The Constitution of Knowledge

A Defense of Truth

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This is a fine book, except that, apparently, Donald Trump broke the author's brain. And (as a result) it's strident, unbalanced, and didactic when it should be mellow, even-handed and persuasive. Still it makes numerous good points.

Things start well, with Rauch promising to offer a defense of "the three great liberal social systems—economic, political, and epistemic". I think it's accurate to use the three-legged stool metaphor here: break one of those legs, and the entire project becomes unstable and likely to collapse. And, surprise, that may be where we're at today.

(Which brings me to a major problem with the book: there's little if anything here about the economic leg of the stool. Adam Smith gets a few mentions, but no Hayek, Mises, or Friedman. Politics and epistemology get Rauch's full respect, but he wusses out on defending economic liberalism, i.e., free-market capitalism.)

Rauch goes to great length to stress the communal nature of rational discourse; it doesn't, indeed it can't, function in a vacuum. It requires groups of thinkers to learn from each other, argue with, and point each other to results that more closely adhere to reality.

Rauch calls this group the "reality-based community". (A term he really overuses.) And he deems the not-quite-formal rules the community follows the "Constitution of Knowledge" (also overused). He lists the "common cores" that the RBC follows: fallibilism (we could be wrong), objectivity, exclusivity (don't let the barbarians inside the gates), disconfirmation, accountability.

It's hard to argue with any of that. And if you need to be told about it, Rauch's book is pretty good for that. And his dissection of "cancel culture" is pretty good.

Where it falls down is Rauch's political bias. Goodness knows I'm not a Trump fan, but Rauch sees him as uniquely evil, instead of yet another narcissistic bullshit populist pol. That's bad enough, but it slops over into other discussions. He points with horror (page 178) that "Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats to believe the COVID-19 virus was intentionally created in a lab." Um, that's actually pretty credible, despite the 2021 efforts to debunk it.

Both Peter Strozk (p. 241) and Lisa Page (p. 134) are cited approvingly as RBC members; Rauch fails to mention that they were fired from the FBI, but not after diligently pumping the "Russiagate" nothingburger.

Rauch talks about (p. 247) Middlebury College students who were "criticized for disrupting a speech by a conservative scholar", implying that this was an example of kids expressing "their moral values with passion and sometimes bravery". As most people who were paying attention know, the "conservative speaker" was Charles Murray, and the "passion" involved a left-leaning professor who defended Murray winding up in a neck brace. Again, Rauch omits relevant information.

So while the good stuff here is good, I wouldn't recommend it as your sole guide to rationality.