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Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Constitution of Knowledge: Trolling v. Deliberation

Jonathan Rauch at National Affairs:
Though nowhere encoded in law, the constitution of knowledge has its own equivalents of checks and balances (peer review and replication), separation of powers (specialization), governing institutions (scientific societies and professional bodies), voting (citations and confirmations), and civic virtues (submit your beliefs for checking if you want to be taken seriously). The members of the community that supports and upholds the constitution of knowledge do not have to agree on facts; the whole point, indeed, is to manage their disagreements. But they do need to agree on some rules.

One rule is that any hypothesis can be floated. That's free speech. But another rule is that a hypothesis can join reality only insofar as it persuades people after withstanding vigorous questioning and criticism. That's social testing. Only those propositions that are broadly agreed to have withstood testing over time qualify as knowledge, and even they stand only unless and until debunked.
The results have been spectacular, in three ways above all. First, by organizing millions of minds to tackle billions of problems, the epistemic constitution disseminates knowledge at a staggering rate. 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. Second, by insisting on validating truths through a decentralized, non-coercive process that forces us to convince each other with evidence and argument, it ends the practice of killing ideas by killing their proponents. What is often called the marketplace of ideas would be more accurately described as a marketplace of persuasion, because the only way to establish knowledge is to convince others you are right. Third, by placing reality under the control of no one in particular, it dethrones intellectual authoritarianism and commits liberal society foundationally to intellectual pluralism and freedom of thought.
The constitution of knowledge makes a very strong claim: a claim to supremacy in organizing social decision-making about what is and is not reality (much as the U.S. Constitution claims supremacy in organizing political decision-making). Of course, it's a free country, and anyone can say he has knowledge. But the constitution of knowledge is defined by a social pact: In return for the freedom and peace and knowledge the system confers, we ignore alternative claims on reality where social decision-making is concerned. We let alt-truth talk, but we don't let it write textbooks, receive tenure, bypass peer review, set the research agenda, dominate the front pages, give expert testimony, or dictate the flow of public dollars. That is why we don't mail Elvis a Social Security check, no matter how many people think he is alive.

Notice the delicate balance here. To protect the wide end of the funnel, we disallow censorship. We say: Alt-truth is never criminalized. At the same time, to protect the narrow end of the funnel, we regulate influence. We say: Alt-truth is always ignored. You can believe and say whatever you want. But if your beliefs don't check out, or if you don't submit them for checking, you can't expect anyone else to publish, care about, or even notice what you think. Striking this balance is difficult, and maintaining it involves a lot of implicit social cooperation. The constitution of knowledge requires high degrees of both toleration and discipline, neither of which is easy to come by.

With that in mind, the implications of troll epistemology come into sharper focus. By insisting that all the fact checkers and hypothesis testers out there are phonies, trolls discredit the very possibility of a socially validated reality, and open the door to tribal knowledge, personal knowledge, partisan knowledge, and other manifestations of epistemic anarchy. By spreading lies and disinformation on an industrial scale, they sow confusion about what might or might not be true, and about who can be relied on to discern the difference, and about whether there is any difference. By being willing to say anything, they exploit shock and outrage to seize attention and hijack the public conversation.