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The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth

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Arming Americans to defend the truth from today's war on facts "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." --Newsweek A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice Disinformation. Trolling. Conspiracies. Social media pile-ons. Campus intolerance. On the surface, these recent additions to our d Arming Americans to defend the truth from today's war on facts "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." --Newsweek A 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 Knowledge"--our 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 do--and 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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Arming Americans to defend the truth from today's war on facts "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." --Newsweek A New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice Disinformation. Trolling. Conspiracies. Social media pile-ons. Campus intolerance. On the surface, these recent additions to our d Arming Americans to defend the truth from today's war on facts "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." --Newsweek A 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 Knowledge"--our 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 do--and 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.

30 review for The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth

  1. 5 out of 5

    BlackOxford

    In Praise of Method This book says many sensible things. That knowledge is something social, that truth is a matter of agreement, that such agreement has been compromised by modern technology, that error and uncertainty is what produces new knowledge, and that the only way in which we will be able to re-capture a communal appreciation of the truth is through the creation of appropriate institutions of inquiry that respect this error and uncertainty. The author’s recognition that what appears to b In Praise of Method This book says many sensible things. That knowledge is something social, that truth is a matter of agreement, that such agreement has been compromised by modern technology, that error and uncertainty is what produces new knowledge, and that the only way in which we will be able to re-capture a communal appreciation of the truth is through the creation of appropriate institutions of inquiry that respect this error and uncertainty. The author’s recognition that what appears to be an issue of factuality in society is really a political problem is absolutely correct. But his proposal for how to address this problem is neither institutional nor political but rather personal and psychological. So, seriously short of anything serious. Rauch’s focus is on what is traditionally called method, those things we need to do in order to distinguish the correct from the bogus. The adjective ‘scientific’ is usually applied in order to indicate a concern with the material rather spiritual, and to suggest an intellectual rather than technical programme. Scientific method has been an esoteric topic of discussion among philosophers and theoretical scientists for centuries. The emergence of Trump and his Politics of the Lie has made scientific method a much more popular subject. The issue at stake is what constitutes a valid result or statement, something that can (loosely) be called the ‘truth.’ It turns out that there is no such thing as a unique scientific method. There are, instead, many different methods proposed and accepted over time and across disciplines to establish normative rules for research and to verify and validate the results of inquiry. The rules of inquiry that apply to mathematicians are not the same as those of biologists, for example. Hegel had very different rules than Kant or Hume in philosophy. And the rules for what is considered good physics today are not the same as those of 100 years ago. The fact that methods vary and change is a hint at their political origin. Rauch traces the the issue of method to Plato. But I think the 17th century philosopher, Gottfried Leibniz, was arguably the first person to suggest that all personal knowledge is fragmentary, incomplete, and likely misleading. And it was the American, Charles Sanders Peirce, who took the implication of this insight and proposed that authentic knowledge was a communal affair among those expert in their fields. For Peirce, the expert community sets the standards to judge not just the competence of individual researchers but also what constitutes a fact produced through their inquiry. More recent thinkers like Jürgen Habermas have extended the scope of Peirce’s thinking to include not just science but all inquiry, including the larger community of non-experts as well. In doing so, these thinkers inevitably conclude that inquiry of any kind at all is initiated, guided, and judged in a political process. In the ideal, this process should be accessible - in terms of both information and influence - by all those affected by decisions of the community. In other words the argument about the rules of inquiry must be as close to universal as we can make it. Universal participation in inquiry is a tall order. The issue involves not just governmental politics but also participation in all the specialised expert communities. How is it possible for non-physicists, who know nothing about quantum mechanics, for example, to participate in decision-making of the discipline? In fact, of course, such participation is already commonplace as any politician on a national scientific research appropriations committee already knows. Because of problems that are all too well known in democratic societies - political expediency, pork-barrelling, lobby-funded campaigning, as well as direct and indirect fraud - this sort of participation doesn’t approach Habermas’s ideal. The main impediment is the asymmetric power relationships that permeate society, especially in typical politics. The rise of the internet was looked upon by many as a way to allow just the sort of enlarged participation that people like Habermas had in mind. The internet was, it was touted, a way to level the playing field so that authority of all types - governmental, scientific, and professional - could be made more ‘transparent’ and more accountable. What has come as a surprise to many in recent years is that the new communications technologies - social, transactional, and research-oriented - have created a tension and ultimately a rift between the Peircean expert communities and the larger, really universal, community of a Habermas. The politics of these two types of communities are entirely different. Expert communities - of scientists, doctors, lawyers, business people, engineers, information specialists, journalists and so on ad infinitum - are formed through credentials and a process of accreditation, and maintained by institutions which enforce standards of membership. The ‘social’ communities of the internet are, on the other hand, only marginally institutionalised. They are generally open to anyone who desires to participate without restriction except for egregious flouting of general social norms (Rauch calls them “insurgencies”). Put in slightly different terms, the hierarchies of authority in existing institutions (and they almost always are hierarchical, with someone at the apex with whom the buck stops) are being challenged by newly forming political associations, many with their own hierarchies and all with their own politics of method and truth. So the so-called epistemological crisis - a fundamental uncertainty about what constitutes a fact - arises because of this political divergence. Whatever social, economic, or cultural conditions cause such political expressions are another matter. Our status quo at the moment is a battle between relatively non-institutionalised, technologically assisted populism (of the Left as well as the Right) versus the established institutions of epistemic power. This is not news. It is a re-run, for example, of the Protestant Reformation and its reliance on the technology of printing, an event at least as profound in its creation of uncertainty and social division. And just as in the 16th century, the issue now is one of who has the ultimate authority over language? Who can claim their words are more than words, that they refer to things that are not words unambiguously? Historically, the resistance movement against those with the power to control the relation between words and non-words has shifted. The Enlightenment pushed authority away from religious institutions toward scientific ones. But the war never ended with a few cultural wins by science. Today’s Evangelicals, for example, are carrying out a strategy to regain control over language in every field from biology to the law. Meanwhile the Left is practising their own version of anti-Enlightenment language control with the fervour of a secular fundamentalism. Rauch thinks that the problem of epistemological insurgency can be effectively addressed by (re)establishing what he calls our Constitution of Knowledge: “… liberalism’s epistemic operating system: our social rules for turning disagreement into knowledge.” And he is rather specific in the method he thinks appropriate. He believes that there are “… 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.” These two rules are not dissimilar to those of Habermas in their obvious intention to broaden participation and to mitigate asymmetries of power. And arguably they are rules that are involved in some of the best scientific inquiry, which is always tentative and always subject to the scrutiny of one’s peers rather than of one’s superiors. In fact, the two rules probably imply one another. But to whom are these methodological proposals being made? Certainly not to the head of the National Science Foundation contemplating this year’s research grants. Or to the head of the American Medical association considering some additions to the code of medical ethics. Or to a politician whose first rule of existence is the maintenance of her/his power and authority. Or to a civil servant who has a legal obligation to use authority to enforce conformity with the law. The proposals not only ignore the reality of institutional life, their execution would also destroy the institutions in which they’re adopted. Isn’t this obvious without further need for argument? No corporate organisation, no official entity, no political party, no professional body could maintain its existence if these two rules were adopted, voluntarily or not. But the rot goes even deeper. Just think of the examples - in science, in government, in corporate life - in which both decisiveness and personal authority are essential for survival not just a better political result. The rapid development of the COVID-19 serums around the world were a highly directed R&D undertaking. As are governmental responses to natural disasters. Yet their effectiveness is dependent upon breaking the rules Rauch wants in place universally. And what about the poor man in the street whom Rauch thinks will benefit by these methodological principles? Do they in any way whatsoever help him distinguish between Trumpian pseudo-facts and the latest news of Chinese economic growth? Joe Average is at the base of the epistemological pile. He/she is already subject to a barrage of unfinished/contradictory/impenetrable stories. And certainly she/he has no personal authority to speak of in the matter. Finally, Rauch seems oblivious to the logical paradox of self-referentiality in which his Constitution is entrapped. When his two rules are applied to his own thoughts, it should be apparent to him that he cannot abjure authority and take it simultaneously. Neither can he claim finality for these rules and advocate a continuing search for the ways to find truth. His thesis is inherently contradictory, and most of what he has to say is a sort of hand-waving to prevent the rest of us from noticing. At best, therefore, what Rauch is recommending is an attitude of intellectual humility. His rules might just as well be stated in euphemistic exhortations like “Keep an open mind,” “Don’t rush to conclusions,” and “Be doubly sure of things before you drink the hemlock.” Certainly not the kind of insight sufficient to reveal Trumpian mendacity much less promote institutional transformation.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Wick Welker

