Read This Book

Last week, I finished reading Jonathan Rauch’s The Constitution of Knowledge. I highly recommend it.

The book is an extraordinarily readable primer on epistemology –how we humans know what we know, and a defense of the proposition that knowledge is a product of collective and institutional effort–what we might call the scientific method writ large. (As Rauch points out, knowledge is “a conversation, not a destination,” and falsification is an essential element in the development of knowledge.)

He begins with the thesis that the open society is defined by three social systems: economic, political, and epistemic, and that each of those systems handles social decision-making about resources, power, and truth. The book goes on to compare and contrast those social systems, and to connect today’s challenges to the long history of philosophical and scientific inquiries about the nature of reality, the differences between faith and fact, and the social and governmental importance of occupying the same “reality-based” community.

The book is also a stirring defense of free speech against assaults from both the  right (censorship) and the left (cancel culture).

Rauch warns that the real danger in a culture where lying is ubiquitous isn’t simply misdirection; it is the undermining of our ability to distinguish between fact and falsehood. As others have noted, the methodology of censorship has changed; today, rather than efforts to simply suppress uncongenial ideas (virtually impossible in our digital age), the tactic is to “flood the information zone with shit”–to confuse, undermine and paralyze rather than brainwash.

In the digital age, Rauch shares a concern that regular readers of this blog will recognize as  a preoccupation of mine–a concern that  the marketplace of ideas is in danger of being supplanted by a marketplace of realities.

Perhaps the greatest virtue of the book is Rauch’s detailed explanation of why facts are–and must be– a social product.

Whether and where and how much of the time we think well thus depends not just on how biased we may be as individuals or even how we behave in unstructured groups; it also depends, crucially, on the design of the social environment in which we find ourselves. To phrase the point more bluntly: It’s the institutions, stupid.

As he says, our task is to create a” social environment which increases rightness and reduces wrongness.” Unlike our governmental constitution, the constitution of knowledge is unwritten, but no less important–it is a “social operating system” that aims to elicit co-operation and resolve differences on the “basis of rules rather than personal authority or tribal affiliation or brute force.” And he reminds us that information technology is very different from knowledge technology.

Information can be simply emitted, but knowledge, the product of a rich social interaction, must be achieved.

Rauch also reminds readers that all knowledge is necessarily provisional–that as we learn more, we revisit and refine what we “know” in light of new information and new knowledge, and that this inevitable impermanence can be very threatening to individuals who need bright lines and eternal truths.

Rauch concludes the discussion with advice on how the reality-based community can respond to and marginalize the trolls and virtue signalers and others who are using our new tools of communication to pollute the national discourse.

Speaking of that national discourse, I thought it was interesting to look at the ideological diversity of those who provided the inevitable jacket “blurbs” praising the book, because they represent a variety of (reality-based)political and social perspectives. Their range testifies to the objectivity of the content.

Bottom line, this is a truly important book, providing an essential overview of how humans know, how the “Constitution of Knowledge” overcomes individual errors and biases, allowing the collective “us” to distinguish between fact and fiction, and why that process is so essential to social construction and stability.

The foregoing description does a real disservice to the scope and richness of this book. You need to read it.

 

17 thoughts on “Read This Book

  1. “He begins with the thesis that the open society is defined by three social systems: economic, political, and epistemic, and that each of those systems handles social decision-making about resources, power, and truth.”

    Wow; for almost a month I have been stressed about my decision to accept interviews/examinations by a geriatric team provided my my new primary physician. This morning I believe I hit on the crux of the problem causing my stress and the quote above confirms my morning “woke”. The geriatric team consists of a well trained Nurse Practitioner and a well trained social worker, both appear to be in their early 30s; their epistemic knowledge coming from text books and classes. They don’t need to be in their 80s to do this job but do need more life experience than being in their 30s and well educated to understand that medical test results do not define the “truth” about our physical and emotional health condition. The brief coming out of the obviously returning Pandemic has different political, economic and epistemic results on those of us who are nearing the end of our lives than they have just out of the starting gate. The same can be said about evaluating our political and economic conditions as well as our health care needs, they don’t need to be a Democrat or among the growing numbers of low-income class; just more experience gathering epistemic awareness.

    “…information technology is very different from knowledge technology.” That sums it up for me…”a social product”.

  2. JoAnn well said. Im also concerned about the amount of garbage thats just being thrown against the wall to see if it will stick from both sides. We certainly are flooded with propaganda. We have freedom of speech here. Unlike in many socialist countriesxwhere its controlled wholly. Cuba literally shut off the internet. In this country the free flow of information is a must how we apply that knowledge and protect our freedoms to do so depends on who we listen to and how we help those in our community uplift themselves with freedoms opportunities.

  3. I have always thought that the human race’s only real advantage over all other animals can be summed up as life consisting of learn, do, teach. That is we each spend our lives roughly living that simple model using the fact that our vocal chords and faces can express an unusually large litany of sounds that we can learn meanings of. Over our evolution our brains took advantage of that reality by changing abstractions into meaningful concepts.

