of it. The sense of having joined something much greater than myself, and of swearing allegiance to the exacting standards of a great tradition, made the enterprise of journalism appealing and compelling to me even on the days when the practice of journalism seemed grinding and routine (which was often).

here were some things, I learned, that we—we, as professionals—do: prize accuracy; seek a comment from a person before publishing something about her; prefer on-record information; consult multiple sources with varied viewpoints; abjure jargon, long-windedness, extravagance, and opinion (except in sports writing, which seemed to require all of the above). There were other things, I learned, that we do not do: pay for information, accept gifts from sources, betray confidentiality, tolerate meddling from the ad department. As a young journalist, I was being rebuilt, reshaped, into a worker ant in humanity’s hive-mind, humans’ most important and beneficent creation. Without realizing it at the time, I was being inducted into a community, the reality-based community—the same community into which Socrates was inducting Theaetetus so long ago. I was learning the Constitution of Knowledge.

An Epistemic Crisis

When Americans think about how we find truth amid a world full of discordant viewpoints, we usually turn to a metaphor, that of the marketplace of ideas. It is a good metaphor as far as it goes, yet woefully incomplete. It conjures up an image of ideas being traded by individuals in a kind of flea market, or an image of disembodied ideas clashing and competing in some ethereal realm of their own. But ideas in the marketplace do not talk directly to each other, and for the most part neither do individuals. Rather, our 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 the 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.

The world I was trained for seems, in hindsight, a long way off, in some respects more unfamiliar than Socrates’s Athens. In science, in journalism, in politics, and in daily life, truthfulness is for the most part a civic norm, not a legal requirement, and the twenty-first century put it under severe pressure. Most shockingly, a president of the United States gleefully shattered every known record for lying. One might be tempted to write off all politicians as liars, but no prominent figure in American politics had lied nearly as brazenly, wantonly, and prolifically.

Even more telling, perhaps, than his contemptuous attitude toward facts was his contemptuous attitude toward corrections. In 1690, the first newspaper in North America went to press. Called Publick Occurrences, it was soon stamped out by censorious authorities. Still, it made an impression, partly by declaring its mission on its front page:

That something may be done towards the Curing, or at least the Charming of that Spirit of Lying, which prevails amongst us, wherefore nothing shall be entered, but what we have reason to believe is true, repairing to the best fountains for our Information. And when there appears any material mistake in anything that is collected, it shall be corrected …

The idea of accountability to truth, and thus of a responsibility to correct the record, was a threshold idea in the establishment of mainstream journalism, and it remains foundational today. In 2017 several leading journalists at CNN reported that a confidant of President Trump was linked to a dicey Russian hedge fund. The story turned out to be wrong. CNN retracted it, apologized for it, and forced out the journalists responsible for it after determining that they had breached CNN’s standards. One response would have been to tweet out some statement like: “Kudos to CNN for caring enough about truth to correct its story and clean house. That’s Real News!” What the president tweeted out, however, was this: “Wow, CNN had to retract big story on ‘Russia,’ with 3 employees forced to resign. What about all the other phony stories they do? FAKE NEWS!” And this: “So they caught Fake News CNN cold, but what about NBC, CBS & ABC? What about the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost? They are all Fake News!” In the president’s worldview, by holding itself to account, the network had proved not its integrity but its corruption—and, indeed, the corruption of the entire news industry.

In much the same spirit, in 2018 the president and the Republican National Committee touted something they called the “Fake News Awards.” What the president and the committee did not note was that of the eleven supposedly fake news items, at leas seven had been promptly corrected by the outlets which had published them. In other words, the president and the committee knew the reports were false because the outlets had said so. Two of the faulty reports, according to the Washington Post, had prompted suspensions or resignations (the CNN report was one of them). Two were merely tweets, also corrected. Another was an opinion piece. Apparently, scouring the mainstream media for fake news, the president and his political team could find nothing worse. (Perhaps they lacked time to glance at the acres of inaccuracies rolled out by conspiratorial right-wing outlets.) In any case, the moral they drew was the same: correcting error is a sign not of integrity but of crookedness.

The president’s behavior may have been compulsive, delusional, or pathological, to one extent or another. But it could not have been anything other than intentional. In 2013 someone using the handle @backupwraith tweeted: “I firmly believe that @realDonaldTrump is the most superior troll on the whole of twitter.” Trump quoted the tweet with the comment: “A great compliment!” In 2018 CBS News’s Lesley Stahl recounted asking Trump, during his presidential campaign, whether he planned to stop attacking the press. “He said, ‘You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me no one will believe you.’ ” The White House did not deny Stahl’s account. Why would it? Trump and his troll army had, by their lights, every reason to be proud of what they were doing.

