Who Can We Trust Today?

In The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth, Jonathan Rauch contends that we are facing an epistemic crisis. We no longer, as a society, seem to be able to distinguish truth from lies. And who can doubt him? To make his case he points to how preeminent gatekeepers of truth such as leading journalists like Dan Rather (“fake but accurate”) and Brian Williams (my helicopter “was forced down by an RPG”), the entire journalistic establishment that relentlessly peddled lies about Stacey Abrams having the Georgia gubernatorial election stolen from her, raised Michael Avenatti to a plausible presidential contender, and, of course, the biggest of them all, pushed the Russia collusion hoax. Wait! He doesn’t mention those at all. One can search high and low in his book for some discussion of the countless New York Times articles about the collusion hoax that was discredited by the Mueller Report and never find it.  Instead, this is how he describes the problem:

The crisis had many elements, but two seemed central to its character. One was the deployment of disinformation on an unprecedented scale by Trump, his troll armies, foreign governments, conspiracy mongers, and a conservative media ecosystem which was increasingly detached from reality-based norms. That attack came predominantly though not exclusively from the right. Peculiarly, it received an assist from the left, in the form of an attack on epistemic liberalism which came to be known as cancel culture.

You don’t have to have a MAGA hat in your closet, or to believe that there was massive electoral fraud depriving Trump of reelection, or to think that QAnon is sending you prophecies on 4chan, or to watch OANN to think that this might be, well, slightly one-sided. Strangely, it also means that our predicament, which Rauch overall excellently diagnoses, is even worse than he describes. If one of the central institutions of what he calls the “reality-based community” is thoroughly compromised (later in the book he does discuss the broader problems confronting mainstream journalism) then perhaps we should have even less hope than he allows.

In contrast to the realm of superstition, lies, and dogma, Rauch outlines what he calls “liberal science” which creates knowledge, encourages freedom, and promotes social peace. To be included in his “reality-based community,” you simply have to accept “liberal science’s rules and norms.” His story about the emergence of liberal science has three great heroes: John Locke, Charles Sanders Peirce, and James Madison. Locke gave us the clearest defense of natural rights, rule by consent, and religious toleration. Peirce gave us the clearest expression of fallibilism, the idea that knowledge is never certain and must always be subject to public critique. Madison gave us a constitutional framework which maps liberal science in allowing large “social organization without centralized control” in the American Constitution with its system of checks and balances and separation of powers.

Liberal science he contends follows two core rules: the fallibilist rule and the empirical rule. The first means “no one has the final say” and that “a statement is established as knowledge only if it can be debunked, in principle, and only insofar as it withstands attempts to debunk it.” The second means that “no one has personal authority” and that a “statement has been established as knowledge only insofar as the method used to check it gives the same result regardless of the identity of the checker, and regardless of the source of the statement” (italics in original). These rules mean, for Rauch, that “knowledge is always provisional, standing only as long as it withstands checking.”

One might immediately notice a problem. Is the idea of natural rights subject to fallibilism? Either it is true that humans have natural rights, or it is not. Rauch never explains whether they are provisional. Many of our fundamental debates involve moral questions that don’t fit nicely in this framework. Can we know, for instance, that torturing babies is wrong? The fallibilism he celebrates would seem to dictate no, but the idea of rights and the freedom they confer on the individual are essential, he argues, for creating the conditions for increasing knowledge. Or just consider the subtitle of his book. Can there be a defense of truth that immediately undercuts the possibility of certainty?

Leaving aside these issues, who is admitted into Rauch’s reality-based community? It includes 1) “the world of professional scholarship, science, and research”; 2) “mainstream journalism”; 3) “government agencies which gather intelligence, perform research, compile statistics, and develop regulations”; and 4) “the world of law and jurisprudence.” All of these, he maintains, at least when they operate as they should, share commitments to fallibilism, objectivity, exclusivity (a commitment to the idea of reality), disconfirmation, accountability, pluralism, civility, professionalism, institutionalism, and “no bullshitting.”

The fact that it took a comic appearing on a comedy show to end the censorship of a plausible theory on a matter of immense public concern doesn’t speak well for the epistemic judgment of our online gatekeepers.

In the second half of the book, Rauch diagnoses our contemporary epistemic threats. In particular, he focuses on digital media and the trolling and cancel cultures it makes possible.

Digital media, Rauch contends has done four things that allow misinformation to spread. First it “hacked our brains” by making us addicted to outrage culture. Everyone wants to experience the frisson of moral superiority by identifying and calling out the wicked whether they are wicked or not. Second, it “splintered reality” by multiplying not only the number of viewpoints but also the factual claims on the menu. Third, it accelerated “untruth” by allowing it to spread quickly without being subjected to review. And finally, it allowed “misinformation to acquire a business model” i.e., it allowed people to make money just by gathering clicks rather than by offering reliable knowledge.

