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Late in The Constitution of Knowledge, Jonathan Rauch introduces a “worried professor.” Confronting a proposal to inject politics into his school’s curriculum, top to bottom, our professor feels powerless. He and a few colleagues are “trying to hold back the ocean with a broom.”
But by the time we hear this cry of despair, we’ve learned not to despair.
The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth, by Jonathan Rauch. Brookings Institution Press, 280 pp., $27.99.
Rauch is a public intellectual, but his heart is in journalism, a profession in which he learned early that he wasn’t alone. Reporting involved “personal struggles” to get and tell stories. But “apart from the lonely process of writing a first draft,” Rauch “could do nothing on [his] own.” Editors, fact-checkers, and conversations in and out of the newsroom bettered Rauch’s work by challenging it. Even when work was a grind, Rauch had a “sense of having joined something much greater” than himself, a “tradition,” with “exacting standards.” Unlike the despairing professor, Rauch felt a mighty wind at his back. Rauch wants us to feel that way, too, even though, he concedes, all is not well in the truth-seeking professions.
We may not feel that way “as truth-seeking individuals.” Recall our professor, who is concerned less about being canceled than about being ignored, no matter how wise his speeches on the faculty floor are. His colleagues, though trained to do otherwise, often use their brains to bolster biases and signal solidarity. Even in communities of the learned, reality can seem like a front in a tribal war. Thomas Hobbes observed that people would fight over geometric postulates if such postulates thwarted or advanced their ambitions. James Madison observed that when plausible reasons to love allies and hate enemies are lacking, “frivolous and fanciful distinctions” will do. The subordination of ideas to partisan passions is a normal state of affairs. It takes groups to fight groups, and groups organized along certain lines to counter our individual and collective craziness. In Rauch’s italicized phrase, “It’s the institutions, stupid.”
Institutions “propagate and enforce norms and rules, evaluate and certify credentials, set agendas and direct resources ... and train” new blood to do the same. A journalist is “reshaped” by the institution in which he or she individually labors. Rauch knows that some journalists scoff at the idea of objectivity. Still, he asks us to consider the young staff of the Harvard Crimson who, in 2019, faced down critics. At issue was the paper’s decision to seek comment from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency on a story about anti-ICE protests, which provoked a fierce outcry from campus activists. The Crimson had a tradition and several professional societies behind it when its leaders insisted that seeking comment from the subjects of a story is vital to unbiased journalism. If these students surpassed more powerful and experienced souls in resisting demands to apologize for imaginary offenses, that is in part because they were shaped and backed by an institution.
Through journalism, Rauch was “inducted into ... the reality-based community,” the community centers of which are managed by several institutions. These include journalism, “professional scholarship, science, and research,” “government agencies” that “gather intelligence, perform research, compile statistics, and develop regulations,” and “law and jurisprudence.” Lawyers shouldn’t “distort facts or case law.” Intelligence agents should aim at objectivity. Scholars should reveal findings that contradict beloved hypotheses. The institutions differ, but all have norms and rules that encourage insiders to cultivate expertise, adhere to shared, if debatable, standards, consider competing arguments, and submit to accountability measures.
More broadly, these institutions are governed by two rules, the core of the “Constitution of Knowledge.” The “fallibilist rule” is that “no one gets the final say.” We can be confident in what we think we know only when would-be debunkers are free to criticize it. The “empirical rule” is that “no one has personal authority.” Linus Pauling’s Nobel Prize in chemistry doesn’t exempt his wild claims about vitamin C from scrutiny. All claims should be checked. Anyone should be able to check by retracing the steps used to arrive at the claim.
Rauch will be accused of subordinating reality to partisanship because he calls the community he inhabits “reality-based,” thereby suggesting that its detractors are delusional. He’ll be accused of boosting institutions that have failed to predict economic shocks, have steered us into fruitless wars, and have otherwise ruled poorly. He will be accused of being an arrogant member of an arrogant elite of which nonelites are sick.
But none of that is fair.
Rauch does say that liberal science has, like economic and political liberalism, produced extraordinary gains for humanity. The rapid development of several vaccines against the coronavirus is only its latest triumph. Even as we stew in pessimism, the "Constitution of Knowledge" offers reasons for optimism. But Rauch doesn’t say that the truth belongs to universities, newspapers, or any other institution. Nor does he deny that such institutions make terrible mistakes. Instead, he says, with John Stuart Mill, that the saving power of fallible human beings is their corrigibility, their capacity for self-correction. This capacity, Rauch argues, flourishes “on an industrial scale” only amid the flourishing of institutions that encourage it and discourage our natural biases. Universities and newspapers aren’t part of the “reality-based community” because professors and journalists are better than butchers and barkeeps or because they’re always right. They’re part of the reality-based community because when they submit to the "Constitution of Knowledge," they’re collectively more likely to generate sound results because their results are tested and testable.
The alternative is regression to tribal warfare, in which ideas serve solely as propaganda. Rauch doesn’t get into the overworked question of whether right-wing trolls or left-wing cancelers are worse. Both subordinate “truth to politics.” Both practice “information warfare.” But he does insist that the enemies of the "Constitution of Knowledge" aren’t “ten-feet tall,” and that the “reality-based community has withstood much worse.” The institutions that are still bound, however insecurely, to that constitution must rededicate themselves to it, particularly when calls to abandon it come from inside the house. Here, Rauch, who sometimes makes the individual disappear behind the “communitarian foundations of collective inquiry,” appeals to individuals such as the professor with whom I began. Rauch wants such professors to know what good citizens know, that vigilance in defense of freedom, including the intellectual freedom of individuals, demands that we stand up for institutions that protect it, sometimes with others, sometimes summoning others. Our sense of powerlessness, an understandable response to potent demoralization campaigns, is misleading. Take heart, Rauch urges. Don’t be a snowflake.
Those moved by this charge to fight for the "Constitution of Knowledge" will find an armory in Rauch’s essential book.
Jonathan Marks, a professor of politics at Ursinus College, is the author of Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education.
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Original Author: Jonathan Marks
Original Location: How to seek truth