Unfit for Office

What appears to be a difference of opinion between Simon Wilson and Auckland Mayoral Candidate Wayne Brown is more than that. It demonstrates a fundamental difference in the purpose of Government and Governmental organisations.

Brown is reported as saying “Auckland Transport should be told they are there to service the way we live, not change the way we live.”

Wilson, for his part, sees the issue differently and in doing so outlines his ideas about the function of Government. He says of Brown’s comment:

“That’s utterly wrong. Because of the climate crisis, behavioural change is the most fundamental task we face. And because of Covid, we know it’s possible. Consumers have a role and so do corporates. But governments, central and local, must provide the framework and the leadership.

In my view, a politician who doesn’t understand that is unfit for office.”

Simon Wilson is a regular opinion writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. He often espouses points of view which could be described as “left of centre”. He is entitled to do that and has the added advantage of having a platform in the shape of New Zealand’s largest daily newspaper.

But by the same token others have the right to disagree with his point of view and to debate it.

It seems to me that Wilson misunderstands the role of Government. His comments about “framework” and “leadership” suggest that people are to be taken often in directions in which they may not want to go, and to work within a governmentally designed framework as they travel to whatever destination or end the government decrees. That sounds to me like government by diktat.

I see the role of government through a different lens. Government and those who participate in it, whether elected or as bureaucrats, are the servants of the people. They are there to fulfil the will of the electorate.

For that reason, before elections, politicians should clearly state what they intend to do if elected by way of a manifesto. In that way their masters, those who elect and appoint them to their governance role, are able to see if those intentions accord with the views or wishes of those who elect them. Once elected, those occupying governance position should not then, as the present Government does, pursue ideological goals or policy objectives which have not been earlier disclosed to the electorate.

Auckland Transport, the target of Mr Brown’s comment, is an unelected body. But this does not give that organization or its executives, the power to do as they like – and they have certainly been doing that in pursuing an ideology that is not in the interests of allowing people to move efficiently about the City. Auckland Transport, a publicly funded Council controlled body, is the servant of the people. It is not the people’s master. Nor is government in any form.

The philosophy of Government that I favour is best expressed in the 1776 Declaration of Independence. We are endowed with certain inalienable rights and among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To secure these rights

“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

Clearly from these statements Governments are the servants of the people, and are there to ensure they can exercise their rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

This would seem to me to be an admirable basis for Government, so what is it that attracts Mr Wilson to the statist collective Government that will “lead” (translation “order us”) us in a direction within a pre-determined framework.

Sadly the answer would seem to lie in the uniquely “Kiwi” attitude which briefly stated looks to the Government for every solution and is summed up in the statement “The Government must do something”.

This clearly is a complete abdication of responsibility for one’s own life; a surrendering of one’s individuality; a denial of the ability of the individual or group of individuals to develop their own solutions to problems. Sadly it is an attitude that has historical roots and where successive administrations, especially the First Labour Government, took control and instituted nationalized and subsidized industries and projects, thus diluting individual self-help solutions.

My position is that as far as possible Government should serve the people and not the other way round. For people to serve the Government is a step down the road to repression and the end of individualism. For the Government to dictate how individuals should live their lives is no more nor less than totalitarianism. Thus any politician who supports Mr. Wilson’s model does not understand the role of Government and is unfit for office.


Fire and Fury and….Fear

This is a commentary on a documentary that was released by Stuff and is part of a continuing examination of and commentary on the issue of mis/disinformation. The documentary – Fire and Fury – had the potential to be an informative and useful addition the the material swirling around current concerns about mis/disinformation. Sadly it did not fulfil that potential but rather was caught up in its own pre-determined view of the issue and those participating in it.

As I have earlier observed, I do not generally support the position advocated by those who express contrarian views. At the same time I would not wish their voices to be silenced. An exchange of ideas, although such a hope may be somewhat futile, is far preferable to the alternative which would be a form of censorship.

What follows is my view on the documentary and my reasons for suggesting that it does not fulfil its potential. It is entirely up to the reader whether or not these views find favour.


The Stuff documentary “Fire and Fury” is an interesting example of advocacy journalism. One commentator has described it as “agitprop”[1].

Because it originates from a mainstream media source there are certain constraints on its approach. One such constraint is the need for journalistic balance. Yet the introduction to the documentary and its accompanying material on the Stuff website suggests that balance and a portrayal of contesting views, leaving the reader or viewer to come to a conclusion, is not present.