    Don’t feed the trolls. This is an incredibly well thought out book about what creates the social phenomenon of knowledge and two competing forces that are currently eroding this constitution: troll epistemology and cancel culture. Rauch argues that censorship and disinformation are on competing ends of the information war and have clouded the reality based community. I learned a lot from this book and have a lot to say about it. First, how does society actually agree upon what is knowledge? The fi Don’t feed the trolls. This is an incredibly well thought out book about what creates the social phenomenon of knowledge and two competing forces that are currently eroding this constitution: troll epistemology and cancel culture. Rauch argues that censorship and disinformation are on competing ends of the information war and have clouded the reality based community. I learned a lot from this book and have a lot to say about it. First, how does society actually agree upon what is knowledge? The first lesson that we have learned is that data is not knowledge. More data actually seems to subvert knowledge. Knowledge must be presented, scrutinized and earned to become canonical. The process of creating knowledge is one of humanity’s greatest achievements, the fruits of which we see anywhere including creating an incredibly effective vaccine at break-neck speed during a novel pandemic. Knowledge is a social phenomenon and is based on the reality-based community, or empiricism. Disagreement produces knowledge and must be preserved at all costs. The beginning of this book involves a discussion of Hobbes and Rousseau, James Madison and John Locke. Individual perceptions are drops in the bucket of rule by consent. The reality-based community is flexible and decentralized. The body of knowledge is a cooperative process much larger than any one individual. Rather than seeking truth, the scientific method actually seeks error which is vastly easier to define than truth. Thus we have an ever-refining process that constitutes the body of knowledge today. Rauch argues that this method is why humanity is advanced as it is, something I very much agree with. Truth is only later confirmed by social networking which defines the parameters for the scientific method. This is why hypothesis and dogma are antithetical. Hypothesis uses a disimpassioned critical eye to search for error or reject the null hypothesis, not seek absolute truth. Dogma is ever-affirming, seeking tribal perception above knowledge by consent. People rarely are murdered at the stake for hypothesizing but dogma makes martyrs of people that question in a censored community. Wikipedia is a fine example of modern use of knowledge by consent: all viewpoints have a say, anyone can contribute and the knowledge is refined by a decentralized process. Wikipedia forces contestability and persuasion. It is maybe the only successful reality-based community that is online. Data and intelligence can be manipulated, rationality can be persuaded. In fact, Rauch and others present data wherein the most educated can be even more manipulated because they have the burden of logical hubris and confirmation bias that strongly reaffirms personal rightness when faced with a complicated social dilemma. We often rationalize backwards from our emotions--everyone does this. Rauch also offers a great analysis in the divergence fo liberal and concervative news: liberal media seeks to report errors while conservative media seeks to confirm bias. In this way, they are not offering different takes on stories, they are literally activating different parts of the brain. Now let’s jump to 2020 where a unique phenomenon is occurring. Traditionally, a marketplace of ideas promotes cooperation, innovation and knowledge growth. But today, the internet and social media have turned the marketplace of ideas into a marketplace of realities. We are very much in the midst of an epistemological crisis and Rauch is very clear: the GOP has achieved an epistemological secession. There are many to blame for this crisis: liberal media, social media destroying traditional news and the commodification of outrage. Rather than manufacturing consent, all media now manufactures contempt, completely subverting how traditional journalism concludes on truth through the traditional network of the reality-based community. Social media amplifies and rewards courage and fake news. Why? Because it’s tremendously profitable. And thus we have an amazing new term that Rauch introduces: troll epistemology (TE). TE is a chaotic yet powerful effort to cloud the media-sphere with bullshit to create a state of unknowing or post-truth. TE renders knowledge enigmatic and slippery. TE’s intention is to bewilder, instigate and consume all the air in the room to exhaust everyone involved in a war of emotional and psychological attrition. Donald Trump is the High Lord of epistemological bullshit. He didn’t invent TE but he certainly capitalized on it and just ran with it, creating a nightmare for the reality-based community in his wake. The good news is that TE is actually very weak and can never deliver on its promises because it is not based on reality. Donald Trump did not indeed become president despites his lies about the election. TE likely has diminishing returns and can possibly be easily thwarted now that it has been recognized. For Rauch, the other side of the coin of troll epistemology is cancel culture. It would seem he emphasizes cancel culture as an even bigger threat than troll epistemology, not something I entirely agree with. However, in this book I have found the most convincing argument that cancel culture is harmful and a serious danger to the constitution of knowledge. The essence of the argument against cancel culture is that it forces social conformity which leads to lack of diversity. Cancel culture is about making an ad hominem attack at a person in a single point of time and being as punitive as possible. Cancel culture is a performative act of shaming to gain popularity among a social group purely out of self interest. Cancel culture is not about penitience and dialogue. It is about virtue signaling and group bonding. The author is clear however: firing someone for their words and ideas may be necessary but not at the demands of a mob that is out for blood. Cancel culture is censorship and censorship only draws attention to what is trying to be banned, often amplifying and weaponizing the very idea that is trying to be suppressed. In this way, PC culture is hugely responsible for the etiology of troll epistemology as a backlash. Rauch explores the idea of emotional safety-ism (ES). The basis of ES is the doctrine that words are violence. Rauch argues that this hyperbole is damaging and creates a state of censorship. ES trivializes actual violence and catastrophizes everyday interactions that can actually infantilize the victim of hate speech by forcing them to appeal to higher authority (PC police) and cancel culture to expunge the person from discourse altogether. Rauch argues that ES patronizes minorities and the marginalized by suggesting they don’t have the resiliency to engage in debate and counteract the trolls. Again, ES is all about ad hominem attacks and not about discourse. Rauch argues that cancel culture and troll epistemology have the same goal: shut down debate and confirm biases. As corollary, cancel culture is the antithesis of critical culture which is desirable. We should be critical of one another, seeking fallibility and error to arrive at a body of knowledge together. Cancel culture cancels the person, not the idea whereas critical culture cancels the idea, not the person. Rauch argues that cancel culture, like troll epistemology, rewards demagoguery. The intolerant left is actually a small percentage of liberals, most of whom want open discourse and conservative thought (maybe not Trump trollism?) on campus. Cancel culture can calcify academia, creating a state of self-censorship. Institutions must allow plurality of thought. We need epistemic resilience otherwise institutional corrosion is at danger. The solutions that Rauch offers are that everyone needs to obey the law, the spirit of the law mostly, and play by the same rules that have delivered us the amazing body of knowledge that we enjoy today. Heterodoxy, not orthodoxy, speaks the language of science. Rauch argues that the marginalized always fare better in a state that protects dissent rather than a culture that protects people from dissent. This protects the marketplace of ideas including those from the oppressed. No one, not the leftist liberals, should have the hubris to believe that they should be in the driver seat to determine what can be censored. There is also great strength in not engaging in foolish troll arguments--this is how you counteract. You don’t engage until they suffocate from oxygen deprivation. Accuracy should be the common denominator for all. Search for truth, not your own brand of truthiness. My critiques of Rauch are not many but I have a few. Pitting cancel culture against troll epistemology assumes that they are symmetrical problems. They are not. I would argue that trolling and fake news have done much more to corrode institutions and the trust in the body of knowledge MUCH more than cancel culture. Cancel culture can be personally devastating but I believe troll culture is what is creating a marketplace of realities that is tearing apart the US. Rauch clearly has more of a beef with cancel culture than troll culture. Rauch does have some clout in speaking for minorities as a gay man and a gay-rights activist but he does not speak for all who are marginalized. He cannot say that words are not violence and speak for all people. Here is my main complaint: it is difficult to rest on the laurels of traditional liberal processes, like open discourse, when they are entrenched in a deeply inequitable system to begin with. Whie supremacy is real and is in bed with all institutions. Rejecting social justice movements and intersectionality, which Rauch criticizes, is to trust in institutions that created the inequitable problems we have today. We cannot wholly trust the process that created knowledge when we have hugely disparate results. We should probably keep rethinking and maybe part of that is shutting down old scripts upon which we’ve relied. If you're thinking of reading Cynical Theorieshttps://www.goodreads.com/review/show... or The Madness of Crowds https://www.goodreads.com/review/show..., skip those and read this. You'll get much better arguments and more fair analysis.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Ryan Boissonneault

