The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth

Below are a few different resources from author Jonathan Rauch discussing concepts of truth, knowledge, misinformation and the roles of institutions in producing knowledge. His work covers a lot of important ground related to TOK.

When Americans think about how we find truth amid a world full of discordant viewpoints, we usually turn to a metaphor, that of the marketplace of ideas. It is a good metaphor as far as it goes, yet woefully incomplete. It conjures up an image of ideas being traded by individuals in a kind of flea market, or of disembodied ideas clashing and competing in some ethereal realm of their own. But ideas in the marketplace do not talk directly to each other, and for the most part neither do individuals. Rather, our conversations are mediated through institutions like journals and newspapers and social-media platforms.

Persuasion Podcast: Don’t Give Up on Truth

The very idea of truth and science, Jonathan Rauch argues, is now under threat from many quarters. In his latest book, The Constitution of Knowledge, he gives a novel account of the principles of science, and explains why democracies must strive to preserve the truths that bind us together.

(Passage from A Defense of Truth) Why Fake News Flourishes: Emitting Mere Information Is Easy, But Creating Actual Knowledge Is Hard



What If We’re Wrong?

Regardless of what is most needed in the world at any given moment—regardless of whether the conditions call for more orthodoxy or more heterodoxy—there always needs to be an avenue for discussion. Both orthodox and heterodox ideas always need to be publicly discussable. Otherwise, whoever holds the most power when censorship begins—at the point at which people begin hiding their thoughts and conversations—will gain ever more power. The powerful will shape the governing orthodoxy—and it will always be an orthodoxy, even if its central ideas were heterodox just yesterday—and will crack down ever harder on those who dissent.

The Use and Abuse of History

The Divergence of Science and History

The quest for knowledge must begin with humility: that is, with a keen awareness of our limitations. None of us possess a God’s-eye view of the world. None of us can be “objective” in any meaningful sense of the word. Everything we know is known from a particular point of view. That’s true even of the most successful method for aggregating knowledge—modern science. After all, a scientific hypothesis is a point of view.

So we are immediately confronted with a problem of selection. There are an infinite number of facts present in the world, and they can be described from an infinite number of perspectives. Which facts are important enough to merit our attention, and under which aspect?


How Science Becomes Religion

So the “believe the science” chorus gives the credentialed mavericks no notice unless it’s to defame them. Apparently, under the believers’ model of science, truth comes down from a secular Mount Sinai (Mount Science?) thanks to a set of anointed scientists, and those declarations are not to be questioned. The dissenters can be ignored because they are outside the elect. How did the elect achieve its exalted station? Often, but not always, it was through the political process: for example, appointment to a government agency or the awarding of prestigious grants. It may be that a scientist simply has won the adoration of the progressive intelligentsia because his or her views align easily with a particular policy agenda.

TGIF: How Science Becomes Religion

Convincing the Skeptics

These statements reflect a real problem of vaccine advocacy. Proponents of the vaccine are unwilling or unable to understand the thinking of vaccine skeptics — or even admit that skeptics may be thinking at all. Their attempts to answer skepticism or understand it end up poisoned by condescension, and end up reinforcing it.

Here’s why your efforts to convince anti-vaxxers aren’t working

People don’t listen to outsiders. They need enlightened insiders to offer them a ladder to climb down

A good scrap: Disagreements can be unpleasant, even offensive, but they are vital to human reason. Without them we remain in the dark

This raises a tough question. The ability to reason is meant to be humanity’s supreme attribute, the characteristic that most sets us apart from other animals. Why, then, has evolution endowed us with a tool so faulty that, if you bought it from a shop, you’d send it back? The French evolutionary psychologists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have offered an intriguing answer to this question. If our reasoning capacity is so bad at helping us as individuals figure out the truth, they say, that’s because truth­-seeking isn’t its function. Instead, human reason evolved because it helps us to argue more effectively.

Epistemic trespassing, or epistemic squatting?

Who gets to define the boundaries of expertise?

Now, I’m all for interdisciplinary collaboration and intellectual modesty, as a general rule. But although Ballantyne raises interesting points and creates food for thought, he fails to make a conclusive case that what he calls “epistemic trespassing” is, on balance, bad for society. And his arguments raise uncomfortable questions that he doesn’t really wrestle with — most importantly, the question of who gets to decide who’s a trespasser.

David Epstein Knows Something About Almost Everything (People I (Mostly) Admire Ep. 35)

Related to the essay above is a podcast episode in which the guest makes similar points about the value of individuals stepping outside their narrow expertise. In particular, around the 11 minute mark the guest talks about Claude Shannon.

David Epstein Knows Something About Almost Everything (People I (Mostly) Admire Ep. 35)

Freakonomics Podcast: This Is Your Brain on Pollution (Ep. 472)

This podcast explores the potential cognitive and developmental issues that air pollution can have. The best part of this episode though gets into the very clever methods the researchers employ to find natural “experiments”.

Before listening to selections from this episode it might be interesting to ask students to design a hypothetical experiment to evaluate whether the hypothesis explored in this episode is true and then listen to some of the actual methods employed to then examine why those choices were made.

Of particular interest was a research study discussed around the 26 minute mark in which a government policy in China provided an excellent “natural experiment” to help think about the impact of air pollution. Part of evaluating this topic could also be a discuss of ethics in experimentation when kids ultimately decide that a good experiment would be to pollute the environment of one group and not another to see what happens.

Air pollution is estimated to cause 7 million deaths a year and cost the global economy nearly $3 trillion. But is the true cost even higher? Stephen Dubner explores the links between pollution and cognitive function, and enlists two fellow Freakonomics Radio Network hosts in a homegrown experiment.

The Bias that Divides Us

What our society is really suffering from is myside bias: People evaluate evidence, generate evidence, and test hypotheses in a manner biased toward their own prior beliefs, opinions, and attitudes. That we are facing a myside bias problem and not a calamitous societal abandonment of the concept of truth is perhaps good news in one sense, because the phenomenon of myside bias has been extensively studied in cognitive science. The bad news, however, is that what we know is not necessarily encouraging.