Jonathan Rauch on What Ails the Reality-based Community
He sees it as under attack from without. I see it as corrupt from within
Should we take epistemology as mostly individual or mostly social? I have argued for the latter. Jonathan Rauch agrees. In The Constitution of Knowledge, Rauch writes,
Charles Sanders Peirce. . .is the greatest American philosopher you have probably never heard of. . .he saw more clearly than anyone before him, and also more clearly than almost everyone today, that the concept of objective knowledge is inherently social. . ."Unless truth be recognized as public—as that of which any person would come to be convinced if he carried his inquiry, his sincere search for immovable belief, far enough—then there will be nothing to prevent each one of us from adopting an utterly futile belief of his own which all the rest will disbelieve,” he wrote.
For Rauch, the problem of disparate beliefs is analogous to the problem of divergent political interests. In politics, we need a set of rules and norms for settling conflict reasonably and peacefully. The American Constitution, and the norms that accompany the written document, are effective at addressing political disputes. Rauch sees certain norms of inquiry, especially the scientific method, as playing a similar role in contests about knowledge.
Rauch argues for a reality-based community that follows the norms of inquiry and discourse. These norms allow diverse hypotheses to be offered, but new hypotheses are treated skeptically and tested carefully.
Rauch writes as if the twentieth-century institutions of the academy and journalism are still in good working order. He sees the primary threats as coming from outside of those institutions. He blames “trolling” on the right and “cancel culture” on the left.
Trolling is the intentional use of outrageous statements in order to attract attention to oneself and sow confusion and doubt about mainstream institutions. For the purpose of trolling, a false claim or wild accusation is at least effective as a factual statement.
Canceling is the process of suppressing views through coercion and intimidation. The canceler claims to be too offended by opposing views to debate them.
Although these outside pressures exist, I think that the larger problem is the way that academia and journalism have become corrupt from within. They no longer live up to the values that Rauch associates with the Constitution of Knowledge.
Rauch believes that mainstream journalists in general try to report the news, and it is primarily in social media that we see lies and distortions. He believes that the academy continues to focus on the pursuit of truth, and it just needs a few more conservative professors to provide better balance and a few more students and professors who are willing to stand up for free speech.
I think that the situation is worse than Rauch allows for. In the case of journalism, Rauch sees the substantial increase in subscriptions to the New York Times during the Trump Administration as a hopeful sign that people still hunger for honest reporting. Instead, Andrey Mir’s Postjournalism tells a darker and more convincing story. He says that the NYT thrived on a donation/subscription model, in which people pay to support a partisan cause. They wanted the NYT to relentlessly crusade against Mr. Trump, even if not all of the accusations against him were merited. If Mir is correct, then the largest mainstream media outlets are no longer playing the role that Rauch attributes to them.
In the case of academia, I think that the balance has tipped away from excellence and in favor of mediocrity. About fifty years ago, universities created small departments of “black studies” and “women’s studies.” These were not held to the same standards of intellectual rigor as comparable older departments in the humanities and social sciences. But these new departments were small islands of questionable scholarship in a sea of strong traditions of analytical thinking.
Today, the situation is reversed. The “____ studies” programs are setting the tone on college campuses. The traditional humanities and social sciences are on the defensive, facing relentless accusations that they are not up to par when it comes to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
I wish that journalism and academia could be restored to the Constitution of Knowledge the way that Rauch hopes. But I doubt that his exhortations and calls for a return to twentieth-century values in those fields will work.
I think that if we are going to fix the problem with social epistemology, we are going to need new prestige hierarchies to replace the old ones. The Fantasy Intellectual Teams project offers a more radical way of overcoming the corruption of the intellectual status game.
I think epistemology is more complicated than 'mostly social' or 'mostly individual' – I don't think it's possible to have a valid or useful 'social epistemology' without a valid and useful 'individual epistemology'.
I think, if anything, a lot of the problems you describe are due to people overly weighing 'social epistemology', e.g. 'I'm part of the reality-based community thus my communities beliefs are obviously correct'.
"Rauch believes that mainstream journalists in general try to report the news, and it is primarily in social media that we see lies and distortions."
There's no longer any clear distinction between the two. Most mainstream journalists are on and off Twitter all day, plus they have Slack channels that they bloviate with colleagues on, etc. The result is that I think journalists are hesitant to write stuff that goes against their audience's preferred narrative or interpretive framework, even if they were inclined to, because they don't want to face the barrage of criticism in their various social media feeds that would result.
It's worth asking whether technology is playing a different negative role here, also. To draw a parallel: many sports fans will tell you that things like Statcast have hurt the entertainment value of Major League Baseball by making every aspect of the game measurable and quantifiable, and thus constructing a successful team simply becomes an optimization problem, so now everybody is trying to execute the same strategy in pretty much every phase of the game. By that same token, in these days when pageviews and clicks and shares and retweets and so forth are easily tracked and quantifiable, it is much easier for editors and publishers now to tell which stories are driving engagement with readers and thus generating ad revenues, and the human mind being what it is, a lot of these viral stories are ragebait stuff that tells us our political opponents are evil, terrible, rotten people, which by extension also tells us that we are good and virtuous and wonderful people by way of opposing them, thus giving readers a psychological or emotional boost. The downsides of this for public discourse are obvious.