Knowledge in an Age of Cancellers, Trolls and Disinformation: A Review of The Constitution of Knowledge

January 2022

Jonathan Rauch, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth, Brookings Institution Press, 2021.

The Constitution of Knowledge is Jonathan Rauch’s response to an epistemic crisis. Viral disinformation is challenging our ability to tell truth from falsehood, and cancel culture is impeding our ability to express ideas freely. Rauch characterizes these epistemic threats as “two insurgencies”—one predominantly right-wing and populist and the other predominantly left-wing and elitist—and undertakes to explain how we can defend ourselves against them.

In prior writings, Rauch conceived of knowledge as the product of a marketplace of ideas. In this book, he employs a political analogy rather than an economic one. He contends that the fundamental problem faced by society, both politically and epistemically, is to induce people with differing opinions to cooperate without resorting to authoritarianism and that solving this problem requires a constitution (47). Drawing on an analogy with the U.S. Constitution, he articulates the central concept of the book, the “Constitution of Knowledge”.

The institutions, rules, and values that embody the U.S. Constitution in action comprise a governing structure that forces cooperation by peaceful means. Similarly, there are, Rauch suggests, institutions, rules, and values that peacefully govern knowledge. The academy, journalism, government, and law are the four institutional pillars of the Constitution of Knowledge (100-102). Their explicit and implicit rules, such as those that guide peer review and fact checking, and their core values of objectivity, rationality, accountability, and civility create a structure for settling epistemic disputes. Those who accept the legitimacy of the Constitution of Knowledge are members of what Rauch calls the “reality-based community” (16).

Rauch holds that the Constitution of Knowledge is one of three great liberal social systems that arose from the Enlightenment. The founding figures of these systems are Adam Smith in economics, James Madison in politics, and John Locke in both politics and epistemology (46). Locke’s key epistemological claim was that ideas are not innate but come from experience and are therefore checkable empirically. According to Rauch, while the Constitution of Knowledge was founded on Locke’s empiricism, it was shaped by the views of Charles Sanders Peirce, who conceptualized knowledge as a communal enterprise (60), and Karl Popper, who held that scientific knowledge is attained not by verifying hypotheses but by seeking to falsify them (58). Together, Rauch argues, these philosophical influences produced a conception of knowledge that is empirical in the sense that the methods used to check an idea must yield the same result regardless of the checker and fallibilistic in the sense that any idea can in principle be falsified. In other words, in the reality-based community “no one has personal authority” and “no one gets the final say” (88-89).

Rauch considers the “two insurgencies” to be attacks on the Constitution of Knowledge, and he observes that both have been facilitated by digital technologies. The internet and social media platforms are designed to attract the investment of advertisers and are therefore sensitive not to truth but to popularity. By focusing on sharing information rather than on validating it, and by making it relatively easy to hide sources, these technologies vastly accelerate the dissemination of false and misleading claims (133). Moreover, by rewarding attention over substance, they encourage self-promotion, amateurism, and ad hominem attacks, and by tailoring news feeds to individual taste, they entrench divisions and increase polarization (134).

Rauch uses the term “troll culture” to characterize the use of digital technologies to spread false and misleading information for personal gain. He considers trolls to be propagandists and singles out Donald Trump as a master of propaganda who habitually disregards truth with impunity (172). A key technique employed by Trump and other power-seeking trolls is the “firehose of falsehood”, which is an unrelenting dissemination of false and misleading claims in formats such as fake news and conspiracy theories. The real goal of this technique, according to Rauch, is not to make people believe lies but to so overwhelm and confuse them that they lose the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood and become generally mistrustful and demoralized (165). To combat troll culture, Rauch urges a strengthening of the Constitution of Knowledge, particularly within mainstream journalism and government, along with the imposition of truth-defending measures by social media companies.

The other “insurgency” fuelling the current epistemic crisis is cancel culture, which is prevalent on many university campuses. In explaining the rise of cancel culture, Rauch draws on ideas popularized by The Coddling of the American Mind (2018), a work of social psychology by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. According to Lukianoff and Haidt, an overly protective parenting style has resulted in a generation of students who are so emotionally fragile that they experience the expression of views they find offensive as a form of violence. To keep these students safe in their learning environment, “words that wound” must be eliminated from campuses. Against this “safetyism” that fosters cancel culture, Rauch argues forcefully in favour of freedom of speech (202-209). Emotional impact is not equivalent to physical violence, and Rauch contends that this distinction must be made clearly and upheld consistently within academia. If students find a viewpoint upsetting, they should be encouraged to counter it not by cancellation but through reasoned argument, and it is the role of universities to instruct students in how to do so effectively.