The explanation of the project goes under the heading of opinion. The bias of the piece is clear from the title “Pushing Back Against the Monsters” although one would hope for some journalistic integrity in the piece. This is what it has to say:

You’ll recall the narrative driven (and accepted by many) during the Wellington protest that it was peaceful and had one objective: to end the mandates.

Scratching not too far beneath the surface, though, it was apparent there was an entirely different — and dangerous — agenda.

At Stuff Circuit our role is to investigate matters that are in the public interest, and two things happened around the time of the occupation that got our attention.

First, we saw talk in social media about making the country “ungovernable”. It sounded like a direct threat to democracy. What did it mean? Who were the people saying it and what was their intent?

Second, we started to see extreme violent language, death threats, and the normalising of language not previously used in everyday New Zealand: people talking very publicly about killing authority figures because they didn’t agree with their policies.

We wanted to understand where that had come from and how mainstream it was going; why your auntie or neighbour was putting this stuff on their Facebook page, oblivious and unquestioning as to its origins.

So far, so good. It is clear that this an investigative effort notwithstanding that the position of the authors started to become clear in the second paragraph (not to mention the title) when the suggestion of a “dangerous agenda” is made.

The focus of the documentary becomes clear and this, as described, is perfectly legitimate and clearly in the public interest.

Our focus in Fire and Fury is not the protest itself, but rather the key figures behind it. Who are they, where had they come from, what did they believe? Why were they so keen on the protest, what did they gain from it, and crucially, what do they want to happen next? The documentary explores how they had not come haphazardly to this moment: this seemingly disparate group of key figures is strategically interconnected, stronger together.

However, in the next paragraphs the focus shifts and the conclusions and directions of the documentary become clear. With the perjorative language that is used, it is unlikely that this will be an unbiassed account

Our decision to investigate led to months of being mired in online chat rooms and watching their mass-produced content: the most violent misogyny, racism, religious bigotry, transphobia, homophobia, online stalking and harassment.

And imbued throughout it all, conspiracy theories ranging from the QAnon-driven sinister cabal of paedophiles controlling the world, to the New World Order and the Great Reset Theory. That the pandemic is a guise for world depopulation and the establishment of a tyrannical global government. That the New Zealand government is engaged in democide: the destruction of its own people.

On and on it went. All of it sitting directly alongside and intertwined with disinformation about Covid, vaccines, and the pandemic response, combining to form a vast, dangerous, swirling, nonsensical, paranoid soup of toxicity.

Then there was the question of whether this material should be published. Was it going to give the contrarians (for that is what they are) yet another platform? That issue was dealt with in this way:

Our decision to investigate led to months of being mired in online chat rooms and watching their mass-produced content: the most violent misogyny, racism, religious bigotry, transphobia, homophobia, online stalking and harassment.

And imbued throughout it all, conspiracy theories ranging from the QAnon-driven sinister cabal of paedophiles controlling the world, to the New World Order and the Great Reset Theory. That the pandemic is a guise for world depopulation and the establishment of a tyrannical global government. That the New Zealand government is engaged in democide: the destruction of its own people.

On and on it went. All of it sitting directly alongside and intertwined with disinformation about Covid, vaccines, and the pandemic response, combining to form a vast, dangerous, swirling, nonsensical, paranoid soup of toxicity.

Then there was the question of whether this material should be published. Was it going to give the contrarians (for that is what they are) yet another platform? That issue was dealt with in this way:

But having decided to investigate, the question remained whether we should report what we were seeing. Why risk amplifying inflammatory and harmful material? Why risk making these people more influential than they would otherwise be? (Side note: it’s creepy watching some of them react when they have been in the news. They love it. They get off on it. It makes them feel important. Did we want to facilitate that?)

There were other reasons not to report, not least of which was the personal harassment which would inevitably come our way — as it does to anyone who works in this field — and has been directed at us (including death threats) for previous work. Massey University research of Stuff staff shows two thirds of our colleagues report experiencing actual violence or threats of violence related to their work — a figure far higher than that reported by journalists globally. (You’ll see in Fire and Fury how people have been provoked to hate journalists. There are real world consequences for that.)

The commentary continues with a consideration of not reporting on the findings of the investigation:

And there was one final question: What was the risk of not reporting?

The more we looked at the volume and scope of their material the more it became clear that not covering these people would not make them go away.

The lesson of history suggests that if you let far-right groups have the streets to themselves, they don’t just go home because there’s no one to fight. They’ll find someone to fight, someone to beat up. Any uncontested space, they’ll take over,” is how one journalist summed it up for Data & Society’s advice on reporting on extremists, antagonists, and manipulators.