    The bizarre world we currently inhabit—a world about as far removed from “the age of reason” as one could possibly imagine—is a world where “28% of Americans believe that Bill Gates wants to use vaccines to implant microchips in people,” according to a recent YouGov poll. And as if that weren’t cause for concern enough, roughly the same percentage of Americans (26%) believe that the sun revolves around the earth, and not the other way around, according to a 2012 National Science Foundation surve The bizarre world we currently inhabit—a world about as far removed from “the age of reason” as one could possibly imagine—is a world where “28% of Americans believe that Bill Gates wants to use vaccines to implant microchips in people,” according to a recent YouGov poll. And as if that weren’t cause for concern enough, roughly the same percentage of Americans (26%) believe that the sun revolves around the earth, and not the other way around, according to a 2012 National Science Foundation survey. Clearly, we have an issue if, out of every 10 people you meet, on average two or three of them will believe that the earth is the center of the universe or that the government is using the COVID-19 pandemic as cover to implant microchips in the population. If we ever needed a defense of truth, the time is now. In The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth, author, journalist, and activist Jonathan Rauch provides this much-needed defense, showing us how the Enlightenment thinkers of the 17th- and 18th-centuries created the foundations for “The Constitution of Knowledge,” a set of norms, practices, and institutions that seek to peacefully transform conflict and disagreement into knowledge and order, just as the US Constitution provides the foundations for the peaceful resolution of political disagreement. Rauch begins with a discussion of Theaetetus, Plato’s dialogue exploring the nature of knowledge. As Plato’s greatest work of epistemology, it leaves the reader with an unsatisfying conclusion: in the search for the foundations of certain knowledge, there are none. Socrates and his interlocutor discover that knowledge is elusive, and that it cannot be grounded in either perception (as perception varies) or on feelings of subjective certainty (because we are often wrong about beliefs we were once certain about). However one tries to ground knowledge, it seems that certainty is impossible to attain. That this dialogue is considered Plato’s greatest work in epistemology may seem puzzling, as it ostensibly leads to nowhere. But, as Rauch notes, it teaches us a far more valuable lesson: that rigor and humility are the foundations of the truth-seeking attitude and that acquiring knowledge is a conversation, not a destination. Knowledge is something that we pursue collectively, not individually, and that we attain provisionally, not indefinitely. That’s why the five words that end the dialogue are the most important: Let us meet here again. Rauch, formally trained as a journalist, knows firsthand the power of institutions to check the biases and inaccuracies of the individual. From gathering facts from sources and interviews to the fact-checking and copy-editing process to expert review and challenges from within and outside the newsroom, journalism, as an institution, is a collaborative profession that cannot be performed in isolation (unlike creating conspiracy theories on YouTube, which essentially anyone is qualified to do). While it would take years to develop the necessary expertise to write a credible, respectable story in a mainstream media outlet (which is subject to the criticism of experts), you can launch a YouTube channel tomorrow and find plenty of people gullible enough to believe that the White House is being run by lizard overlords. So while the field of journalism is not perfect—bias and error of course still creep in—as an institution it at least provides the checks and balances, decentralization, and layers of accountability and review that keep it relatively honest. While we would be unwise to place all of our trust in any single journalist or news outlet operating independently, it would be vastly more misguided to reject the entire journalistic community and instead place our trust in a single demagogic politician or a small group of self-published conspiracists. And this is the main message of the book: in addition to the uncertainty of all knowledge, as individuals we are biased and fallible and oftentimes completely blind to our own distorted thinking. It is only when we enter into a “reality-based community”—subjecting our beliefs to the critical scrutiny of those who may disagree with us—that we can have any hope of achieving a correspondence between our beliefs and reality. Journalism is one such reality-based community. Science, academia, and the courts are the other prominent examples. Each community is decentralized, with no single individual ruling from the top-down; each has a series of checks and balances; each has procedures for review and criticism and layers of appeal; and each abides by the two rules of what Rauch refers to as “liberal science”: (1) no one gets final say, and (2) no one has personal authority. Societies and communities that operate according to these rules—the foundations of the Constitution of Knowledge—are in general freer, more peaceful, and more accurate in their collective beliefs. Liberal science, in this way, transforms disagreement and pluralism (which is unavoidable) into depersonalized and civil dialogue to achieve reconciliation and, eventually, provisional knowledge. Since no one has final say, a diversity of viewpoints (pluralism) is encouraged, and since no one has personal authority to decree the truth by force or coercion, arguments are evaluated according to their own merits. This is the model of science, and where it is followed, progress in knowledge and morality is achieved. But as Rauch points out, just as the country could not long survive if the US Constitution were to be ignored by the people, the truth-seeking process itself will not long survive if the Constitution of Knowledge is likewise ignored or rejected. The enemies of the truth-seeking process in the contemporary world—cancel culture on the far left and troll culture on the far right—violate the Constitution of Knowledge and attack its underlying institutions on a daily basis. Whether shouting down or deplatforming speakers (cancel culture) or spreading misinformation and creating chaos and confusion (far right troll culture), reality in either camp is thought to mean whoever has the personal authority and power to decree it as the final truth. Mirror-images of each, the radical wings of the left and right similarly reject “humanity’s greatest invention”: the outsourcing of reality to social networks that depersonalize arguments and evaluate claims based on evidence and reason. The dangers of far-right troll culture need little elaborating, but Rauch, a long-time gay rights activist, has even less patience for cancel culture. Understanding that homosexuals have, throughout most of the twentieth century, been canceled or otherwise discredited and silenced, Rauch writes that “we did not spend the last half century fighting against it [canceling] so that we could turn the tables and make pariahs of others.” The very idea that minorities need to be “protected” from speech is itself patronizing. As Rauch wrote: “[Emotional safetyism] assumes that we want to be ‘safe’ from words or ideas; that we will wilt in the heat of an argument; that we need protection from ‘assaultive’ words and should run to the authorities to get it. Homosexuals were stereotyped as weak...African Americans as childish, women as delicate. Gay people and other minorities fought for legal equality by joining arguments and winning them, and we fought for cultural equality by defeating the sterotype of weakness. The last thing we need is to resuscitate it. Thanks, but keep your emotional ‘protection.’” One interesting point to keep in mind is that “cancel culture” has historically been a phenomenon of the right (in ways, it still is; look what happens when Republicans speak out against Trump). From the Catholic Church’s “list of prohibited books” and persecution of scientists and atheists to the early twentieth-century battles by conservatives to prevent the teaching of evolution in schools, liberals have historically been on the side of free speech and open inquiry. Now, ironically enough, a good number of those on the left have embraced the very tactics they have spent the greater part of the last 400 years opposing. In either case, when our truth-seeking institutions are attacked, what are we left with? If we completely lose trust in the media, in government, in science, and in academia, where are we supposed to turn for the truth? We are encouraged to turn to exactly where the enemies of these institutions want us to turn: to them. That gives them the individual coercive power that institutions are specifically set up to deny, and so it’s no wonder why they are under constant assault. It’s time we start doing a better job of defending the institutions of democracy and recovering some semblance of collective sanity. Otherwise, we let the trolls win, and on a larger scale than could have ever been imagined.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Russell Fox

    Jonathan Rauch is a talented journalist and thinker, and when I ended up with a copy of his latest book I was happy to give it a read, even though I rarely agree with how Rauch gets to his conclusions, as reasonable as they often sound to me. My experience with the arguments he makes in this book about how we've gotten ourselves into a situation where people with political disagreements seem to inhabit alternative realities, and what we can do about it, fit my past experiences with his writings: Jonathan Rauch is a talented journalist and thinker, and when I ended up with a copy of his latest book I was happy to give it a read, even though I rarely agree with how Rauch gets to his conclusions, as reasonable as they often sound to me. My experience with the arguments he makes in this book about how we've gotten ourselves into a situation where people with political disagreements seem to inhabit alternative realities, and what we can do about it, fit my past experiences with his writings: I thought the philosophical claims he advances were weak (though somewhat admirable all the same), and I thought his practical recommendations were mostly wise (though with some predictable gaps). The primary thing to understand about Rauch is that he is a journalist who has drank deeply from the establishment liberalism which shaped the journalistic institutions where he found his vocation in the 1980s. The Washington Consensus had already begun its slow crack-up by then, but the demographic shifts, technological changes, and legal and regulatory unwinding necessary to fully undo it wasn't present yet: talk radio networks and cable television and the internet were all in the future. As it was, he came to view all social problems and political causes through a rigorously empirical and secular small-l liberal lens: 1) no one ever has the final say (every story has another point of view); and 2) no one can ever claim an authoritative take on any story just because of their own personal experience or witness or perspective (everyone needs to bring evidence and/or additional witnesses forward if they are to be taken seriously). It is this lens which he still embraces decades later, and what he elaborates in this book as a "Constitution of Knowledge" which must be defended if online trolls and Twitter mobs and a Republican party mostly given over to Trumpist falsehoods are not to make the alternative information realities which characterizes so much discourse in America today permanent. Many of Rauch's practical reflections on how publicly reliable knowledge is achieved and what it means for how we handle propaganda and lying and disinformation and intellectual intimidation are really quite thoughtful. The middle section of the book, where he is most frank about how establishing usable knowledge claims necessarily involves exclusion, standards, and controlling institutions ("the reality-based community...cannot depend on individuals to know the facts....[but] it does require an elite consensus....on the method of establishing facts"--p. 116), and how the digital media revolution, over a period of twenty years, mostly wrecked all of those, was the section that I found most persuasive, but there is good stuff throughout. (The point when he's talking about "cancel culture" and then challenges his own definitions, leading him to thoughtfully lay out the sometimes unclear line between criticizing someone you disagree with and attempting to shut them down, was actually quite wise.) Unfortunately, I found all that good stuff mostly disconnected, as the history and philosophy through which he attempts to weave all his observations together didn't persuade me at all, and sometimes didn't even make sense. I'm not his target audience for such historical and philosophical narratives, of course: I've read a great deal of this stuff, and have rather complex and critical opinions about a lot of it, so his sometimes rather potted descriptions of the intellectual achievements of his heroes John Locke, Adam Smith, and James Madison (particularly that last one, on which he imposes a Whig reading which ignores all the best historical scholarship that's been done over the past half-century on the man and his intellectual debts to classical republicanism, realist statecraft, and the Virginian slave aristocracy he was born into) occasionally made me roll my eyes. To his credit, though, he doesn't stop there, but really doubles-down on the (to my mind) most boring and unambiguously pragmatic and elitist liberal epistemologies imaginable--he spends whole pages talking about Charles Sanders Pierce and Karl Popper, for heaven's sake. Pragmatic, because truth is a process and an orientation, not a thing, and elitist, because it is vital that people believe (or at least act like they believe) the institutions which ground those processes and orientations really are determining the truth, not matter what the real Big Brains out there say behind closed doors. The two-fold conclusions he comes to in these weighty matters aren't in the least bit coy; on the contrary, unlike some hypothetical Straussian code, he's utterly straightforward. First, he thinks that all the postmodern and Marxist and religious and homeopathic and whatever arguments you can imagine should be perfectly legal and even encouraged in liberal society, but must not be allowed to operate on the same argumentative plane as evidence-based "liberal science" (because if people start to take them seriously in the public sense--that is, if we no longer "resolve to conduct ourselves as if reality were out there and objective truth were possible" (p. 108)--then the institutions of liberal science will be threatened, and the next thing you know we'll have President Trump falsely claiming that the crowd which attended his inaugural speech was larger than it was, and the National Park Service will be so cowed and hesitant and confused that it will stop doing something as perfectly reasonable as publishing official estimates of crowd size on the basis of actual photographs, because hey, that's "political."). Second, while Rauch admits it is important to be aware and even sympathetic to the fact that the evidentiary requirements and institutional biases of the reality-based community are always going to make it hard for ideological and religious and racial and sexual minorities to be heard and taken seriously, as far as he's concerned you must, for their own sake, never compromise on these rules, but rather must tell the trans woman that, yes, she absolutely should come up with evidence-based arguments to rebut the bigot who denies the legitimacy of her existence, because if she doesn't come up with such arguments, but instead sticks with "feelings," it'll be worse for her in the long-term. (Interestingly, Rauch doesn't actually come up with a systematic, evidence-based argument that the unrestricted marketplace of ideas is actually good, in the long run, for oppressed minorities, but rather throws out a bunch of quotes and anecdotes which supposedly prove it, the most touching of which is his own story of learning to live with hatred and abuse from the good people of Arizona as he grew up there gay in the 1970s and 1980s. His description of his moral triumph is profoundly Whiggish: "Every demonstration of hatred or ignorance was a chance to show love and speak truth. Every encounter, every explanation, moved the social needle a little bit toward justice"--p. 257. The man is a frustratingly confident--dare I say...privileged?--20th-century liberal to the very end.) In summary, Rauch's book is filled with some smart, practical recommendations about how we should adjust internet platforms, assess journalistic sources, and basically fight back against all the flood of misinformation which surrounds us. But philosophically, I don't think it achieves anything more than that; he never addresses in any remotely substantive way any of the philosophical critiques of liberalism which he accuses the Trumpists of having learned from the postmodernists to use against us all. Frankly, I'd love to put him alongside some of thoughtful conservative anti-liberal thinkers out there: folks that think liberalism is a bankrupt philosophy, but also have total contempt for both Trumpian trolls on the right and "emotional safetyism" (Rauch's term) on the left. Would they grant the value of his arguments, or think because he gets there through good old-fashioned 20th-century American pragmatic liberalism, that his arguments won't do the trick? I wonder.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Rick Lee Lee James