All of this is well-taken but it does have to be weighed against the cost of our previous information ecosystem that was dominated by the big three television stations and the New York Times. After all, Dan Rather’s “fake but accurate” story about George W. Bush and Vietnam was exposed as a fraud by readers of the Powerline Blog. Prior to the digital media, how effectively could that misinformation have been countered? Since it fit the ideological priors of the establishment media, one suspects not well.

Rauch unfortunately gives major social-media companies more credit than they deserve for countering misinformation. He applauds them for abandoning a “neutral stance” towards truth and specifically references their attempts to rein in falsehoods about Covid-19. Unfortunately, some of what they decided to censor is now contested. Think of the “lab-leak hypothesis,” the idea that covid originated in a Chinese lab, not in a wet market or from someone eating bat soup. Facebook and others censored it as a conspiracy theory. But the dam eventually broke when Jon Stewart mocked those who discredited the hypothesis on The Late Show. The fact that it took a comic appearing on a comedy show to end the censorship of a plausible theory on a matter of immense public concern doesn’t speak well for the epistemic judgment of our online gatekeepers.

Of course, the lab-leak story illustrates how almost all the members of the “reality-based community” can simultaneously fail. The hypothesis was strenuously opposed by scholars and researchers who had a financial interest in gain-of-function research (altering in this case a virus to make it more infectious or deadly), some who had even collaborated with the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The National Institutes of Health had funded gain-of-function research through a third party at the Wuhan Lab, a claim denied by Anthony Fauci. And major journalistic institutions largely refused to investigate the theory. It’s not clear what we’re to do when all these institutions fail and when Facebook and YouTube refuse to even let the idea be expressed. Actually, one place that did allow explore the theory was Fox News, part of the bottom-feeding conservative media system that Rauch says is increasingly in the “bias-confirming business” (italics in original).

Easily the best part of the book, and worth the price of admission, is Rauch’s chapter on cancel culture which he describes as the “Despotism of the Few.” Because of the rise of “emotional safetyism,” modern-day censors repeatedly call out those who have allegedly made them feel unsafe because of their words. This emotional safetyism, Rauch contends, causes “silencing,” “makes you neurotic,” generates “conflict,” “rewards overreacting,” “ignores consequences,” “is a censorship machine,” “catastrophizes everyday interactions,” “trivializes physical violence,” “excuses real violence,” “patronizes minorities,” “distracts from the real problem,” and “undermines pluralism.”  

Rauch points out that New York Times staffers illustrated many of these pathologies when they said that publishing an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton made them feel unsafe and put them in danger eventually forcing the Times editorial page editor, James Bennet, to resign. Rauch also notes that cancel culture has infected higher education. Rauch’s own Kindly Inquisitors (originally published in 1993 but reads like it could have been written yesterday) documented the rise of censorship on campus, but the problem he notes has only gotten worse with increasing political homogeneity in the professoriate and emotional safetyism among students. Rauch contends that most “scholars have not abandoned the tenets of intellectual pluralism and do not want their research to be distorted or chilled,” and he points to surveys of students showing that they also at least pay lip service to principles of free speech and inquiry.

So how does the minority end up silencing the majority? Following Mancur Olsen’s analysis of government benefits, Rauch argues that the concentrated benefits and diffuse costs of outrage culture give a shrill minority significant incentives to organize and the silent majority almost none. The result is that “intellectual pressure groups capture resources and influence. They impose taboos, guard sacred beliefs, dominate hiring and tenure decisions, and build administrative empires, all of which accumulate over time, distorting and calcifying the intellectual economy.”  To anyone who has spent time in the academy, this should sound all too familiar.

After diagnosing the problems afflicting our culture and many of the components of his reality-based community, Rauch essentially offers two courses of action: counter-mobilizing and promoting viewpoint diversity. He admits that “lopsided arithmetic” makes counter-mobilizing “a challenge” but he thinks that just a little bit of opposition can go a long way in combating today’s censorious bullies. Most of them aren’t used to having anyone fight back. He points to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) as an example of how resistance can work. For a long time, universities would fight FIRE until the bitter end. Most have now gotten the memo and recognize that if they receive a letter from FIRE, it’s not a good day.

He also argues that both higher education and journalism should try to increase viewpoint diversity. This is a much more difficult task. Higher education suffers from “pipeline” problems and from overt discrimination. Conservative students who might be inclined to pursue a career as a professor worry, correctly, that they will face greater obstacles in an already difficult academic job market and decide that graduate school is not for them. Furthermore, increasing numbers of professors openly admit a willingness to discriminate on ideological grounds. Journalism might be easier given the lower opportunity costs to try it out as a career but considering what happened at the New York Times how many open conservatives could we expect to see hired at elite media outlets? After all, a conservative might express a conservative thought and threaten her colleagues’ safety.

In short, Rauch provides a cogent explanation for why we are bathed in nonsense. What’s more worrisome is that there’s even more nonsense than he admits and that our weapons to fight it appear too feeble for the task.