Subtitled: “A Defense of Truth”. Brookings, 2021. 266pp of text, plus notes and index, total 305pp.

This is one of two books I’ve read recently, following the Lee McIntyre book that I posted about two days ago, that dovetail in their concern for truth vs. disinformation. (Two others that also concern, in varying ways, how consensus reality has become corroded are by Lukianoff & Haidt, and Ariely.) Rauch is senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, perhaps the most influential and credible think tank in the nation, according to Wikipedia, which does not identify it as leaning either left or right. He also writes for The Atlantic.

Rauch is reacting against the “epistemic crisis” formed by disinformation and chaotic conservative politics, that has brought about the public’s incapacity to tell truth from lie. The situation is due mostly to disinformation deployed by Trump (who lies constantly, brags about doing so, and never apologizes), trolls, foreign government, conspiracy mongers, and conservative media — that is, from the right. But with assist from the left, through its cancel culture, resulting social intimidation and self-censorship. (This latter is what the Lukianoff/Haidt book, The Coddling of the American Mind, is about.)

In contrast with all this, Rauch wants people to understand the rules and norms of American society that have arisen over the past century or more, the ones that make a functioning society possible, those that are now being undermined. I’ll quote his thesis from page 15:

This book explains and defends the Constitution of Knowledge, liberalism’s epistemic operating system: our social rules for turning disagreement into knowledge. The system did not assemble itself by some automatic social magic; it was the product of hard-fought battles and hard-won norms and institutions, and many people suffered and bled for it along the way. It is not self-maintaining; it relies on an array of sometimes delicate social settings and understandings, and those need to be understood, affirmed, and protected. By explicating the Constitution of Knowledge, and by exploring contemporary threats to it, I hope to arm its advocates with a clearer understanding of what they must protect, and why, and how.

And then he recalls an earlier book of his, and the two rules he suggested then; same page.

In the earlier book, I teased out the implications of two rules on which the modern liberal epistemic order — what I call “liberal science” — is founded: no final say and no personal authority. I argued that wherever people adhere to those rules, they will form a community of error-seeking inquirers accountable to each other but never to any particular authority, and knowledge will arise from their hive-like, largely self-organizing activities. I used the term “liberal science” partly to emphasize that the system is, like capitalism and democracy, depersonalized and decentralized and rules-based; also because I needed a more inclusive term than just “science,” which connotes hard sciences like physics, whereas “liberal science” includes the soft sciences and even humanities such as literary criticism and moral philosophy, plus mainstream journalism and aspects of jurisprudence and intelligence work: all the fields in which investigators use impersonal critical exchange to seek truth and hold each other accountable for accurate.

And that is the gist of the book. (Note he uses the term “liberalism” in its broad sense, not as a synonym for progressives or Democrats.)

I’m not going to summarize the entire book, but rather reread my 8000 words of notes and itemize some key points and reactions.

  • (In Chapter 2) Rauch is aware of tribal truth, biases, and groupthink. Hobbes, Hume. Why did reason arise? Persuasion. But not truth. Motivated reasoning. (All the modern intellectuals now understand these things.) He has a nice list of cognitive biases, on page 26. Heuristics. Terrorists, propagandists, and advertisers, exploit these psychological biases. They survive because humans are social animals. “When facts challenge the belief, the congregation will defend its faith by denying the facts.” p33.4. Then conformity bias, to get epistemic tribalism. The three liberal orders: the Industrial Revolution, the American revolution, and the scientific revolution. Locke, Hobbes, de Montaigne. Bacon. Popper. The advantage of science is that it floats and falsifies hypotheses all the time, something no other system can do.
  • For most of human history, humans had no way to test ideas; so they were sanctified, and organized tribes around dogmas. Liberal science separates the idea from the person. Ideas are killed, not scientists. Popper called it evolutionary epistemology. Science’s genius is its ability to make errors quickly and to find them quickly. Many have since quibbled with Popper; but his core insight has held up. It led to the idea that science is not a process, but a kind of social network.
  • And more history. Rauch adopts the term “reality-based community,” long a slogan of the blogs at CFI, the Center for Inquiry (e.g. here), and compares its norms to that of the US Constitution. And expands on his two rules from his earlier book:
    • The fallibilist rule: No one gets the final say. “You are entitled to claim that a statement is objectively true only insofar as it is both checkable and has stood up to checking, but not otherwise.”
    • The empirical rule: No one has personal authority. Checks of your claim are the same no matter who does it; everyone must get the same result. No authorities.
  • Rauch reflects on his own early career as a journalist, and the norms he learned then, and recalls even earlier as the “yellow journalism” of the late 19th century gave rise to the standards of what we now call the “mainstream media”–which so people have been convinced not to “believe” in, preferring the comparative “yellow journalism” of Fox News.

Just before this book I read Owning the Unknown: A Science Fiction Writer Explores Atheism, Agnosticism, and the Idea of God by the Canadian SF writer Robert Charles Wilson, and was struck by his take on theology: that in theology, anyone can make any claim they like, there is no accountability. Everything is just opinion, because there is no evidence to present. This is of course the complete opposite of Rauch’s Constitution of Knowledge. That doesn’t mean people don’t disagree! Thus the many religious wars throughout history.

I’ll compile more notes about the book tomorrow. In particular, there’s a long passage, a full page or more, in which Rauch lists components of the government’s “constitution” and how the norms of US society have been implemented over the past century. It strikes me that this governmental infrastructure is what the Right thinks is the “deep state” that needs to be eliminated — their throats cut, in the words of DeSantis. (He said he was speaking figuratively. Even so.) This just confirms to me the simple-minded thinking on the right. They have no idea what a complex world we live in, and what it takes to keep it going — without complaining that the government is taking care of them. I’ll find that tomorrow. (I think I’ve finally figured out how to take a photo of text on my iPhone and, through several steps, PDF to Word and OCR, convert it to text I can copy into a blog post.)

For today I’ll make a couple broad comments about this book.

  • First, I’m not entirely persuaded by his analogy to the US Constitution, how it supposedly mediates political errors in the way his “Constitution of Knowledge” arrives at more-or-less objective truth. OK, there’s no final say. But unlike actual knowledge, especially science, politics can swing 180 degrees from one political ‘truth’ to another, depending on which party is in power. Does politics ensure that truth will out? I don’t think so. Look at the current US swing toward autocracy. In the very long term? Maybe. At least the conservatives are not still promoting slavery.
  • Second, this book, published some two years ago and presumably finished a year or so before that, does not address the Right’s “cancel culture,” especially in Texas in Florida, in recent years. The Left’s cancel culture focuses on speakers on campuses, and professors saying intemperate things, leading to student boycotts and protests. While the Right’s cancel culture would banish entire subjects, and entire classes of people, from public recognition and discussion. There’s danger from both ends — I’ve revising one of my provisional conclusions, i.e. changing my mind about something — but I don’t think the danger from both ends is equivalent.

More tomorrow.

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