    This book is brilliant. I have been concerned for some time now about the rise of disinformation, especially from right wing news outlets like Fox News, OANN, Newsmax, and Breitbart. There truly is a difference between reality based journalism which has been the backbone of this nation for most of it’s life and Russian-like propaganda which has been flooding cable news and the internet for some time now. In this book Jonathan Rauch brilliantly develops the concept of the constitution of knowledg This book is brilliant. I have been concerned for some time now about the rise of disinformation, especially from right wing news outlets like Fox News, OANN, Newsmax, and Breitbart. There truly is a difference between reality based journalism which has been the backbone of this nation for most of it’s life and Russian-like propaganda which has been flooding cable news and the internet for some time now. In this book Jonathan Rauch brilliantly develops the concept of the constitution of knowledge as a way of helping us understand the values that should accompany good journalism and the tragic consequences that follow when those values are ignored. I’m sharing his definition below of the Constitution of Knowledge because it is so concise and does such a good job of summarizing the focus of the book. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. The Constitution of knowledge: A Defense of the Truth “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, The constitution of knowledge.” —Jonathan Rauch

  6. 5 out of 5

    Brad Lyerla

    Jonathan Rauch’s new book, THE CONSTITUTION OF KNOWLEDGE, might be the perfect antidote for your malaise if you, like me, are feeling demoralized by the inanity of both Trumpism on the right and cancel culture on the left in the present moment. Rauch’s persuasive defense of truth here may be just the thing you need and at just the right time. Before I tell you about Rauch’s defense, I should spend a moment telling you about Rauch himself. He is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. He write Jonathan Rauch’s new book, THE CONSTITUTION OF KNOWLEDGE, might be the perfect antidote for your malaise if you, like me, are feeling demoralized by the inanity of both Trumpism on the right and cancel culture on the left in the present moment. Rauch’s persuasive defense of truth here may be just the thing you need and at just the right time. Before I tell you about Rauch’s defense, I should spend a moment telling you about Rauch himself. He is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. He writes often for The Atlantic. He is one of America’s best known and most respected advocates for gay marriage. He is, therefore, a man with sparkling credentials as a thinker who is sympathetic to many of the ideals and goals of the center left. But it is important for conservatives to know that Mr. Rauch is also a splendid advocate for Madisonian liberal democracy of the style that many, if not most, Republicans practiced not so long ago. It is true, therefore, that his centrist arguments will be congenial to many thoughtful Americans on both sides of our great political divide, if readers will give him a chance. Since Plato, thinkers have struggled to understand what distinguishes knowledge from mere opinion. Although Plato never answered that question satisfactorily, he did leave us Socrates’ dialectic as an example of how to try to discern knowledge from opinion by asking questions of one another and talking about it. For almost 2500 years, no one improved much upon Socrates’ example. Then in the late 19th century, C.S. Pierce added a critical piece to the puzzle. He observed that knowledge or truth is largely a social phenomenon. It is arrived at by groups, not by individuals. This insight was revolutionary, and it took root among other thinkers only gradually. Nevertheless, Pierce gets the credit. After him, it is no longer correct to wonder about what I know. Rather after Pierce, the correct question to ask is what do we know. (After mostly overlooking Peirce and mispronouncing his name for five generations, some now consider him to have been North America’s greatest philosopher and the equal of any European philosopher of the 20th century. His surname is pronounced “purse”, by the way.) This is Rauch’s jumping off point for his discussion of the Constitution of Knowledge. He wants to talk about truth as developed by groups in three specific realms: scientific, political and episystemic (meaning businesses, schools, media, civic and social groups). These groups arrive at truth through social interactions that most Americans will recognize as the old familiar ways in which the elite in our country have long sought to conduct their affairs. In politics, the ideal has been no censorship. No idea is off limits. However, advocates must interact with their political adversaries. Nothing can become law or policy unless it can survive controversy including rigorous debate and politicking to persuade detractors to compromise and accept the new idea, which often will be modified beneficially through the process of persuasion. The architect of the political institutions that impose this obligation of persuasion, James Madison, thought he was preventing a monopolization of truth by any one faction. But Rauch argues that Madison was also creating objectivity through diversity of ideas and encouraging compromise. This objectivity is part and parcel of what Rauch calls our Constitution of Knowledge. Science works similarly. Rauch imagines science as a large funnel. Every scientist is invited to propose hypotheses. They enter the large end of the funnel. But only a very few emerge from the narrow end of funnel. The great majority do not survive the scientific process. They do not hold up to the scrutiny of other scientists. The advocate’s results cannot be duplicated by other scientists. Or the proposed hypothesis lacks reliable predictive value. Or another scientist has proposed an even better explanation. Or a hundred other reasons may emerge for why no scientific consensus can be achieved. When consensus eludes the advocate, his hypothesis is gently forgotten. Those hypotheses that do emerge the narrow end of the funnel are accepted in the scientific community as scientific truths. But scientific truths are “truths” only provisionally. That is so because science is never over. Any truth today may be challenged by something that offers the hope of even greater explanatory power tomorrow. That is how science works. The process repeats itself in a never-ending search for an even better explanation. Epistemic knowledge is similarly about the process in the Constitution of Knowledge. There are only two rules, says Rauch. One is that no group has veto power to block the discussion of a new idea. The second is that no group has a monopoly on good ideas. Those principles assure that the exchange of ideas and the efforts to persuade other members of the relevant community continue without interruption. It takes only a moment of reflection to recognize that the combination of Madisonian politics, science and epistemic knowledge is strongly anti-authoritarian. In the second half of his book, Rauch takes on authoritarian trends that threaten the Constitution of Knowledge. I will discuss two in this review. First, Rauch considers the disinformation propaganda of the Trumpian right. Disinformation is not a replacement for the Constitution of Knowledge. It is not rooted in fact or evidence and it has no explanatory power of its own. It exists primarily to confuse and demoralize those who formerly deferred to the Constitution of Knowledge. Trump does not persuade. Rather he performs and his performances are meant to exploit passions and not to solve problems, discover new ideas or enlighten humanity. He sews confusion so that citizens lose faith in fact-based institutions allowing facts to be replaced with authoritarian assertion. One of the effects of this cycle is that partisans become ever more partisan. As their own party becomes more obviously mendacious, partisans ascribe ever more hateful qualities to the opposite party. This relieves the cognitive dissonance that otherwise results from recognizing unscrupulous behavior in one’s own party. It is not uncommon these days to hear an argument along the lines: “well, I know that he’s no angel, but the Democrats are socialists.” As Republicans are forced to face the reality that Trump is often untruthful, they unwittingly imagine that the Democrats must be even worse. Thus, the disinformation program thwarts the negotiation process that Madison designed into our political institutions, and Trump avoids accountability for his false words and misdeeds. The second trend is the “cancellation culture” of the left. To the very significant degree that cancel culture is not based on facts, persuasion and process, Rauch demonstrates that it is an instrument of authoritarianism. He shows us that at its best, cancel culture is a ruthless form of censorship devoid of any meaningful moderation or accountability by its practitioners. At its worst, it is out and out hatefulness and persecution of a smaller group (or individual) by a larger group. It, therefore, is an equal enemy to the Constitution of Knowledge as is Trumpism. I have not done justice to the beauty of Rauch’s prose in this short review. He is impressively well read and a highly talented writer. I recommend his book very warmly.

  7. 4 out of 5

    David Cook

    This is a great book! Raush is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. I confess I picked up the audio book expecting confirmation of my frustration with the current state of affairs with Trumpism, the rise of White Nationalism and right-wing extremism. I also admit to listening to somewhat smugly as Rauch confirmed over and over my frustrations. But then he went much further taking on intolerance and arrogance on the left. Something I did not expect but very much appreciate. The book is an a This is a great book! Raush is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. I confess I picked up the audio book expecting confirmation of my frustration with the current state of affairs with Trumpism, the rise of White Nationalism and right-wing extremism. I also admit to listening to somewhat smugly as Rauch confirmed over and over my frustrations. But then he went much further taking on intolerance and arrogance on the left. Something I did not expect but very much appreciate. The book is an analysis of disinformation, trolling, conspiracies, social media pile-ons, campus intolerance, etc. On the surface, these recent additions to our daily vocabulary appear to have little in common. But together, they are driving a crisis and the inability 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 try. Some began to wonder if society was losing its grip. Meanwhile, another “cancel culture” appeared. Rauch uses compelling statistics that paint a troubling picture of the prevalence of falsehood and lies in our public social media discourse. Rauch reaches back to the parallel eighteenth-century developments of liberal democracy and science to explain what he calls the “Constitution of Knowledge”—our social system for turning disagreement into truth. Rauch arms defenders of truth with a clearer understanding of what, why, and how we must protect the truth. This is a sweeping and engaging description of how every American can help defend objective truth and free inquiry. It is not good enough to say “both sides are guilty.” We must call out falsehood no matter what the source. Quotes: “An Ivy League teacher told me, “I’ve found that if students have an opportunity to jump on someone, they usually take it.” “As Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf put it, propaganda “must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.… [P]ersistence is the first and most important” “If we care about knowledge, freedom, and peace, then we need to stake a strong claim: anyone can believe anything, but liberal science—open-ended, depersonalized checking by an error-seeking social network—is the only legitimate validator of knowledge, at least in the reality-based community. Other communities, of course, can do all kinds of other things. But they cannot make social decisions about objective reality.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Steve Greenleaf

