America is going through a period of information chaos that will lead to real-world physical violence, and the only way out of this dilemma is to reassert the need for a rule-based system for public knowledge, the author of a new book argues.
The way to fight back, Jonathan Rauch argues in “The Constitution of Knowledge,” is by reestablishing the “social network” that has benefited humanity for the last two centuries but is under immense strain.
Rauch, a public intellectual at the Brookings Institution who was one of the earliest public advocates for marriage equality, has turned his attention to political reform in recent years.
In “The Constitution of Knowledge,” he argues that though we have a system of organizing knowledge already, we are in danger of losing it if we do not reclaim and revitalize it. Like the U.S. Constitution, it is a set of principles that compels and organizes negotiation, but preserves freedom and opposes control of knowledge by any one group or person.
The stakes are high, Rauch argues. Can we remain a society of laws and peaceful persuasion, or will we descend into violence and coercion?
In an interview on “The Long Game,” a Yahoo News podcast, Rauch said that modern society is dealing with “powerful tactics of weaponized information warfare, and they are effective. And we do need to focus on them and fight them as we would any other threat.”
The fact that half of Republicans in one recent opinion survey said they believe that former President Donald Trump is actually the president right now is itself just one half of the problem, Rauch said. Much of his book deals with what he calls “troll epistemology,” which he describes as Trump’s strategy to dominate the system by overloading it with nonsense, outrage and outright lies.
“I argue that Donald Trump is right up there with the greatest information warfare innovators of all time,” Rauch said. “I don't believe it had ever occurred to anybody — much less a United States president — to try to adapt Russian-style disinformation techniques to U.S. politics and turn them against the people of the United States.
“This is something presidents are supposed to be protecting us from by anchoring their presidency in truth.”
But Rauch argues that the left has its own problem with truth, particularly when it comes to progressives who want to declare certain issues settled or off-limits for debate. This phenomenon is a key component of what critics call “cancel culture.”
Rauch says there is a common thread between those on the right who abuse free speech to spew falsehoods and conspiracy theories, and those on the left who, for example, hounded a data scientist into losing his job for tweeting research that indicated a link between race riots and higher levels of political support for Republican politicians.
Both groups are more interested in information warfare than legitimate debate, Rauch says.
“Cancelers and trolls share the goal of dominating the information space by demoralizing their human targets: confusing them, isolating them, drowning them out, deplatforming them, or overwhelming them so they give up on pushing back,” he writes.
“Our country has been taken by surprise by this two-pronged epistemic attack from cancel culture and from Trump, which came out of it seemed like nowhere in the past five years and just swarmed the system, overwhelmed our defenses, before we even knew it was happening,” Rauch says.
These attacks are not just aimed at individuals or even ideas, Rauch argues, but rather at an entire way of living in the world and in society. They are causing cracks in our “social operating system,” to use Rauch’s phrase.
The social operating system he speaks of is essentially the rational and objective approach to reality that is both an outgrowth and a basis of what’s often referred to as classical liberalism. It is the best way we have for arriving at the truth of any given matter, Rauch argues, because it allows for debate and the rigorous testing of any hypothesis. And it is rooted in the search for error, rather than in the quest to find data or anecdotes to back up our preconceptions.
“If we care about knowledge, freedom and peace, then we need to stake a strong claim: anyone can believe anything, but liberal science — open-ended, depersonalized checking by an error-seeking social network — is the only legitimate validator of knowledge, at least in the reality-based community,” Rauch writes.
That “liberal science” — in addition to being a hallmark of a free society — has produced many virtual miracles, most recently the production of a COVID-19 vaccine in less than a year.
“Every day, probably before breakfast, it adds more to the canon of knowledge than was accumulated in the 200,000 years of human history prior to Galileo’s time,” he writes.
Rauch traces the history of how our current system came to be: the thinkers whose ideas helped build it, and the historical forces that motivated its builders to construct it. Namely, a lot of blood shed over disagreements that were never resolved, often over “untestable certitudes,” many of them religious.
For several hundred years, he says, mankind was stuck in stasis, unable to move out of a cycle of tribalism and bloodshed, and incapable of “generating and then cumulating advances systematically.”
During the 1800s and into the 1900s, the so-called constitution of knowledge was constructed, and scientific advances quickly piled up: “atomic theory, electromagnetism, germ theory, thermodynamics, radioactivity, evolutionary theory, genetics, relativity, quantum mechanics, and experimental psychology.”
Rauch’s book has a healthy number of recommendations for how modern society can combat viral disinformation and cancel culture. Institutions are central, he believes. Social media must take responsibility for its impact and reform its design to encourage an information environment that does not lead to the rapid spread of unverified and false information. Professional media must diversify, both racially and ideologically: The press needs more nonwhites and more conservatives, he argues. Academia should “discipline bad actors who bully or harass people who have controversial views.”
Broadly speaking, institutional leaders should “harden their defenses” against online bullying and mobs by declaring their values and principles and preparing themselves to defend those. And individuals should welcome the hard conversations and debates that come their way as part of the privilege of living in a free society, Rauch writes, drawing on his own experience as a gay rights advocate.
“Every time someone told me I could never marry because gay people are promiscuous or our unions are sterile or God disapproves, it stung,” Rauch writes. “But every foolish or bigoted claim was an opportunity to make my case and shine by comparison. Every demonstration of hatred or ignorance was a chance to show love and speak truth.”
Rauch is particularly opposed to the notion that hurtful language is the same thing as physical violence. After all, he says, the whole point of a constitution of knowledge is that “we kill our hypotheses instead of each other.”
Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Dan Callister/Shutterstock, Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images
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