    Only though if truth can be relied on.

    Entertaining and social media are making us stupid in the absence of reliable truth.

  4. IMO it isn’t just the tons of garbage being thrown against the wall to see what sticks that is driving society to malfunction. It’s the high rate of new facts/knowledge that is hitting us every day. Any sense of stability is washed away with daily news about deadly virus variants, ongoing droughts in western states, fires in western states, non-stop rain in the Midwest, large segments of the population that are acting on lies about vaccines, and divisions in society over how to solve any problem facing the nation.
    There seems to be two factions waring with each other… one side wants to repair, and the other side wants to tear it all down… but not THEIR house, THEIR business, THEIR family… the other guy’s.

  5. You should pick up a copy of Peter L Berger’s book The Sacred Canopy. With Harvey Cox he was one of the original “Humanists.” It describes how we separate the sacred from the profane, the “I believe this” from the “I don’t believe that.” It is beautifully written and it changed by life as a college student 50 years ago.

  6. I would just be giddy if everyone simply understood the difference between political and economic systems, now we add the effort it takes to understand knowledge and to distinguish between fact and fiction. Are we really that ambitious?

  7. The books now on my reading list, and does sound like a marvelous tome.
    By coincidence, just earlier today, I began to read another “constitution book, “America’s Constitution, A Biography,” by Akhil Reed Amar. It is not the book I hoped to be reading now, but the other is not in either of my local libraries. that book is by the same author: “The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction.”
    The issue of a common reality within a society/culture can not, I think, be overstated. There are always going to be alternate perspectives, maybe on everything, from how to cook an egg, to the supposed purpose of life, but our current craziness about science and the like got a kick start from Newt Gingrich, in the thrall of the fossil fuel industry, when he insisted that there was no such thing as acid rain. He, and his ilk, continue to attack “inconvenient” reality.

  8. In today’s Denver Post, Megan Schrader (mschrader@denverpost.com) wrote an op-ed about Loren Boebert and her visit to the huge district that this misguided creature “represents”. It’s pretty sobering stuff considering how many people buy into her B.S. and donate to her upcoming re-election campaign.

    Boebert is the perfect example of how perverted epistemology works in Fox News world.

  9. From the above: “Rauch warns that the real danger in a culture where lying is ubiquitous isn’t simply misdirection; it is the undermining of our ability to distinguish between fact and falsehood.”

    Misdirection and lies have been around for ages. Within the last 20 years Bush the Younger started Gulf War 2 with Iraq based upon the WMD lies.

    The Trumpet brought misdirection and lies to an everyday occurrence. The Trumpet knew how deadly Covid-19 was early in 2020. Instead of leading and centering the response to Covid-19, like FDR did after Pearl Harbor, the Trumpet engaged in misdirection and lies ( a hoax, like the flu, etc.) about how deadly it was. For maybe the first time in his life he had an opponent in Covid-19 that could not bullied.

    The GOP went along with The Trumpet’s destructive lies. The GOP base lined up behind all The Trumpet’s lies, falsehoods and misdirection.

    From the Guardian:
    The vast majority of Covid-19 anti-vaccine misinformation and conspiracy theories originated from just 12 people, a report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) cited by the White House this week found.

    CCDH, a UK/US non-profit and non-governmental organization, found in March that these 12 online personalities they dubbed the “disinformation dozen” have a combined following of 59 million people across multiple social media platforms, with Facebook having the largest impact. CCDH analyzed 812,000 Facebook posts and tweets and found 65% came from the disinformation dozen. Vivek Murthy, US surgeon general, and Joe Biden focused on misinformation around vaccines this week as a driving force of the virus spreading.

    On Facebook alone, the dozen are responsible for 73% of all anti-vaccine content, though the vaccines have been deemed safe and effective by the US government and its regulatory agencies. And 95% of the Covid misinformation reported on these platforms were not removed.
    https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/jul/17/covid-misinformation-conspiracy-theories-ccdh-report

    IMHO it is well beyond reading books. I have come to the regrettable conclusion that no matter how much scientific data is presented a dangerous minority will chose to believe what they want to hear.

  10. ML,

    Correct. EVERY society of any recorded merit has had a minimum 20% of those who simply cannot and will not contribute anything positive to that society. Eventually, if that 20% is allowed to fester uncontrolled, they have the peculiar talent of bring down the entire thing.

    OUR 20% are embodied in the dreadful characters of MTG, Boebert, Gaetz, et. al. Nicolle Wallace has lamented that her 20 years as a GOP operative didn’t prepare her for the current iteration. REALLY? She couldn’t see the Reagan/Regan fiasco for what it was? The Bushes and their Atwater/Rove henchmen? Newt Gingrich? And too many others? She missed that devolution of our national politics caused by hate politics. How?