    Prelude: I ended up writing this review over a longer period of time than I normally take. I reviewed my highlights quite thoroughly. Because of this, I can provide you an executive summary of my review if you're pressed for time. You should read this book! Everyone should read this book! It's terrific. It's timely. In the end, my review says this: I enthusiastically endorse what this author has written. He's confirmed many of my beliefs and hunches. And he's sharpened my thinking. He's gotten m Prelude: I ended up writing this review over a longer period of time than I normally take. I reviewed my highlights quite thoroughly. Because of this, I can provide you an executive summary of my review if you're pressed for time. You should read this book! Everyone should read this book! It's terrific. It's timely. In the end, my review says this: I enthusiastically endorse what this author has written. He's confirmed many of my beliefs and hunches. And he's sharpened my thinking. He's gotten me excited about fighting the good (informed) fight. Given the nature of Rauch's argument, I should perhaps be more measured in my tone. I could be wrong. But he wouldn't have written this book if he thought its arguments wrong, and I wouldn't praise it if I found Rauch headed down the wrong track. If anyone thinks he (and I) are wrong about his contentions, but all means say so. But first, read the damned book! If Oprah or the American Library Association or some such, were to make a book recommendation for a national civics lesson, The Constitution of Knowledge would be a perfect choice. This book is well researched and moves along quickly with the benefit of a flowing narrative voice that is insightful but not pedantic. Rauch carefully constructs a case for liberal (as in open and learned) institutions. Rauch argues that like the U.S. Constitution, knowledge, as discovered and developed by law, science, journalism, and government, depends upon a constitution, albeit unwritten. This constitution of knowledge governs the discovery and creation of knowledge based on facts. This constitution allows the creation of a measure of reliable truth. Could there be a more important topic for us (around the world) to stop to ponder and appreciate? 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.” Loc. 249, Kindle edition. Rauch opens his book with a consideration of the sorry state of the state of knowledge and truth in public discourse. As Rauch notes--and as anyone paying the least bit of attention knows--the quality (as accuracy and truthfulness) of our public discourse has been in free-fall for a long time. (And it certainly was never all that good.) With the rise of the man from Mar-a-Lago, disinformation, lies, and fantasies received the imprimatur of authority that followers and minions soon aped. In a sense, this assessment of our sorry state is needed. I doubt that anyone reading this book doesn't know all of this already, but to frame what follows Rauch needs to state the obvious and thereby ground his message and his concerns. After his opening assessment of our current sorry state of affairs, Rauch begins building his argument by looking a what we might call our native set of dispositions. Drawing upon history and social science, which he quotes and cites without getting lost in academic jargon or excessive detail, Rauch establishes that we humans are given to tribal conformities and limited frames of knowledge that often serve immediate needs and ends but that don't readily facilitate sophisticated ideas about knowledge and society. Primitive humans existed in small groups that operated with limited horizons and limited forms of technology. For instance, agriculture is only ten-to-twelve thousand years old. As agriculture, cities, trade, and conquest developed, more reliable and sophisticated forms of knowledge were required to meet the needs arising from the challenges associated with expanding horizons of activity. But still, humans have this anchor in archaic experiences that we can't shake, including, perhaps most importantly, the need to maintain good relations with our group, our tribe. As social scientist Jonathan Haidt puts it, we humans are "groupish." Rauch draws on Plato's Socratic dialogue with Theaetetus to mark the beginning of a careful, patterned tradition of thought about the nature and reliability of knowledge. (Note that Rauch here and in the remainder of his book draws only upon the Western tradition, beginning with Plato. Other civilizations certainly have gone through a similar process but this book isn't a comparative intellectual history, and, for better and for worse, the Western traditions of thinking about science, technology, and industry as well as about how to organize societies have established a dominance throughout the world.) Rauch moves on quickly from Plato to the early modern age and its thinkers who give us liberal politics, market economics, and scientific thinking. Thinkers like Montaigne and Francis Bacon, make appearances, as do later thinkers about the scientific enterprise, such as the founder of American pragmatism, Charles Sanders Pierce, and the Austrian native Karl Popper. Each of these thinkers refines our understanding and appreciation (of the strengths and weaknesses) of the scientific enterprise. But the highest places of honor in Rauch's pantheon go to the triumvirate of John Locke, Adam Smith, and James Madison. Smith for this appreciation of the operation of markets; Locke for his identification and promotion of epistemic virtues (including his defense of tolerance), his emphasis on politically protected liberties, and the idea that government depends upon the consent of the governed; and Madison for his design of a political system that seeks to check the arbitrary use of power and to promote a government based upon a system of checks and balances that weed out distorting interests and faulty claims of knowledge. After reviewing the history of these novel institutions for creating knowledge and making decisions, Rauch delves more deeply into the values and principles that make these institutions unique in history. Openness to new ideas, limitations on authority, dedication to the principle of fallibilism (any claim of knowledge could later prove wrong), and the widespread sharing of knowledge mark this new way of generating knowledge. Note, however, that Rauch realizes that these ideals often break down in practice; therefore, the "constitution of knowledge" isn't a machine that would go of itself. It needs a constant commitment from those who constitute the institutions. Also, Rauch emphasizes that these are social organizations (law, science, government, and journalism) and subject to the foibles that he describes at the beginning of the book. Also underpinning these institutions and the liberal order is a shared aversion to coercion. A level of conflict attendant with openness is a hallmark of the liberal order. Disagreements, over physics and well as politics will occur but should be resolved through words, not weapons. That we must pay close attention to our institutions for creating knowledge and refining it arises from the attack that this regime, which Rauch has dubbed the "reality-based community,"* has undergone in our time. Of course, forces of authority (from above) and ignorance (from below) have always battered liberal regimes. But current attacks have once again gotten worse (although the mid-twentieth century probably still takes the cake). Rauch delves into these contemporary attacks that eminate from both the political (extreme) right and the political (extreme) left. From the extreme right, we get a flood of information, mostly via social media, that's either false, misleading, or distracting. This involves a "firehose of falsehood" (Rand corporation's term) or as Steve Bannon described his strategy: “The Democrats don’t matter. The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” (Location 3061). Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt provides another apt description of a method for degrading knowledge in his work On Bullshit (the title says it all, doesn't it?). Needless to say, the examples Rauch provides are legion and start at the top in the U.S. during the last presidential administration. I'd hoped that we'd lanced this boil with the absurdist yet dire attack of January 6, but as that event recedes in the rearview mirror, I fear that the boil remains. The attack from the other side comes primarily from the "woke" left, the so-called "progressives," or at least the most radical elements of this group. In this section, Rauch addresses the issue of "cancel culture," which is simply a new name, attendant with social media, for ostracisation as a tool for the coercion of opinions. As Rauch notes, the problem of social coercion to seek to establish opinions to conform to a norm is not new to democratic societies. Both Alexis De Tocqueville in his Democracy in America and John Stuart Mill identify a trend toward conformity of opinion in democratic societies (that were relatively new at the time--if we exclude ancient Athens). The drive for purity and against pluralism seems to be a phenomenon more on the political and cultural left than on the right. When we look at history from the French Revolution to Lenin and Stalin's regime to the reign of Mao and his Cultural Revolution we see a demand for purity and conformity that results in deaths, imprisonments, and disgrace. (Note that the extreme right is not without sin: the right tends to deal with dissent with more dispatch; to wit, with more preemptory violence, skipping show trials and efforts at "re-education.") Nothing in the U.S. has reached these extremes, but it's a gnawing concern. I have to admit that I've tended to brush off concerns of this sort in the past as merely a passing fad among some college students, who are given to excess. (I know; I once was one, and I lived and practiced law in a college towns for over 30 years.) But the level of fear of being called out among students and professors for some imagined transgression has increased greatly. Rauch makes a case that those who are sympathetic to progressive values and goals have to work to separate the gold of liberation from the dross of social coercion. Toward the end of the book, Rauch becomes more personal. He counsels an imaginary young college student, whom he dubs "Theaetetus," in honor of Plato's young inquirer in his dialogue of that name. Rauch provides sound counsel to the young inquirer about when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em; when to confront purveyors of falsehoods and those who seek to coerce conformity. Rauch is a gay man now in his early 60s who's experienced life from the closet to Stonewall to the acceptance of gay marriage (about which he published an influential book in 2005). He knows the value of liberation, the disparagement dished out to gay people (now, one hopes, a dwindling occurrence), and he knows the importance of standing one's ground by making rational, coherent arguments for one's cause even in the face of seemingly intractable resistance. It's in this section that Rauch goes beyond impressing me with his skills as a journalist who reports with depth and insight about the fundamentals and history of science and thought and who has a breadth and depth of insights into contemporary events. Here I perceive Rauch as a wise man who can give counsel to those in need based on a depth of knowledge and experience. Fighting the good fight by the rules. Now, go back a read my opening paragraph (in italics). What should you do? *One slight bit of dissent: Rauch's use of the term "reality-based community" as a short-hand for those who adhere to the principles of the constitution of knowledge. He later notes that one can be a member of the "reality-based community" and, for instance, go to church. Many aspects of life aren't governed by the conventions of the reality-based community, such as personal experience, feelings, spiritual experiences, and so on. A lot of life! The negative pregnant here is that these experiences (personal, non-replicable, private, hidden) aren't real, or at least that they are so subjective as to beyond community recognition. I agree that there exists a reality-based community if we're talking about a certain sphere of knowledge, let's call it "Nature." Thus, I always appreciate Dr. Samuel Johnson's contribution to the reality-based" viewpoint: After we came out of the church, we stood talking for some time together of Bishop Berkeley's ingenious sophistry to prove the non-existence of matter, and that every thing in the universe is merely ideal. I observed, that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I never shall forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, "I refute it thus." — James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson However, logicians will note the fallacy of Dr. Johnson's response, and that as to non-material issues, we have no such easy recourse. Thus, it might be more accurate for Rauch to say that this is the "basic" or "material" or "scientific" reality-based community. "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” And I should also note here that Rauch recognizes the importance and validity of arguments over topics such as which is the better play between Shakespeares's Timon of Athens and his Hamlet. No commentator argues Timon the superior play. This too, I argue, is a "reality-based" assessment.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Angie

    An important and good book about why truth needs to be defended right now with everything we have. This book touched me.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Chris Boutté

