Evidently True? (Books)

By George McCully

Book Review

The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth; Jonathan Rauch; Brookings Institution Press; Washington D.C.; 2021.

Reviewed by George McCully 

This is a prominent and timely book by a distinguished journalist on a subject of profound national significance, especially for our educational and scholarly professions as NEJHE has previously noted. Yet, despite its many admirable features and high praise from leading commentators, I found the book’s argument and potential value fundamentally undermined by a surprising misconception of its central subject.

The book contends that, as with our national political Constitution, we have a “Constitution of Knowledge,” which works to channel our civic discourse in constructive directions by defining the bounds of proper intellectual customs. By acting as a filter for debates among contending parties, it sorts out true, good and beautiful ideas from their opposites, over time pointing us in progressive directions. This Constitution developed concurrently with our federal Constitution, over centuries leading to the Enlightenment, with the rise of “liberal science” and progressive ideals. Recent psychological experiments have shown, however, that humans can be and often are driven by irrational impulses to act selfishly and against the common good. The current revolution in information and communication technology has been used maliciously to favor and manipulate those impulses, as shown by our recent politics, especially under Trump. Therefore, we need now to revive and strengthen this Constitution of Knowledge in our politics and civil affairs. All this is certainly a plausible argument.

Plausible, but not persuasive. The epitome of its problems is its misleading title, promising far more than the book delivers. This is not a book about “knowledge” per se, but about public knowledge. It does not offer a defense of “truth” per se, but rather an extensively researched and fervent attack against current political malpractices of mis- and dis-information, with numerous suggestions of ways to oppose and avoid them. The result is that the whole argument is weaker than expected.

The book’s essential flaw is its socialization of “knowledge.” It does not consider an assertion to be valid or true unless it has persuaded people and been accepted socially. Rauch writes (emphases mine): “The only way to validate a [specific proposition] is to submit it to the reality-based community.” He adds: “[L]iberal science’s distinctive qualities derive from two core rules: … the fallibilist rule: No one gets the final say” and “the empirical rule: No one has personal authority … Crucially, then, the empirical rule is a social principle. …”

In other words, if you and I, in our research, make some new and original discoveries based on adequate evidence, those discoveries according to Rauch’s book are not “knowledge” until other people agree with them. I found his exclusively social emphasis about “knowledge” more than a bit weird. It reminded me of the old saw about the questionable sound of an unobserved tree falling in the middle of a forest, or perhaps more pointedly of the politically incorrect joke, “If I say something and my wife doesn’t hear it, is it still wrong?” By focusing on this socialization, the book fails to promote the simple but powerful antidote we need: namely, thinking on the basis of evidence—the routine practice of all modern scholarship, science and jurisprudence, accessible by all educators and citizens.

In fact, this socialized approach to knowledge is exactly what has rendered knowledge more, not less, vulnerable to the malicious and corrupt mis- and dis-information newly empowered by the IT revolution. It is what has caused, for example, a currently reported 88,000 people per week to fight Covid with the livestock de-wormer Ivermectin which they can buy from agricultural feed stores. In contrast, the authentic empirical practice of grounding knowledge in evidence is invulnerable by communications techniques. If what good citizens promote and defend is itself demonstrably unshakeable, the cause of truth in democracy can be more effectively strengthened and defended. This book shows no awareness of this.

Moreover, conceiving knowledge in exclusively sociopolitical terms has encouraged the odd analogy Rauch has drawn to a “Constitution of Knowledge” comparable to our federal Constitution in that it governs (public) knowledge. But this comparison is obviously flawed—the alleged “Constitution of Knowledge” has no Article VI, Section 2, explicitly making it the “supreme law of the land” nor Article III, Section 1, vesting “judicial power in one supreme court” of a few officials, backed by a huge and elaborate law enforcement apparatus. Participation in Rauch’s “Constitution of Knowledge” is purely voluntary. While it is customary though not infallible among professionals, it does not guide popular thinking or discussion outside the professions and is highly vulnerable by today’s hyper-powerful communications technology in vicious hands.

In short, this important book is basically at odds with itself. While it is true that the public in general does not “think on the basis of evidence” and relies for verification on trusting other people, this is what has caused the much-discussed epistemic crisis of our democracy. Our resulting sociopolitical polarization and mutually antagonistic tribal cultures are what prevent our electorates and representatives from objectively deciding on the relative merits of various candidates and ideas. The symbiosis of journalism with civil opinions, which Rauch’s book exemplifies, is at the heart of our crisis. We need journalism and public discourse to be based on and promoting reliance on evidence, not public opinions.

I am reluctant to say this, but to this Journal‘s readership it bears notice: The strangeness to us of this book’s argument derives from its journalistic, rather than scholarly or scientific, habit. The sea in which journalism swims is entirely sociopolitical; that is why “fairness” and “balance” in reporting various perspectives have long been promoted as criteria of public value by schools of professional journalism. For journalists, it is understandable that “knowledge” is likely to mean “public knowledge” based on social acceptance. In contrast, the graduate schools that have trained us in professional research promote “truth” which we take to be synonymous with “knowledge” as our sole professional objective and criterion of value. For scholars (and scientists) “knowledge” is gained only by adherence to adequate evidence. Many of us in the course of our professional careers have made new and original factual discoveries, which we consider new “knowledge” even before their publication and indeed as an elementary criterion for publication in the first place.

This is a gap that needs now to be bridged, not smudged nor insisted upon. This means that we—the community of scholars and educators (including journalists)—have a substantial civic role and responsibility to collaborate in protecting democracy from its current detractors, by energetically teaching and promoting thinking on the basis of evidence in all public discourse, especially including popular journalism. When any assertion is made in civic arenas, the first question by journalists—always and predictably so that everyone becomes accustomed to it—should be, “What’s your evidence?”

George McCully is a historian, former professor and faculty dean at higher education institutions in the Northeast, professional philanthropist and founder and CEO of the Catalogue for Philanthropy.

Photo by Alexandr Bormotin on Unsplash.



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