On The Constitution of Knowledge, 1/4
My latest book review
I review The Constitution of Knowledge, by Jonathan Rauch.
I was impressed and persuaded by his emphasis on knowledge emerging from a social process. Second, I concur with his view that this process is undermined by what he calls “trolling” on the one hand and “cancel culture” on the other. Third, I agree that social media has disrupted the information order of the last century, and that this works to our detriment. And fourth, Rauch writes as if a return to the twentieth-century information order can be achieved by taming the disruptive forces. I think that this ignores the decay and corruption that have afflicted the key institutions of journalism and academia. Where Rauch focuses on the attacks on the twentieth-century information order from without, I would emphasize the rot from within.
In the essay, I point out what irritates me about Rauch’s stance. In general, I find him insufficiently critical of established institutions.
But I should stress that I found The Constitution of Knowledge to be an eloquent articulation and defense of liberal values. I find myself referring to it often in discussions, just as I find myself referring often to Julia Galef’s The Scout Mindset.
In Galef’s terms, we have a media environment that gives prominence to soldiers. My hope is to find a way instead to bring prominence to scouts, like Robert Wright, Scott Alexander, Emily Oster, John McWhorter, and Yascha Mounk.
In our universities, fallibilism and empiricism seem to be giving way to a dogmatism and standpoint criteria (“As a black woman. . .”). We need to revive the Constitution of Knowledge. If it does not return to the campus, then we need to stand up alternative institutions.
Arnold is using the standard pejorative definition of a troll, that is someone who makes intentionally inflammatory, rude, or upsetting statements online to elicit strong emotional responses in people or to steer the conversation off-topic. Arnold puts President Trump in this category, which I think is a mistake. Trolling can also be an effective means of political communication. President Trump's tweets had serious purposes, among which was the elicitation of responses from political opponents that would tend to discredit them in the eyes of people who might be brought to support him. Arnold is a nice guy with an irenic temperament, and no doubt wishes we could all communicate in a sincere and respectful manner, but that is an unrealistic expectation given the requirements for political success. It is perhaps a measure of the cultural domination of the Left that we only hear outrage about Trump's social media, but not about those who called him Hitler, a fascist, an anti-Semite, racist, etc.
Thank you for the review! I haven't read Rauch's book yet, and it is pretty low in the queue. After listening to him on Econtalk, I suspect you don't go far enough with regard to his ignoring the rot of institutions and ... blindspot when it comes to the behavior of the left and right. Hearing him talk, I got the impression that he thought if only we could go back to the early '90's and only read the NYT and watch CNN we would be fine. He doesn't seem to quite understand that the rise of Limbaugh, Fox News and eventually Trump were reactions to the rot that had set into the mainstream media by the 70's. My suspicion is that he wouldn't see it as rot.