    It’s books like this that make me wish we could Matrix upload them into everyone’s brain. It usually takes me a week or two to finish books of this length, but it’s so good that I finished it within a couple days after it launched. Jonathan Rauch once again does an incredible job arguing that not only is truth important, but we all need to have better conversations about ideas, even if we disagree with them. A few weeks ago, I was first introduced to Rauch when Greg Lukianoff recommended Rauch’s It’s books like this that make me wish we could Matrix upload them into everyone’s brain. It usually takes me a week or two to finish books of this length, but it’s so good that I finished it within a couple days after it launched. Jonathan Rauch once again does an incredible job arguing that not only is truth important, but we all need to have better conversations about ideas, even if we disagree with them. A few weeks ago, I was first introduced to Rauch when Greg Lukianoff recommended Rauch’s previous book Kindly Inquisitors, and it was an amazing book. It was written a while back, so I was extremely excited to find out that Rauch had this new book coming out that would cover some more modern issues when it comes to the exchange of ideas in these polarized times where people are more tribal than rational. Rauch begins this book by discussing philosophers like Socrates and how we can get closer to discovering truth through having conversations and asking questions out of genuine curiosity. While I think some people view books like this as some Right-wing argument that you should be able to say anything without consequence, Rauch does a better job than many others by arguing that we need to do better about slowing the spread of misinformation, but we also need to be able to debate ideas with one another. As a progressive, there are plenty of ideas that bug the hell out of me, but authors like Rauch bring me back to reality and are able to argue the importance of free speech as well as the potential consequences of limiting those who have ideas that I strongly disagree with. I think Rauch did an incredible job setting up the foundation of his argument and primary thesis in the early chapters of the book before diving into specific issues that we’re facing today. He covers the spread of misinformation from people like Trump, the challenges social media platforms face when it comes to slowing down misinformation, how professors are afraid to teach certain subjects, and how cancel culture is ruining lives. I was personally attacked by the outrage mob in 2019, which was one of the worst experiences of my life, and that’s why I think books like this are so important for everyone to read and really take in.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Brian

    Rauch defines the book title as liberalism’s epistemic operating system. These are our social rules for turning disagreement into knowledge. He grounds his work in the philosophies of Locke, Hobbes, Rousseau, Madison, et al., and the book is more scholarly than popular. I found the academic parts boring and long, but the mainstream work exceedingly good. I especially recommend chapters 1, 5, and 6 through 8.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Bill Nickless

    Is the fever starting to break? As a conservative I have long been concerned about the illiberalality of many to my political left. But this book gives me hope: here’s at least one honest thinker on the left who is willing to stand up and call out people with whom he might agree politically for their regressive, reactionary epistemologies. 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 Is the fever starting to break? As a conservative I have long been concerned about the illiberalality of many to my political left. But this book gives me hope: here’s at least one honest thinker on the left who is willing to stand up and call out people with whom he might agree politically for their regressive, reactionary epistemologies. 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?

  13. 5 out of 5

    Kent Winward

    The idea of a constitution of knowledge is a bit unwieldy, but "developing an effective epistemology in a world gone mad" is even more so, and maybe not quite as involving as the catchier title. Maybe the most important lesson of this book is speak up. Don't be silent, whether it is because of your neighbor's Trump Flag or your neighbor's BLM placard, truth comes from dialogue and discussion and as Rauch notes, institutions. Our truth is only as good as our epistemology and being siloed in any b The idea of a constitution of knowledge is a bit unwieldy, but "developing an effective epistemology in a world gone mad" is even more so, and maybe not quite as involving as the catchier title. Maybe the most important lesson of this book is speak up. Don't be silent, whether it is because of your neighbor's Trump Flag or your neighbor's BLM placard, truth comes from dialogue and discussion and as Rauch notes, institutions. Our truth is only as good as our epistemology and being siloed in any bubble limits truth.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Josh

    Quotes "But here an obvious question arises. Given humans’ innate tribal wiring; given our natural facility for hypocrisy and self-serving belief; given our many cognitive biases and our need to conform: how, then, could we possibly have created the advanced and generally peaceful world we occupy? How is it that the reality-based community not only exists but has gone from triumph to triumph? If anything is striking about the modern age in advanced democracies, it is how rare creed wars are, not Quotes "But here an obvious question arises. Given humans’ innate tribal wiring; given our natural facility for hypocrisy and self-serving belief; given our many cognitive biases and our need to conform: how, then, could we possibly have created the advanced and generally peaceful world we occupy? How is it that the reality-based community not only exists but has gone from triumph to triumph? If anything is striking about the modern age in advanced democracies, it is how rare creed wars are, not how common." ---- "Thomas Hobbes’s vision of society is dark. Peace and prosperity are possible, but only under the reign of an absolute sovereign who can forcibly impose order and suppress the war of all against all. But who will rule the sovereign? No one: necessarily, the sovereign reigns supreme, her power neither divided nor limited. Nor can the people change the form of government, or rebel against it; their grant of authority to the sovereign is irrevocable. As with Plato’s philosopher-king, and then emperors and monarchs and popes for two millennia, the sovereign must be wise and good. And if she is not wise and good? Then we must live with her abuses, for the alternatives—anarchy and war—can only be worse. There can be room for some differences, but not for dissent on fundamental civic matters such as religion: “for words can be a crime,” wrote Hobbes, “and can be punished without injury with whatever punishments the legislators wish—indeed, with the ultimate penalty.” ---- "Rousseau is a controversial figure. Some see him as the forebear of today’s progressives, championing social equality and personal emancipation; others, as a utopian social engineer who inspired the totalitarian impulses of Robespierre, Lenin, and Pol Pot (the murderous Cambodian dictator). Both views contain truth, but at a minimum his philosophy raised problems akin to the ones which backed Hobbes into an authoritarian corner. The idea of a single general will seems to allow room for only one legitimate ruler or viewpoint; how, then, can pluralism be accommodated?" Who exactly can discern the general will when individuals disagree (as they are bound to do)? Once certain leaders or factions lay claim to the general will, how can their power be bounded? What if reformers decide to do a good deal of destroying and oppressing in order to enforce the transcendent public good, as so infamously happened in the French Revolution? Today, Rousseau’s thinking remains influential: dangerously so among populists—of both the right and the left—who assert that they, and only they, speak for the will of the people; more benignly, but still often mischievously, Aa among idealists and ideologues of many stripes who claim that their insights and doctrines empower them to speak for the public interest." ---- "Of course, there were breakthroughs and advances before the Industrial Revolution, the American Revolution, and the scientific revolution. What was lacking, though, was a social order capable of generating and then cumulating advances systematically. And systematic social orders require constitutions: formal, political ones, or informal, culturally embodied ones—but, in either case, systems of rules which channel human energies in pro-social directions. All three of the great liberal social systems—economic, political, epistemic—are traceable to breakthroughs in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. All were pioneered by men who followed each other’s writings and doings and who sometimes knew each other personally. They and their works were flawed with the inequities and blind spots of their eras (one of which is reflected in the fact that all of them were men). But the founders were not just blundering along; they self-consciously sought to create an alternative to the failed regimes of the past. The greatest of them—especially John Locke, Adam Smith, and James Madison, the big three of modern liberalism—were men of genius, whose acuity and sophistication remain astonishing even today." ---- "In today’s polarized climate, people tend to think of compromise as, at best, a necessary evil: a baby-splitting process which bends principles and impedes progress, leaving everyone unhappy. That is unfortunate, because Madison’s view is much closer to the truth. Compromise is a positive good: a balance wheel which keeps the government moving forward instead of toppling, and a source of constant pressure for innovation and adaptation and inclusion. Compromise, in other words, is Madison’s answer to the seemingly impossible conundrum of how a democracy can be both dynamic and stable." ---- "By the same token, the Madisonian system does not assume, expect, or even desire that every person should be a deal-cutting moderate. In fact, it assumes the opposite: that people are naturally inclined to hold strong beliefs and usually enter into negotiations reluctantly. They compromise not because they want to but because they have to, and their firm convictions ensure that multiple views receive energetic advocacy. Political zeal is to Madison’s political system what the profit motive is to Adam Smith’s economic system and what strong opinions are to Locke’s epistemic system: an energy source. Like all energies, ambition and zeal can be destructive; compromise contains, channels, and exploits them." ---- "A few decades earlier, Montesquieu had suggested dividing power in order to contain it; in 1780, when John Adams drafted the Massachusetts constitution, he divided its powers among three branches. From them, Madison adopted the principle of separated, competing powers, and he placed it at the heart of the U.S. Constitution; but, more than his predecessors (and more than most people even today), he saw dividing power not just as a way of constraining ambition but also as a way to promote cooperation and compromise by channeling ambition dynamically." ---- "Like Montesquieu, Madison understood that forcing multiple power centers to compete could prevent tyranny. But also, paralleling his near-contemporary Adam Smith, he saw that competition could be an engine converting the anarchic energy of diversity into the coordinated motion of cooperation. The essential ingredient, Madison saw, was compromise." ---- "Make no mistake, the rules are at least as demanding as they are permissive. By protecting criticism and dethroning authority, both rules protect freedom of expression. But both also impose stringent obligations on anyone who purports to advance knowledge. You have to check your own claims and subject them to contestation from others; you have to tolerate the competing claims of others; you have to accept that your own certainty counts for nothing; you have to forswear claiming that your god, your experience, your intuition, or your group is epistemically privileged; you have to defend the exclusive legitimacy of liberal science even (in fact, especially) when you think it is wrong or unfair." ---- "Sometimes hardest of all, you are obliged to be thick-skinned and to tolerate the emotional bruising which is unavoidable in a contentious intellectual culture. If you feel offended or traumatized by something someone else has to say, of course you can object or protest or suggest a better way to talk, and very often you should; but you cannot expect or demand to shut down the conversation. After all, you might be wrong, and they might be right. No final say; no personal authority." ---- "The concept of truth, the philosopher Hannah Arendt remarked, contains within itself an element of coercion. If you believe something is true, you also believe you must believe it. The statement “The sky is blue, but I don’t believe it” is grammatically correct but makes no sense. For a disinformation operative, the goal is to subvert truth’s compulsion. That is difficult to do by changing people’s minds, especially about identity-defining beliefs, as we saw in chapter 2. But making people confused and mistrustful is easier. Arendt “repeatedly called attention to a very particular kind of lying that she associated with the authoritarian governments of mid-twentieth-century Europe,” writes the historian Sophia Rosenfeld. “This was a form of dissembling that was so brazen and comprehensive, so far from standard political fibbing and selective spin, that it left a population essentially impotent.” As Arendt famously wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.” ---- "Epistemic helplessness—the inability to know where to turn for truth—was the desideratum of the firehose of falsehood. “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda,” the Russian dissident Gary Kasparov observed in a December 2016 tweet. “It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.” The goal was demoralization. In a chillingly candid interview in 1983, Yuri Bezmenov, a Russian intelligence defector who had specialized in propaganda and ideological subversion, explained: “A person who is demoralized is unable to assess true information. The facts tell nothing to him. Even if I shower him with information, with authentic proof, with documents, with pictures.” ---- "Cancel campaigns are not interested in fair criticism or persuasion. They want to isolate, intimidate, and demoralize. If a campaign can drive its targets from polite society, then it can spoof people’s consensus detectors and seed a spiral of silence. Some people will fall for the spoof and accept the apparent judgment of the crowd. Others will remain inwardly skeptical but, as Tocqueville said, “yield and return to silence.” ---- "Together, Mill’s arguments nod in the direction later taken by Charles Sanders Peirce and Karl Popper: knowledge is a social phenomenon. It is a product of human interactions, not just individual reason. It requires comparing viewpoints. Wherever there is only one person or opinion, fact and faith become undistinguishable. “In an imperfect state of the human mind,” wrote Mill, “the interests of truth require a diversity of opinions.” ---- "the Constitution of Knowledge is the most successful social design in human history, but also the most counterintuitive. In exchange for knowledge, freedom, and peace, it asks us to mistrust our senses and our tribes, question our sacred beliefs, and relinquish the comforts of certitude. It insists that we embrace our fallibility, subject ourselves to criticism, tolerate the reprehensible, and outsource reality to a global network of strangers. Defending it every day, forever, against adversaries who shape-shift but never retreat, can be, as the Middlebury students said in a different context, exhausting, upsetting, and deeply stressful. But we cannot afford to be snowflakes. Epistemic liberalism, like political liberalism, is a fighting faith." ---- Selection of terms: coercive conformity, confirmation loops, creed wars, demarcation problem, emotional safetyism, fallibilism, grandstanding, identity-protective cognition, "flood the zone with shit", firehose of falsehoods ---- “On the whole,” he wrote, “we cannot in any way reach perfect certitude nor exactitude. We can never be absolutely sure of anything,” at least when any matter involves facts and statements about objective reality. “The scientific spirit,” said Peirce, “requires a man to be at all times ready to dump his whole cartload of beliefs, the moment experience is against them.” -Charles Sanders Peirce ----