And they did know what they were doing. We know Trump knew, because he had warned us. In 2004, in an interview with NBC News’s Chris Matthews, Trump was asked to reflect on the Republican presidential convention, which had just ended. In that year’s presidential race, a challenge for Republicans was that their candidate, President George W. Bush, had safely sat out the Vietnam War in the Texas Air National Guard, whereas his opponent, Senator John Kerry, had won a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts for valor in combat. A group called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth waged a successful propaganda campaign challenging Kerry’s wartime record. That was the context in which the following exchange occurred:

Trump: I sat through the convention in New York. And they did a great job, the Republicans. But maybe the greatest spin I’ve ever seen on anything is, it’s almost coming out that Bush is a war hero and Kerry isn’t. I think that could be the greatest spin I’ve ever seen.

Matthews: Because?

Trump: Well, the whole thing with the Swift Boat group, which obviously is being done by Bush and Bush’s people, happened to be brilliant. They’ve taken all of that war hero thing away from Kerry and they’ve almost given to it Bush. And Bush, frankly, was not serving. That we know.

Matthews: … Let me ask you about perhaps what you might call unnecessary roughness in politics. This week, Dick Cheney, the vice president, a very tough guy, said that if we elect, the American people elect Kerry, that we’re basically going to face ourselves with the threat of a devastating [terrorist] attack. He is saying vote Democrat, you’re going to get attacked.

Trump: Well, it’s a terrible statement unless he gets away with it.

A terrible statement unless he gets away with it. Trump was hardly the first politician to lie. Yet as president, more than a decade later, he went far beyond an ordinary political hit job like the Swift Boat campaign. In the scale and brazenness of his lying, many people sensed something different from ordinary political spin and exaggeration, something with more sinister aims and more disorienting consequences: something from the world of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: “The party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” Trump and his media echo chambers were normalizing lying in order to obliterate the distinction, in the public realm, between truth and untruth. They were practicing the hallowed (if infamous) art of disinformation. They lied in trivial ways, when there was no point in lying except to show contempt for truth, as when Trump claimed rain had not fallen on his inauguration. They lied in grandiose and fantastic ways, as in their months-long disinformation campaign claiming to have won an election which Trump had demonstrably lost (a campaign which ended only when he was impeached for inciting a violent insurrection). They lied without distinguishing between truth and falsehood or between big lies and small lies, because their goal was to denude the public’s capacity to make any distinctions at all.

Observing events, an assortment of commentators and academics thought they saw a threat to the underpinnings of the liberal order itself, and not just from Trump and his political allies but from a whole industry of trolls and foreign actors and even bots and algorithms. “In threatening to erode the forms of intellectual trust and cooperation that are required for democratic life, and in making the determination of ‘truth’ more and more obviously a consequence of brute power alone, our current practices threaten democracy itself,” wrote Sophia Rosenfeld, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, in her book Democracy and Truth: A Short History. In reports and books with titles like “The Misinformation Age” and “Truth Decay” and “Post-Truth” and “The Death of Truth,” scholars explored aspects of what all agreed was uncharted territory, at least in the United States.3 Politicians and pundits—everyone from senators and two former secretaries of state to leaders of the intelligence and law-enforcement communities—sounded alarms that American civic life might be losing its grip on reality: its ability, that is, to tell truth from untruth or even believe there is a difference. “We have a risk of getting to a place where we don’t have shared public facts,” Ben Sasse, a Republican senator, said in a 2017 interview with CNN, voicing the prevalent concern. “A republic will not work if we don’t have shared facts.” Michael Hayden, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, sent a distress signal when he wrote (in the New York Times): “These are truly uncharted waters for the country. We have in the past argued over the values to be applied to objective reality, or occasionally over what constituted objective reality, but never the existence or relevance of objective reality itself.” The battle lines, Hayden perceived, made for some strange bedfellows. “In this post-truth world, intelligence agencies are in the bunker with some unlikely mates: journalism, academia, the courts, law enforcement, and science—all of which, like intelligence gathering, are evidence-based.”

An arcane multisyllabic word began cropping up in the public discourse. “At its heart … the current crisis belongs primarily to the realm of epistemology, or how we know what we know,” wrote Rosenfeld (italics added). The esoteric term, previously a staple of philosophers but little known outside the ivory tower, had found a new mainstream application. In 2020, former President Barack Obama stated the matter starkly: “If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false, then by definition the marketplace of ideas doesn’t work. And by definition our democracy doesn’t work. We are entering into an epistemological crisis.”