Sunday, February 4, 2024

Review of The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth by Jonathan Rauch

This book review was written by Eugene Kernes   

Book can be found in: 
Book Club Event = Book List (04/27/2024)
Intriguing Connections = 1) The Persecuted and The Persecutors, 2) War for Your Attention

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“Humans are social animals.  What matters most from an evolutionary perspective is not that a person forms beliefs which are true; it is that she forms beliefs which lead to social success.  In effect, what matters most is not what I believe or what you believe but what we believe.” – Jonathan Rauch, Chapter 2: The State of Nature: Tribal Truth, Page 42

“The answer is: of course scientists are biased.  But that premise does not justify the conclusion that liberal science as a whole is biased.  Although members of the reality-based community may be as blind to their own errors and biases as anybody else, they are not blind to the errors and biases of those with whom they disagree.  What matters is not that individuals in the community be unbiased but that they have different biases, so that I see your mistakes and you see mine.” – Jonathan Rauch, Chapter 3: Booting Reality: The Rise of Networked knowledge, Page 86

“Both criticism and coercive conformity take the form of people arguing about something, but they belong to very different worlds.  Criticism expresses arguments or evidence with the goal of influencing opinion through rational persuasion.  It belongs to the realm of truth-seeking.  Canceling belongs to the realm of propaganda warfare: like other forms of information warfare, it seeks to organize and manipulate a social or media environment to demoralize, deplatform, isolate, or intimidate an adversary.  Like disinformation and trolling, its interest is not in discovering knowledge but in shaping the information battlefield.” – Jonathan Rauch, Chapter 7: Canceling: Despotism of the Few, Page 230


Is This An Overview?

Knowledge is a communal process, a journey, rather than a destination.  To find each other’s errors, then correct them.  To discard ideas that have been disconfirmed.  The constitution of knowledge is meant to provide guidance on how to handle differences of perspectives.  Viewpoint diversity is needed, with each claim going through challenges and accommodation to enable a social convergence.  To hear different viewpoints, requires tolerance of a contentious intellectual culture.  Making claims and validating ideas without personal attacks, and without anyone having a final say.  Not even personal authority can validate claims, as everyone is fallible.  The constitution of knowledge creates an epistemic environment where people are protected, but their ideas are not.

While the constitution of knowledge is meant to enable society to have better information, society can face an epistemic crisis in which the quality and sources of information have been degraded.  As people are not able to tell the difference between truth and falsehood.  Some ways that information can be degraded is through ideological tribalism, trolling, and canceling.  An epistemic crisis comes about when people attack the informational environment, not just people or facts.

Humans are social animals that depend not on forming true beliefs, but beliefs that lead to social success.  What matters is what the group believes.  As people want to belong to a tribe, there is a willingness to purposefully interpret information incorrectly, to protect the tribe.  Internet trolls confuse and disrupt, while cancelers coerce.  Rather than seek to improve the knowledge base, trolls weaponize outrage to capture attention which demobilizes people through demoralization.  Cancelers signal tribal support, by expressing public outrage that is meant to isolate and intimidate the opposition rather than provide fair criticism.  Through attacks on epistemic sources, viewpoint diversity has become endangered.


What Is Knowledge And The Effect Biases?

Certainty might be sought after, but certainty is not compatible with knowledge.  Alternatively there is fallibilism, that any belief is to be discarded when there is experience against them.  With fallibilism, uncertainty is ubiquitous but obtaining knowledge is still possible.  Knowledge is always provisional.  Fallibilist search for errors, as disconfirmation can be found.  What remains by removing the errors, is the best available knowledge.

It is through the communal process of error correction that each scientist’s biases can be limited.  Scientists are biased, and they might not recognize their own biases, but they can spot other people’s biases.  By having different biases, each scientist can see the mistakes of the others. 


What Is The Constitution Of Knowledge?

The constitution of knowledge is meant to compel and organize social negotiation.  To accept challenges to claims, and seek to compromise or accommodate.  To be resilient and innovate without the system breaking down.  Competition with belief systems provides a need to compromise them. 

Constitution of knowledge does not require people to agree on facts.  It requires people with different views towards social convergence.  Real intellectual pluralism and viewpoint diversity need to be actively sought for.  Agreement on ideas is not viewpoint diversity. 

Reality-based (error-seeking) communities are accountable to each other, not a higher authority.  There is a separation between the idea and the person.  Ideas can be attacked, but not the character of the person. 

The constitution of knowledge has commitments to fallibilism, objectivity, exclusivity, disconfirmation, and accountability.  There is also an internal value of epistemic conscience of not selecting favorable data or hiding unfavorable data.  Fallibilism is about accepting being wrong.  Objectivity is about the empirical rule, that people are interchangeable.  Exclusivity is about using the constitutions rules for objectivity.  Disconfirmation is needed to challenge claims rather than just confirm already accepted claims.  Accountability is about making mistakes acceptable, not to punish them too harshly.


How Tribal identity Effects Intelligence And Intelligence Effects Tribal Identity?

People defer to their tribes for beliefs and attitudes.  Groups establish a shared perception of reality.  People are tribal and change their belief system to the tribe’s views, to prevent a loss of social reputation and group identity.  Evolutionary habituated to defend the group’s ideas, to prevent alienation from the group.  When the group’s values are threatened, people interpret evidence incorrectly to protect the group.

Reason does not override group identity.  Group solidarity creates ideological conflict.  Creating epistemic tribalism.  People publicly conform to information they privately know is false.  Totalitarian regimes require everyone to pretend to believe ideas, that they know privately to be false.  Ideological tribes believe that only one side can prevail, requiring the destruction of the other side’s political force.