  15. 5 out of 5

    Barry Welsh

    5 stars. Please read this book...

  16. 5 out of 5

    Bob Lewis

    I was recently party to a conversation regarding the extraordinary pace of social change and technological advancement over the last century or so. It's a marvel to realize that, compared to the slow changes throughout much of human history, recent history has given us such remarkable advances. Indeed, the same century (the last one) that saw the invention of air travel also saw the development, only 66 years later, of space travel. The first prototypes of the Internet were invented less than a I was recently party to a conversation regarding the extraordinary pace of social change and technological advancement over the last century or so. It's a marvel to realize that, compared to the slow changes throughout much of human history, recent history has given us such remarkable advances. Indeed, the same century (the last one) that saw the invention of air travel also saw the development, only 66 years later, of space travel. The first prototypes of the Internet were invented less than a century after the inventions of the radio and the telephone. Our economies--and the corresponding standards of living--have exploded in a way unprecedented in human history. How have we accomplished all of this? Though not the first thinker to do so, author Jonathan Rauch traces this marvelous advancement to the development of three similar and overlapping ideas. Economically, market capitalism; politically, (classical) liberalism; epistemologically (or scientifically), what he calls the "Constitution of Knowledge," an analogy to the United States Constitution meant to stand for the core set of ideas underlying free and open scientific inquiry. Among the core features of these ideas is the decentralized ability for self-motivated (and often self-interested) individuals to drive innovation as a sort of emergent property of their collected actions, experiments, and ideas. These ideas, the linchpins of Western civilization, have allowed for unprecedented progress but, as Rauch reminds us, require constant defense. Though touching on all of these ideas in brief, this book is a defense particularly of the last. The Constitution of Knowledge, as Rauch calls it, allows for the collective generation of knowledge through the actions of countless individuals working on their separate projects, mutually checking each others' work through a variety of academic and professional institutions and networks. The central benefit is that such a method allows for the benefits of almost infinite diversity of thought, but includes as a feature a self-correcting mechanism as ideas bounce from individual to individual, critiqued and modified at every stage. Roughly the first half of the book provides a brief history and overview of this "Constitution of Knowledge" (what we might more familiarly describe as a marketplace of ideas, though the author outlines his reasons for the different terminology). To anyone with a solid education in the related histories of philosophy (particularly epistemology), science, or Western civilization, much of this information will be familiar. But it bears repeating, and the author presents it well. Further, given how little many of us know of our own history, that first half alone justifies reading this book. In the second half, the book ventures into a more overtly political realm, discussing the attacks on this Constitution of Knowledge from both the political right and left. Though the author fails at times to keep his own political biases in check (though he deserves a lot of credit for making a stronger attempt to do so than most authors would bother to), he presents a remarkably even-handed analysis, criticizing the left and right in almost equal measure. He criticizes the right for what he calls "troll epistemology" and the left for cancel culture, and traces the lineage of both not only through history but specifically through the rise of information technology and digital culture. The book's seventh chapter in particular, detailing not only the symptoms of cancel culture but attempting to identify its antecedents, is a must-read. It will terrify anyone with a love of free expression (which should be all of us), but also provides some reason to maintain hope even as we witness what can only be described as the corruption of this Constitution of Knowledge from within. And the book culminates with a timely and thought-provoking call for all readers to rally against these corruptions. But the book isn't entirely without flaws. As I mentioned, the author's political allegiances do occasionally show through. Though it doesn't detract from the quality of the overall message, it will likely annoy at least some subset of the readership. Stylistically, the author falls from time to time into overly repetitive discussion. These, however, are minor points. A larger potential point is the author's insistence that, more than mere collections of individuals dedicated to working within the established epistemological rules (as explained in detail throughout the book), established institutions are necessary for such a system to work. To be sure, there's truth to the idea. Some form of institutions are necessary. However, the reader occasionally gets the sense that the author is overly attached to the particular forms of institutions with which he is familiar--mainstream journalism, universities, etc.--even while admitting that they're suffering a corrupting crisis of intellectual homogeneity. To admit my own bias: my philosophy skews toward individualism, and I suspect the author underestimates the power of emergent self-organization. However, his case against my perspective, if not entirely convincing, is at least thought-provoking. The trouble is, that part of the book's argument seems half-formed. Little consideration (with the exception of one case study regarding Wikipedia) is given to different ways decentralized yet structured institutions might be implemented instead of or in addition to existing institutions. And while the book does take some time to discuss proposals regarding possible ways to fix existing institutions (for instance, by fostering viewpoint diversity in academia), those proposals themselves seem to invite the very sorts of political maneuverings and corruptions they would seek to correct. Nevertheless, though we may disagree on some points, I would argue that we--all of us, regardless of our own political affiliations or intellectual temperaments--need to heed Rauch's overall warning. We do indeed face an epistemological crisis in the early 21st Century, and this book serves as a timely and important call to the defense of the very principles that allow us even to have such an open discussion as to be able to read and evaluate such a book.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

    This is an important book for anyone struggling to understand the current political and social conflicts and hoping for a return to civility and dialogue in the national conversation. This book is an excellent resource for understanding how we discern truth and distinguish it from the noise created by our innate biases. It also explains the mechanisms that have lead to the rise of misinformation, "fake news", and the other attacks on rational, reality based understandings of the world. The book o This is an important book for anyone struggling to understand the current political and social conflicts and hoping for a return to civility and dialogue in the national conversation. This book is an excellent resource for understanding how we discern truth and distinguish it from the noise created by our innate biases. It also explains the mechanisms that have lead to the rise of misinformation, "fake news", and the other attacks on rational, reality based understandings of the world. The book opens with an review of the biases that make it impossible for any individual to ascertain any fundamental truth on their own. Evolution has programmed our brains with a number of biases that provide us with short cuts to certainty based on many factors that often have little to do with reality. These biases make it almost impossible for us to, individually, step outside our personal experiences to view the world around us with anything close to true objectivity. After explaining how it is impossible for individuals to determine truth or reality on their own, the author then describes what he calls "The Constitution of Knowledge", a framework that has been developed that allows us to, collectively, as a community, to approach the truth. It functions on the basis of a number of principles: That all concepts or proposals must be considered fallible, that no idea is beyond challenge, and that all concepts of what is true/real are provisional and subject to being disproven by further evidence. In addition, there is no single authority - anyone can challenge any idea, providing evidence and arguments about the merits of the idea. All ideas are challenged and tested, and only those that survive such challenges are accepted by the community as being something close to truth. This requires everyone to accept that they can be wrong and willing to submit their ideas to the testing of the community. This framework works best in a highly diverse community, where a wide range of ideas and viewpoints compete with each other, and it has proved to be an extremely robust model for exploring reality and understanding what is true. Finally, the book explores two recent, widespread challenges to this framework: The spread of misinformation and trolling on the internet, and the rise of "cancel" culture that seeks to silence voices that make people uncomfortable. In each case, there is a detailed explanation about how these attacks take advantage of our innate biases to short circuit the processes of the framework of the Constitution of Knowledge to create "alternative realities" that are not properly tested and challenged. While they feel "real" to those who believe in them, the do not represent an objective reality because their proponents refuse to subject their ideas to the challenges of fallibility required by the framework, or refuse to accept the legitimacy of that framework and its conclusions. But in each case, the author shows how we can address these issues, using the concepts of the Constitution of Knowledge to marginalize these ideas and help restore an understanding that is closer to objective reality. There is a lot of information in this book, and it took me some time to work my way through it all. This is not a book to be rushed through, as the ideas presented here are important and deserve to be considered carefully.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Ronald Diehl

