The Constitution of Knowledge
Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing writer at the Atlantic he talks about his new book, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.
I recently had senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing writer at the Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch, on this podcast to talk about his new book, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth.
The following excerpt has been edited for length and clarity:
Matt: The Constitution of Knowledge is a phrase that you have been toying around with for a while, and now it's a book, where does it come from?
Jonathan: Every society, big or small, tribal, national, global, will have some way of trying to figure out what's true for public purposes, and what's false. A lot of people think Elvis Presley is alive, but do we send them a social security check? So the standard way through history of solving disputes about who's right and who's wrong is that people develop into sects, and they have leaders or princes, or priests or oracles. And then when they can't settle their differences of opinion, they go to war and kill each other, or they just split into sects and lose touch with reality. And about 400 years ago, we started inventing a brand new way of doing it, and that's the constitution of knowledge, and that's this global system—I call it the ‘reality based community’—but it's science, it’s research, it’s law, and journalism, even parts of government like intelligence and the weather service. This huge global network of people looking for each other's mistakes. There’s nothing else like it. It's humanity's greatest product knowledge and greatest industry, and it's under attack right now, and that's the other part of the book, defending it.
Matt: How did this infrastructure develop? Nobody sat down and said, ‘We're going to create this infrastructure, or this scaffolding to protect what is a liberal democracy’—or did they?
Jonathan: They didn’t have a constitutional convention in 1787, but the Constitution of Knowledge was created intentionally by people who knew what they were doing. They built a lot of institutions, starting with the Royal Society of London, the first scientific society, and then there are hundreds…thousands of them now. They built universities, they took journalism and converted it from what it was in the 19th century, which was hyper-partisan, fake news, and they built institutions like journalism schools. The American Society of Newspaper Editors created ethical standards, all of these people over time self-consciously created a system. So that you have these institutions where experts would compare ideas in systematic ways and have to persuade each other. It couldn't just be anybody saying anything to anyone all the time, that would just be chaos. Instead, it's all these institutions in government, you know, it's the CIA, it's the National Weather Service. In journalism, it's the newsrooms, the editors, the fact checkers. All the people who look after us. In science, it's peer review, and all the journals that are published. So there's tons of structure, and that's the key to understanding this.
Matt: So who are the enemies of these institutions?
Jonathan: I think there are two big ones. One predominantly from the left, the other larger one is from the right. But they have something in common: They're both trying to destroy these institutions by swapping them, or by censoring them. So on the left, you got canceled culture, which is trying to suppress arguments and debate using social pressure. On the right, you have disinformation, you've got Russian style propaganda techniques that have been adapted by Donald Trump and much of conservative media and much of the Republican Party. And they are applying those standards to basically confuse people, and swamp the system that we rely on to make these ideas. As Steve Bannon said, “You flood the zone with shit.”
Matt: Each side can point to the other side attacking institutions as justification for doing it, themselves.
Jonathan: They help each other. But yeah, they're both attacks on this system and they're both very, very sophisticated. That's the big takeaway from my book, you're being manipulated by extremely powerful and sophisticated propaganda tactics that date back over 100 years that are now turbocharged by social media, and by their adoption by the most powerful person on the planet, the President of the United States for four years.
Matt: This reminds me of two different books I've read. One is Yuval Levin, who talks about, you know, Edmund Burke, and the other one is Jonah Goldberg, who has a book called Suicide of The West. And in both cases, they talk about how liberal democracy is fragile—and how this free, peaceful world that Goldberg calls a “miracle,” didn’t just pop up. The fact that I can drive down the highway without bandits pulling me over and robbing me is, itself, a miracle. That's not just true for government, that same principle is true for discourse.
Jonathan: I'm deeply influenced by Yuval Levin, and especially his wonderful recent book A Time to Build. And he makes the point that Americans have forgotten how to see institutions. We've relied on them for so long that we kind of just imagine ourselves to be individuals wandering around, you know, we’re consumers, we're voters, we're thinkers, and we forget that we need all of these channels to bring out the best in ourselves… It's not just consumers picking products, you've got corporations and property laws, and all kinds of things going on. You can't just assume if you have freedom, then everything else takes care of itself. That's what the enemies of the system want you to think, because that makes it super easy for them to manipulate the process and undermine it.
Matt: That is so profound and insightful. I remember when Barack Obama said, “You didn't build that.” And I said, in a way, he kind of has a point, I understand the criticism, too. But I think it's a conservative thing to realize that our institutions and norms evolved over the course of trial and error and experience, and you can't just uproot them willy nilly. But I never thought about this in terms of discourse, and so this is really opening my mind to a new domain.
Jonathan: Well, that's, that's the goal of the book, to start seeing these institutions, and then we can understand how they're being attacked.