    The Rove/Atwater cabal developed the hate-to-win philosophy and began, in earnest, the popularization of the aggrieved white male. And here we are.

  11. The rapid changes in technology and society are creating a world in which even our traditional understanding of the earth, humans, and the universe is rapidly changing. This is existentially threatening to some people who want things to stay the same. They cling to their traditional understandings of economics and politics. And yes, I think those with an originalist interpretation of the Constitution are amongst them.

    These rapid changes also affect people’s sense of right and wrong. Not that long ago homosexual acts were a crime or a mental illness. That has changed. The knowledge of women’s health needs and women’s capabilities has rapidly expanded due to 2nd wave feminism. Those who cling to the belief that people in the LGBTQ community are a perversion and those who want clearly defined roles for men and women are very threatened by the rapid changes in epistemologies of gender and sexuality.

    Just as many creatures cannot evolve fast enough to adapt to rapid global warming, many of us are not able to change with all the new scientific and technological discoveries. The question remains how adaptable are we to the ever increasing pace of change due to scientific and technological discoveries? Knowledge is one thing. Knowledge that is not guided by experential wisdom can derail us with collateral damage we did not anticipate. A society that is totally dismissive of the wisdom of its elders will move ahead with new technological advances without seriously asking themselves about the potential for damage and the ethical ramificiations of such an advance. i.e. Now we have car accidents due to texting, self driving trucks will lead to unemployment of men who have loved the work of semi-truck driving, social media has become a source of misinformation and even sexual predators. Moving blindly and naievely ahead with new discoveries and not taking the time to look at the potential for loss or damage, will,in fact, create new problems that were unanticipated. i.e. side effects due to the rapid creation of the COVID 19 vaccines. That’s why some people are hesitant to take it.

    For example, we have known about global warming for decades and yet, our political and economic systems have failed to change our economy from a fossil fuel based economy to an economy which uses solar, wind and other sources of energy that will reduce our carbon output. Our politicians have been overly influenced by the fossil fuel industry and have believed their misinformation. This has already led us to environmental crises i.e. the floods in Europe, the wildfires in the western US. How will people adapt to the rapid increase in electric cars and the disappearance of gas stations?

    Change and progress are guarantees. Change and progress without consideration of the guidance of ethics and consideration of potentially damaging consequences could lead us into places we never really wished to go. On the other hand, resistance to changes that guarantee the survival of the human race can also lead us to the tragic loss of human lives. To change or not, that is the question.

  12. To Robin at 12:29 and everyone: I wish I could share what I am reading as your sense that there is a wisdom of our elders that we are ignoring that is central to the mess things are in. But I don’t. In my now 70 years of lived experience and with what (small) success I have achieved, I have to say that what I know as our prevailing cultural ethos, the “wisdom of our elders” that we actually do live by, is the crux of the problem. It leaves corporations in charge and dominating government, turns a blind eye to corruption and abuses of power and does not care a bit about sharing the good things about the American dream widely. Or at all. And the floods rise, the fires burn, the ice melts and the earth’s mean annual temperature rises, along with income and social inequalities. My generation and those who we follow have demonstrated an utter lack of any wisdom worth following. IMHO.

  13. Renee Descartes is the father of epistemology who said: “What is essential to the doubt is not the specific story about the origin of our cognitive wiring; it’s instead the realization – regardless the story – that for all we know, our cognitive wiring is flawed. “ Thus the subject of many dorm room raps to the dark side of midnight. Remember when?

  14. Connie; one adage which holds true today we elders, I’m 84, try to maintain in this fast paced world, “Before enlightenment, we chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, we chop wood and carry water.”

    Also a line from a poem written by someone in my group of over-the-hill-hippies living in Woodruff Place in the 1970s, “The light bill always comes due…”

  15. Thank you, JoAnn. Honestly, all I’m really certain I’ve learned is how much more I don’t yet know.

  16. Hey Connie,

    Don’t sell yourself short,Connie nor you Joann. I was lucky I drew from the wisdom of my grandparents.

    I decided not to have kids in my late teens, early 20’s because I was concerned about overpopulation. It’s a good thing I made that choice since I discovered through my 20’s that I am not “straight.” So I was not buying a lot of “stuff’ for kids. I started driving 4 cylinder cars in my 20’s and started recycling in my early 30’s. in 2005 I bought a Prius which is now 20 years old. I will get another one soon.

    There are wise elders on the YouTube videos by Green Renaissance who are living simply and with what they now call a minimalist life style. Of course, if we had any real sense we would listen to the elders of Native Americans on how to treat Mother Earth. But unfortunately we have an economy based on consumerism not eco sustainablity.

    Who was it that decided to deregulate corporations and to treat them as persons? Not me. SCOTUS and the Republicans decided these things. I have never voted Republican.

    I will not take the blame for what other people in our generation chose to do who were in power. I don’t think you should either, sisters.

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