    To illustrate Constitution’s indispensability, here’s an excerpt from a review of the book that was published in Critical Inquiry (a make-believe journal in which make-believe theorists publish make-believe theories, ironically associated with the University of Chicago), written by someone who ostensibly read it: [One] could frame the explosion of trolling and cancelling on social media, in part, as an epistemic insurrection against those who have held the power over discourse for so long. At To illustrate Constitution’s indispensability, here’s an excerpt from a review of the book that was published in Critical Inquiry (a make-believe journal in which make-believe theorists publish make-believe theories, ironically associated with the University of Chicago), written by someone who ostensibly read it: [One] could frame the explosion of trolling and cancelling on social media, in part, as an epistemic insurrection against those who have held the power over discourse for so long. At no other time in history have people been so easily able to organize and have their voices heard when speaking out against the oppressive forces that aim to marginalize them. Rauch’s Constitution of Knowledge may have worked for the enlightenment thinkers he showcases, but if it is to have any success in governing the truth in modern society, there must be structures in place to ensure equal voice and justice at the epistemic bargaining table. Relevant: Sampling volumes of Critical Inquiry, I’m genuinely unable to determine whether the publication is serious or satirical, making me worry that I’m committing the equivalent of taking an article from The Onion seriously. But that’s not important. What is important is that Rauch is a genius who should’ve been a philosopher two or three centuries ago or something, and that Constitution is essential reading for anyone seeking orientation in a contemporary political landscape and media environment suffused with right-wing disinformation and left-wing pseudoknowledge. There’s immense assurance and optimism to be found in the book’s message that deliverance from the prevailing epistemic hellscape needn’t come from revolution, but renewal.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Russel Henderson

    It’s a good and important book, defending free speech and empirically-based inquiry against the overlapping phenomena of misinformation and “canceling” (and its near-neighbors). Rauch makes a strong case that two strains, loosely (but not exclusively) affiliated with the Trumpish right on the one hand and the social justice crowd of the left on the other, are mutually reinforcing and distortive. If the book has a flaw it’s that it underestimates the rot in what he deems the reality-based communi It’s a good and important book, defending free speech and empirically-based inquiry against the overlapping phenomena of misinformation and “canceling” (and its near-neighbors). Rauch makes a strong case that two strains, loosely (but not exclusively) affiliated with the Trumpish right on the one hand and the social justice crowd of the left on the other, are mutually reinforcing and distortive. If the book has a flaw it’s that it underestimates the rot in what he deems the reality-based community, particularly in the news media, but he doesn’t ignore it. He touches on the threats to it from within, the notions of groupthink and self-censorship, and he does so effectively. I found some of the discussions of Trumpism off-putting not because I disagreed with him but because I believe the examples he used are unlikely to be enduring, even if the wider experience will be one we reckon with for decades to come. But on the whole a persuasive, likely durable work from a genre I tend to eschew.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Richard Sansing

    This is an important book. I give it my highest recommendation. It is a book that I intend to keep close at hand, as I expect to refer to it frequently. The first four chapters presents what the author calls "the constitution of knowledge", by which he means the set of values, rules, and institutions that mankind has developed to create knowledge. The later chapters describe the threats from the right and left to the constitution of knowledge. Chapter Six, Troll Epistemology: "Flood the Zone with This is an important book. I give it my highest recommendation. It is a book that I intend to keep close at hand, as I expect to refer to it frequently. The first four chapters presents what the author calls "the constitution of knowledge", by which he means the set of values, rules, and institutions that mankind has developed to create knowledge. The later chapters describe the threats from the right and left to the constitution of knowledge. Chapter Six, Troll Epistemology: "Flood the Zone with $h!t" (I have mildly edited the chapter title) describes how Trump and his enablers operate. Here is an excerpt, edited for brevity. "Blame Trump and his troll army and media enablers, to be sure; but remember they could not have succeeded without their audiences' help. Disinformation and conspiracy theories spread because so many people are active collaborators in their own deception. Feeling left behind by rapid social change, they seek explanations that provide an emotionally cathartic story of good versus evil." "By heightening political polarization , attacking established institutions, and fueling social mistrust, propagandists can make a portion of the public not only receptive to disinformation but eager to pitch in an help manufacture it." Chapter Seven, Canceling: Despotism of the Few makes a strong case against the "Cancel Culture", the thuggish, authoritarian efforts to silence some voices in an effort to intimidate others that share their views into silence.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Henry

    Most important non-fiction book I’ve read this year

  22. 4 out of 5

    Todd

    Rauch's analysis of truth in the 21st century will easily make my 2021 best books shortlist. With more than a few echoes of Popper's "The Open Society and Its Enemies" (albeit much more accessible), Rauch marshals early 20th century philosophy of science, late 20th century journalistic credo, and Enlightenment values to craft what he calls a constitution of knowledge. Unlike the actual US Constitution, the tenets of the constitution of knowledge are not written down for all to readily see. Howev Rauch's analysis of truth in the 21st century will easily make my 2021 best books shortlist. With more than a few echoes of Popper's "The Open Society and Its Enemies" (albeit much more accessible), Rauch marshals early 20th century philosophy of science, late 20th century journalistic credo, and Enlightenment values to craft what he calls a constitution of knowledge. Unlike the actual US Constitution, the tenets of the constitution of knowledge are not written down for all to readily see. However, as with written constitutions, we ignore the intentions and institutions established by the constitution of knowledge at our own peril. It is perhaps more accurate to suggest that Rauch has penned a number of "Federalist Papers" for truth in the 21st century. Each chapter discusses some aspect of knowledge (acquisition, communication, manipulation, etc.) within the social, political, and technological capabilities and culpabilities of the early 21st century. All-in-all, thoroughly engaging stuff from start to finish.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Lee Alexander

    3.5 starts rounded up to 4. I thought Rauch's previous book, Kindly Inquisitions, was extremely informative and a great read. This book, not so much. Maybe I read The Constitution of Knowledge too soon after finishing his previous book because I found this book is just a repeat of Kindly Inquisitions with additional chapters on the mess that is social media and cancel culture. 3.5 starts rounded up to 4. I thought Rauch's previous book, Kindly Inquisitions, was extremely informative and a great read. This book, not so much. Maybe I read The Constitution of Knowledge too soon after finishing his previous book because I found this book is just a repeat of Kindly Inquisitions with additional chapters on the mess that is social media and cancel culture.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Héctor Mata

    A powerful sequel to Kindly Inquisitors. There is some overlap in content, but overall this tome is a different argument: that free speech by itself is necessary but not sufficient for the production of knowledge. Rauch details how knowledge is produced by a network of formal and informal institutions, governed by a "Constitution", and attacked by multiple enemies on all sides. This is an enlightening and optimistic (but not complacent!) book. As with free speech, the Constitution of Knowledge i A powerful sequel to Kindly Inquisitors. There is some overlap in content, but overall this tome is a different argument: that free speech by itself is necessary but not sufficient for the production of knowledge. Rauch details how knowledge is produced by a network of formal and informal institutions, governed by a "Constitution", and attacked by multiple enemies on all sides. This is an enlightening and optimistic (but not complacent!) book. As with free speech, the Constitution of Knowledge is something so unintuitive and unnatural that it will have to be argued for and defended forever. So, as Rauch says, we ought to get on with it with cheer.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Kevin

    A must read. Not easy but important.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Angelo Lisboa

    This book should be an essay.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Loren Picard

    This is a very nicely written book that reminds you what is at stake when knowledge creation is hijacked by special interests. The book addresses, among many other things, how social media platforms have inverted, for many people, how they get information and knowledge. The outcome, which we all see and experience, hasn't been good. If you've had some general readings in the history and philosophy of science this will make the book that much more enjoyable. Though, this is not required to get a This is a very nicely written book that reminds you what is at stake when knowledge creation is hijacked by special interests. The book addresses, among many other things, how social media platforms have inverted, for many people, how they get information and knowledge. The outcome, which we all see and experience, hasn't been good. If you've had some general readings in the history and philosophy of science this will make the book that much more enjoyable. Though, this is not required to get a lot out of the material.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Melissa

    Really a deep dive to why diversity, tolerance, accountability make democracy work. Conversation is truly all we have to see our way through something and this book is a practical view of how to start, or how to keep going.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Ron

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. All Americans can benefit by reading The Constitution of Knowledge. Rauch presents a well researched, concise explanation of how truth and knowledge has eroded in the US. "A person who is demoralized is unable to assess true information. The facts tell nothing to him. Even if I shower him with information, with authentic proof, with documents, with pictures." -Guru Bezmenov All Americans can benefit by reading The Constitution of Knowledge. Rauch presents a well researched, concise explanation of how truth and knowledge has eroded in the US. "A person who is demoralized is unable to assess true information. The facts tell nothing to him. Even if I shower him with information, with authentic proof, with documents, with pictures." -Guru Bezmenov

  30. 4 out of 5

    Xavier Bonilla

    This is essential reading for 2021. Rauch does an excellent job pulling from political theory, philosophy, and social psychology to understand the challenges of our time. His concept, Constitution of knowledge, is juxtaposed with the US constitution in how we conceptualize a standard for truth in our society. In the spirit of the enlightenment, Rauch dares us all to not abandon our true liberal values and to push forward through the culture wars with courage. One of the best books I have read th This is essential reading for 2021. Rauch does an excellent job pulling from political theory, philosophy, and social psychology to understand the challenges of our time. His concept, Constitution of knowledge, is juxtaposed with the US constitution in how we conceptualize a standard for truth in our society. In the spirit of the enlightenment, Rauch dares us all to not abandon our true liberal values and to push forward through the culture wars with courage. One of the best books I have read this year!

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