Another concept Rauch borrows from social psychology is “virtue signalling”. He contends that cancelling “is not fundamentally about the ideas or even the people it targets” (213-214) but is a way of publicly displaying solidarity with one’s own group. It is, that is to say, essentially performative rather than argumentative, having no interest in evaluating ideas (215). Rauch argues that this sort of overactive tribalism must not be allowed to intimidate and demoralize. While acknowledging that social identities do matter, he insists that they are not to be played as trump cards to shut down others not belonging to one’s own tribe (91).

Rauch maintains that the Constitution of Knowledge is endangered when students’ emotional comfort or the demands of social activists are prioritized over free speech and research integrity and that it is therefore imperative that universities implement measures to ensure that members of the academic community are not cancelled. He cites numerous examples of positive measures, including adopting versions of so-called Chicago principles that institutionalize academic freedom, welcoming and protecting the safety of conservative speakers, consistently disciplining bullies, ceasing to treat ordinary interpersonal conflicts as grounds for administrative action, and ridding campuses of speech codes (237).

Though the claims of social psychologists are interesting and deserve empirical investigation, emphasizing such claims when examining cancel culture can result in a sort of psychologizing that distracts from ideas. Indeed, in certain circles it has even led to scapegoating “helicopter parents” and ridiculing “snowflakes” and “SJWs”. Rauch, who is an advocate of civil debate, does not scapegoat or ridicule. Nonetheless, by understanding cancel culture primarily in terms of concepts from social psychology, he does not focus on ideas. As Rauch notes, the Constitution of Knowledge requires objectivity and depersonalization, the separating of an idea from the person who holds it (59). Accordingly, when considering cancel culture, it is important to acknowledge that the ideas of a “coddled” or “woke” mind can be true and to identify and objectively examine those ideas without regard to psychology. Rauch, however, devotes little of his discussion to the ideas held by cancellers and instead follows social psychologists in emphasizing the emotional hurt suffered by fragile students and suggesting that activists care only about virtue signalling.

Rauch’s emphasis on safetyism and virtue signalling gives rise to a second, related concern. By focusing on the most obvious and extreme examples of cancel culture—shutting down speech because it is labelled “violence” and piling on outsiders to signal loyalty to one’s own tribe—one risks not perceiving or engaging with ideas that underlie cancel culture as a whole. Rauch’s commitment to the Constitution of Knowledge implies that to combat cancel culture successfully, he must use reason to persuade those promoting ideas that support cancel culture that these ideas are in fact mistaken. However, persuasion is most effective when the best ideas of one’s intellectual opponent are sought out and considered. Even if Rauch is persuasive in arguing that one should not react to a hurtful word in the same way one would react to being shot by a bullet and that one should not destroy another person’s career just to display tribal loyalty, he may still have fallen short by not identifying and addressing ideas that lie at the root of cancel culture.

What are these root ideas? This question is explored by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay in Cynical Theories (2020). Essentially, Pluckrose and Lindsay claim that the ideas underlying cancel culture are postmodernist. They consider the cancellers focused on by Rauch to be part of what they classify as the third wave of postmodernism, which began roughly a decade ago. However, the core ideas underlying the acts of these cancellers originated in the first wave of postmodernism, which began in the 1960s and lasted through the 1980s. The key figure of the first wave, according to Pluckrose and Lindsay, is Michel Foucault, and his central idea is that knowledge is socially constructed and intrinsically bound up with power relations. According to Foucault, all claims of knowledge, even scientific ones, advance the interests of certain groups while marginalizing others. Pluckrose and Lindsay contend that these two postmodernist themes—that knowledge is a social construct and that hierarchies of power determine what can be known—paved the way to cancel culture.