With neutral data that is not part of an ideological background, a person can interpret data well.  But when data is shown to be about a passionate topic attached to an ideological background, the person interprets the data based on ideological background.  Emotionally charged issues enable the exploitation and manipulation of people.  Although emotions rationalize political loyalties, people claim that policy views were formed through reason. 

More intelligent people were better able to interpret neutral data, but had more biased interpretations for the passionate topics.  Intelligence enables people to better rationalize false beliefs.  Intelligence does not necessarily make people open-minded, or self-critical thinking.  Motivated reasoning weaponized intelligence against reality.  Seeing others as a wrong, while not seeing the individual as biased. 


How Epistemic Crisis Are Formed?

Journalists are meant to seek accuracy, obtain a comment from the target, consider varied viewpoints, among other factors to avoid a conflict of interest.  There are times when the news are wrong and therefore retract the entries.  Errors are meant to signal integrity, but those attacking information see error correction as proof of corruption.

Digital media reverses the social incentives of the reality-based community.  Rather than slowing down information flow by reviewing and testing before sharing, digital media favors instantaneity and impulsivity.  Anonymity makes people lose accountability and become sociopathic.  Misinformation tends to be more inflammatory and shared then boring reality.  Digital media promotes ad hominem attacks rather than marginalizes them.  Digital media attacks the person rather than the idea. 

For internet trolls, the point is capturing attention, rather than the quality of the content.  Troll epistemology is destructive.  It does not create knowledge, trust, or settle disagreements.  What troll epistemology does is reduce the information environment of reality-based communities.  Propaganda creates the condition in which people cannot tell the difference between truth and falsehood, or even methods of distinguishing between them.  Demoralization is a source of political power, as it demobilizes people.  Demotivating people to feel helpless, that they cannot change anything, that there is no alternative to the totalitarian regime.

Cancelers do not even read the content that they are canceling.  What canceling is about is signaling support for their group rather than any targeted idea or person.  Cancel campaigns are meant to isolate, intimidate, and demoralize rather than provide fair criticism.  While criticism wants to influence through rational persuasion.  Canceling is propaganda warfare that shapes the informational battlefield against knowledge.

Emotional safetyism is problematic as it prevents having conversations about ideas that makes people feel unsafe.  Turing all experiences into threats.  Creates conflict through perpetual anger.  While reality-based community rewards challenging claims, safety-based community rewards emotional demonstrations that hinder challengers.  Rather than preventing harmful ideas, they enabling harmful ideas.  Enabling a censorship of every idea and person.  Creating conditions for self-censorship through norm police, has the consequence of building resentment that becomes expressed by voting for a demagogue. 



There is an idealism about science, about error correcting systems.  As error correcting is a community function, there is a conflict between the ideal outcomes and group dynamics.  The referenced tribal biases, and weaponizing intelligence against reality.  The focus is on the ideal outcomes, the benefits of error correcting, while not referencing the potential consequences of error correcting.  Skepticism about information is needed for error correcting, but skepticism can be misused.  Troll epistemic attacks leverage uncertainty and turn it against the community.  Creating the referenced epistemic crisis of not knowing what information to trust.

The author’s claims about tribal biases, causing people to confirm ideas favorable to the tribe while disregard ideas unfavorable to the tribe.  Tribal biases effect the author as well.  The author is a journalist, and in this book fought for journalistic integrity.  The author and many journalists might have integrity, but not every journalist.  The author defends news making retractions after an error, and how journalists are fact based.  The problem is that published news tend to be viewed way more than the retractions, therefore the errors are not actually corrected for the public.  Journalists might be fact based, but they can deliver some facts while avoiding other facts which changes how the information is interpretated. 

The author blames social media with quick spread of information, and misinformation.  Being quick to spread means not being able to check and validate the information as much as the slower news mediums.  The problem is that the slower news are not ideal either. 

In part, the author makes the case that personal authority is antagonistic to knowledge development.  But then the author wants professionalism and institutionalism which enable an authority, even as they are described as being without.  Disapproves of amateurs, but that is contradictory to the claims of error correcting.  People start as amateurs and then improve themselves through error correcting.  

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•To whom would you suggest this book?
•What is the constitution of knowledge?
•What is knowledge?
•What can and cannot validate claims?
•What is an epistemic crisis?
•What is the epistemic tragedy of the commons? 
•How does tribalism effect the interpretation of information?
•How do ideological tribes deal with dissent? 
•Do people interpret dispassionate and passionate topics the same way?
•How does motivated reasoning effect how intelligence people interpret data?
•What do internet trolls do?
•What do cancelers do?
•How to tell the difference between being cancelled and criticized? 
•What is fallibilism?
•How does emotional safetyism effect society? 
•What is a reality-based community?
•What does viewpoint diversity mean?
•What effect does digital media have on information?
•What kind of community is Wikipedia?
•How would someone behave if they had a ring that made them invisible? 
•What is sociopathy?  
•How is the Constitution of The Unites States related to the Constitution of Knowledge? 
•Who should be allowed to speak and be heard? 
•What does it take to change someone mind? 
•What is liberal science?  How is liberal science different than science? 
•How can scientists persist with making bad claims/ideas? 

Book Details
Publisher:                The Brookings Institution [Brookings Institution Press]
Edition ISBN:          9780815738879
Pages to read:          266
Publication:             2021
1st Edition:              2021
Format:                    eBook 

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    4
Content          4
Overall          4