Matters of fact in a post-truth world

The message of The Constitution of Knowledge is one of hope, as Rauch urges those who resent the censors to “unmute” themselves

This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth by Jonathan Rauch (Brookings Institution Press, £23.95)

You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right … But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind and nowhere else.” Thus O’Brien, the torturer of 1984, describes George Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare: where the physical world is an illusion and truth an empty word.

The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth by Jonathan Rauch (Brookings Institution Press, £23.95)

Champions of the Western liberal tradition have long asserted that reality is knowable: without hard facts to hold on to, the individual is powerless against the whim of tyrants or the madness of crowds. Critics of liberalism, on the other hand, have tended to ridicule the belief in objective truth as naive.

During the Trump presidency, liberals and centrists expressed alarm at a “post-truth” era. Others saw the chief threat to fact-based liberalism coming not from government but from the suppression of debate in the name of identity politics in academia and the media.

Some commentators have stressed the similarities between the populist and the progressive brands of illiberalism: extreme subjectivism, revolutionary zeal, hostility to Enlightenment values. Few have analysed the two-pronged assault on truth as eloquently as Jonathan Rauch, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The Constitution of Knowledge builds on the defence of intellectual freedom that he mounted in 1994 with Kindly Inquisitors, which focused on efforts by US universities to police speech. Both books highlight the collective nature of knowledge: we don’t understand the world by looking within ourselves but by comparing notes with others. “Knowledge is not just something I have; more fundamentally, it is something we have,” Rauch writes.

The central insight of his new book is that fruitful intellectual exchange does not happen by itself. Vital as it is, the free flow of information is not enough. Just as democracy is defined not by the mere absence of coercion but by institutions that foster co-operation, Rauch argues, intellectual life requires a set of norms and procedures to work as an incubator of truth. It needs a constitution.

Our instincts incline us to trust either a leader or the consensus ahead of our own senses. The human mind is not so much truth-resistant as truth-neutral: we don’t mind facts, as long as they are consistent with our beliefs or those of our tribe.

“Truthiness” is the idea that feelings about something have a deeper validity than cold facts

In science, the constitution of knowledge is a network of gatekeepers — learned societies, peer-reviewed journals, interconnected research universities — that organise what Rauch calls the “reality-based community”. It is impersonal: no one in particular decides what is true or false; “liberal science” operates through persuasion. Error and fraud can occasionally slip through its filters, but it is much more likely to catch problems than centralised alternatives.

In journalism, similarly, credibility depends on practices such as cross-checking information, correcting errors, or separating news from advertising. They may often be honoured in the breach, but that is the point: when a mainstream outlet prints untruths, it is breaking its own rules.

It is important to note how recent and artificial these mechanisms are. They are distinct from freedom of expression. Exponents of that timeless principle — from Milton and Locke to Voltaire and Tocqueville — defended the right to voice opinions, not the duty to check facts. A free press is not necessarily an accurate one. Newspapers in nineteenth-century America were rife with blatant bias and fake news. Some in modern democracies still are.

New technologies have upended the ecosystems that sustain the reality-based community. Social networks reward outrage and wild claims rather than truth and conciliation. What makes Donald Trump exceptional is not just the number, but the brazenness, of his lies. He lied in grandiose ways, for instance by claiming victory in an election he had demonstrably lost, and even more tellingly, as Rauch notes, in trivial ways, “when there was no point in lying except to show contempt for truth”. The effect was deeply subversive. As one senator put it: “A republic will not work if we don’t have shared facts.”

Trump and his allies often use a less obvious but equally pernicious reality-denying technique, which Rauch calls “truthiness”. This is the idea that feelings about something have a deeper validity than cold facts. When Trump retweeted a fake anti-Muslim clip, his spokeswoman dismissed criticism thus: “Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real.”

Not all his supporters who tell pollsters that the establishment is in the grips of Satan-worshipping paedophiles or that Hillary Clinton ran a child-sex ring from a pizza parlour actually believe in these conspiracies. But to them, they express a profound truth about corruption in Washington. If authenticity counts more than factual accuracy, the leader has the power to shape reality. This is the road to O’Brienism.

While the right uses turmoil and confusion to undermine the reality-based order, the left resorts to conformity and social pressure. In the latter part of The Constitution of Knowledge, Rauch shows the many ways in which cancel culture chokes the spirit of open debate and of challenge in which knowledge flourishes.

Vague rules make the effect all the more powerful. In the world of 1984, “nothing was illegal, since there were no longer any laws” — but, Orwell adds wryly, “it was reasonably certain that [writing a diary] would be punished by death”. In an environment dominated by left-wing identity politics, only jobs are at stake, but the uncertainty is no less paralysing: you never know what comment will cause uproar.

Brown University students once objected to a speaker whose free-market views caused “state violence against marginalised communities” and amounted to “hateful rhetoric which actively makes others less safe”. If laissez-faire economics can spark calls for deplatforming, many reasonably conclude that controversial subjects such as race or gender are best avoided altogether.

Rauch highlights the novel character of this assault on free thought. Censorship is not imposed by college bureaucrats — the “kindly inquisitors” he denounced almost three decades ago — but by student activists. Some university presidents have spoken out against “emotional safetyism” — the idea that exposure to some ideas is physically harmful. But most administrators have chosen to abet the paranoia. Many campuses have online “bias incident reporting systems” with “bias response teams” at the ready. Signs in toilets at New York University tell students whom to contact if they hear something they find offensive.

In a violation of the constitution of knowledge, which tells you not to trust your instinct, offence is defined subjectively by the offended. “The most important indication of bias is your own feelings,” the University of Michigan advises students.

It may seem bizarre that the zeal to ferret out racism should be greatest in American universities, of all places. Henry Fielding explained the phenomenon as long ago as the 1740s: “All persons under the apprehension of danger convert whatever they see and hear into the objects of that apprehension.”

The deeper message is that liberal institutions are not self sustaining. They need to be actively defended

Rauch invokes John Stuart Mill and Karl Popper against emotional safetyism. But his own experience shows most forcefully why we should welcome speech that we believe is wrong, or even obnoxious. In the 1990s and 2000s, he and other gay activists used reasoning to fight claims that homosexuals corrupted children or were mentally ill. “We won by correcting, not by coercing,” he writes. “Thank goodness we lacked the power to stifle our opponents; we needed to hear them … to discredit them.”

The message of The Constitution of Knowledge is one of hope. Polls show that the vast majority of professors and students in the US support open debate. The social justice wars fought on campuses and elsewhere are a classic case of the committed few prevailing over the lukewarm many. Rauch urges those who resent the censors to “unmute” themselves — and take their cue from outspoken scholars like Jonathan Haidt, who cofounded the Heterodox Academy website.

Rauch is cautiously optimistic even for social media. Communications revolutions have always unleashed chaos — think of the Wars of Religion triggered by printing — before being harnessed to promote knowledge. The same could be happening now, with digital platforms finally taking action against fake news and misleading ads. A “truth-friendly internet” remains a long way away, Rauch admits, but he spots welcome changes in the design.

The deeper message is that liberal institutions are not self-sustaining. They need to be actively defended. As Friedrich Hayek wrote in The Constitution of Liberty (a title that no doubt inspired Rauch’s): “If old truths are to retain their hold on men’s minds, they must be restated in the language and concepts of successive generations.” Jonathan Rauch has done so twice.

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