This postmodernist framework makes clear that cancellers are not breaking the rules of a reality-based project but are playing a different game. Like Foucault, they hold that claims of knowledge are made in the service of power and, believing themselves to have been subordinated by a dominant group, they seek not rational debate but a reversal of power in their own favour. From their perspective, it would be pointless to engage in dialogue since the interlocutors would be their oppressors. The only sensible alternative, they believe, is to shut down members of the dominant group and thereby assert their own power not to be oppressed. Thus, cancellers do not possess what Rauch calls the “epistemic conscience” of those within the reality-based system who are committed to playing by the rules of civil and rational discourse.

The crisis of cancel culture is, as Rauch says, an epistemic crisis and it therefore needs to be addressed epistemically, by considering critically the underlying postmodernist conception of knowledge. It is important to recognize that this conception of knowledge is not a fringe idea espoused only by emotionally fragile students and militant social activists. Rather, it is an idea that has gradually overtaken much of the academy since its inception in the 1960s. Indeed, over a period of decades, this idea has been validated through well-established academic systems such as peer review and it is now part of the canon of knowledge in the humanities, social sciences, and faculties of education.

To counter the postmodernist conception of knowledge effectively, one would need to put forward an alternative conception that allows one to argue forcefully that the reality-based project of validating ideas through rational debate is worth engaging in even if one is marginalized, that knowledge is not fundamentally relative to social hierarchies and hopelessly power laden. It therefore seems surprising that Rauch places at the centre of his own conception of knowledge not merely the idea that knowledge is inherently social but what he characterizes as a bold version of this idea: “Knowledge can be made only when it can be validated by others” (61). It is, Rauch contends, the social, error-seeking network that is the only legitimate validator of knowledge and, without it, there is nothing more than personal experience and individual belief. In short, truth, says Rauch, is “what we persuade each other we know, not what you or I claim to know” (143).

Not only does Rauch put forward a conception of knowledge that is strongly social, he also openly acknowledges that elitism and power are inherent in the Constitution of Knowledge. According to Rauch, the operation of the Constitution of Knowledge depends on highly educated and credentialed experts working within specialized fields in elite institutions (106-107), and it does sometimes result in the oppression of marginalized groups. In fact, he gives a moving account of the harm he and millions of others suffered as a result of the psychiatric establishment classifying homosexuality as a mental illness. He profiles Franklin Kameny, a pioneering gay rights activist, who was fired from his government job for being homosexual, rebuffed by both the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Congress in his attempts to seek justice, harassed by the FBI, labelled as mentally ill by the psychiatric establishment, and considered a criminal by the legal system. Despite these many trials, Kameny refused to be silenced and fought for decades against the discriminatory and oppressive views of these institutions, living long enough to see attitudes towards homosexuality shift and to receive a formal apology from the government (249).

Despite Rauch’s clear admiration of Kameny, the strongly social nature of his conception of knowledge would seem to require him to say that when Kameny embarked on his activism he did not have—and could not have had—knowledge that homosexuality is not a mental illness because at that time this personal belief held by Kameny had not been validated by the relevant institution, namely, the American Psychiatric Association. It thus appears that Rauch’s epistemic framework serves to emphasize the power of elite institutions to oppress, not the power of knowledge to persuade. There is a deep epistemic issue here, one that raises questions about the Constitution of Knowledge itself. As Rauch notes, the original U.S. Constitution was flawed by its lack of explicit protections for individual rights, and James Madison was forced to rectify this by adding the Bill of Rights to limit certain powers of the government (81). Similarly, it can be argued that Rauch’s Constitution of Knowledge is flawed because, in upholding the epistemic power of institutions, it fails to preserve individual epistemic rights.

The Constitution of Knowledge is a thoughtful and thought-provoking book. It makes a strong case for what might be called “the first line of defence” against the attacks of trolls and cancellers. Rauch argues convincingly that measures such as increased fact-checking and the elimination of campus speech codes should be implemented to reduce disinformation and enforced conformity. However, the first line of defence is essentially reactive and protective. By itself, it is insufficient to combat the current epistemic crisis, which requires a well-reasoned epistemic response that critically examines root ideas. Without a firm epistemic foundation, the Constitution of Knowledge is unlikely to withstand attacks from those who believe that engaging in rational debate is futile because knowledge is a social construct that serves to empower dominant groups and subordinate marginalized ones. By putting forward a conception of knowledge that is itself strongly social and elitist, Rauch is running the risk of fuelling the epistemic crisis rather than helping to bring it to an end.