I haven’t read Brookings Institution fellow Jonathan Rauch’s new book, The Constitution of Knowledge, but I did read the article it’s based on, which is one of the best long-form essays I’ve come across in the past year. I’m fascinated by epistemology, the study of how we know what we know. Rauch goes beyond individual learning to ruminate on social epistemology, which he defines as “how societies come to some kind of public understanding about truth.”
I’ll assume that even if you’re as interested as I am in the subject, you’re also as lazy as I am and probably won’t read the book. So what follows is a summary of the article. (You’re probably better off doing a deep read on your own, however long that takes. Here’s the link again.)
Rauch uses the term constitution to describe the process for distinguishing knowledge from conjecture, falsehood, etc. According to Rauch, that process took root during the Enlightenment and is analogous to the American Constitution: “the constitution of knowledge has its own equivalents of checks and balances (peer review and replication), separation of powers (specialization), governing institutions (scientific societies and professional bodies), voting (citations and confirmations), and civic virtues (submit your beliefs for checking if you want to be taken seriously).”
Anyone can throw out a hypothesis, no matter how outrageous. That’s free speech, the indispensable first step in the process. But the hypothesis is subject to scrutiny by experts with strong backgrounds in investigative techniques and rules of evidence. Those experts include scholars, scientists, journalists, jurists, and the law enforcement and intelligence communities, although, as Rauch gladly concedes, “anyone who follows the rules can make a contribution, as amateur astronomers and geologists have been doing for centuries.” Only hypotheses that survive rigorous, intense, and extended review become knowledge, “and even they stand only unless and until debunked.”
Rauch argues that the results have been spectacular:
Every day, probably before breakfast, [the process] adds more to the canon of knowledge than was accumulated in the 200,000 years of human history prior to Galileo’s time. Second, by insisting on validating truths through a decentralized, non-coercive process that forces us to convince each other with evidence and argument, it ends the practice of killing ideas by killing their proponents.
But now the process is in trouble: our new dominant medium, the internet, allows trolls to traduce the very concept of truth. “Unmoored from all epistemic standards, [trolling] is incapable of establishing that anything is true or that anyone is right. All it can do is spread confusion and demolish trust.” Why do trolls do it? “By insisting that all the fact checkers and hypothesis testers out there are phonies, trolls discredit the very possibility of a socially validated reality, and open the door to tribal knowledge, personal knowledge, partisan knowledge, and other manifestations of epistemic anarchy.”
The question is whether our institutions of knowledge will prove strong enough to repel this pernicious assault. Rauch is optimistic. I’m less so. Enlightenment liberalism is also fighting a right-wing authoritarian onslaught against its political institutions — and the left-wing authoritarianism of wokish orthodoxy (not as menacing as the right makes it sound, but a threat nonetheless). It’s under unremitting attack from three sides, and sooner or later — I’m hoping much later, like years after I’ve died of old age — the epistemic nihilists are bound to break through and trash everything.