One of the extraordinary comments in the immediately preceding passage refers to the “lesson of history”. Yet, as I shall demonstrate, a consideration of some of the historical material would suggest that some of the attitudes and approaches by the contrarians was not unique.

This piece is a review of some of the aspects of the Fire and Fury documentary. It is by no means a full review nor is it a critique. Some of the material in the documentary is important and vital – material that citizens should know so that they can be properly informed. But other aspects of the documentary display an absence of balance and almost a paternalistic and patronizing approach to the ability of citizens to make up their own minds.

I shall consider the way in which some of the material is presented, some of the production values underlying the documentary, an overall impression of the documentary and then the way in which history has a best been overlooked or at worst ignored in locating the views of contrarians. I shall discuss the very obvious bias that was displayed towards the end of the documentary and close my discussion with some observations of the impact of alternative (as opposed to mainstream) media on our expectations of information. The conclusion that I reach on the documentary may be surprising and indeed counter-intuitive – I shall leave that to the reader.

The points of view expressed in the production were of two types. The contrarian position was taken from social media posts and other internet-based sources. Significantly there were no interviews with any of the contrarian figures such as Claire Deeks and Chantelle Baker and certainly no discussions with Kelvyn Alps or Damien de Ment. In some respects this is understandable. Given the attitude of the contrarians to the media it is unlikely that they should want to engage. But at the same time those who discussed and critiqued the contrarian approach such as Khylee Quince, Kate Hannah, Ed Coper and others were interviewed and expressed their views in a calm and rational manner.

The way the opposing views were portrayed was interesting. The clips that were taken of the contrarian position were shrill, at times using the language of hyperbole and at other times were emotional and extreme. By contrast those who were interviewed were calm and rational although there were times when subjective views began to creep in.

Another issue arises in the way in which the contrarian position was portrayed. Rather than taking clips from social media platforms and portraying the points of view within that context, often the contrarian position was over-dramatised by superimposing the speaker on the backdrop of a large building, as if they were expressing their views not on a social media platform, but on a large sized electronic advertising billboard. The context became one of a city street scene with the contrarian view echoing through the canyon on buildings as if this was the means by which their views were communicated.

This portrayal misrepresented the medium of communication employed. Certainly it had dramatic effect but it was not a truthful nor realistic portrayal of how the message was communicated. In my view this was carrying creative license too far and again raised questions about the level of balance in the documentary.

The highlight of the documentary was the protest in the grounds of Parliament in March 2022. For some this must have been a disturbing experience to see, the ending was never going to be peaceful, and the violence of the ending cannot in any way be condoned. But once again the documentary used production techniques to lend a highly dramatic backdrop to the event – a backdrop that was not present at the time. Throughout the segment on the Parliamentary protest dark, sonorous, doom-laden music provides a soundtrack, no doubt to heighten the drama of the event. But this was not a drama. Although we are well used to background music in malls and other places, life does not have a musical soundtrack, and in my view to superimpose one – especially one as oppressive and dark as that used in the documentary – is taking a considerable production liberty.

I suppose that the makers of the documentary wanted to emphasise an atmosphere of Gotterdammerung but Richard Wagner’s Siegfried’s Funeral March is positively lyrical in comparison to the Parliamentary protest soundtrack.

Given the various production elements that I have discussed I viewed the piece with growing concern. This clearly was not a balanced objective “put both sides out there” piece of journalism, even although it purported to be that. In essence the writers and producers were paying lip-service (and not a lot of that) to journalistic standards.

During the Parliamentary Protest the journalists involved were on the ground filming and reporting on the event and gathering material which ended up in the documentary. They were challenged by the protesters and the indignant outrage of the journalists, who claimed that they were only doing their jobs, was clearly and unequivocally expressed. I am not sure if this arose from a journalistic attitude of entitlement or ignorance of what they were getting themselves into.

They were reporting on a group of people for whom distrust and scepticism of mainstream media is a significant article of belief. One of the problems in reporting on the contrarian position is that the mainstream media portrayal is largely unfavourable and merely cements in contrarian distrust. Indeed, there is even a point of view in mainstream media that suggests that by reporting on both sides of the protest, a platform is provided to a group that has been banned from Facebook for spreading misinformation.[2]

Another aspect of the problem faced by the media is the fact that the public interest journalism fund provides financial support for public interest journalism. So far, so good. A $55 million fund is available to support New Zealand’s media to continue to produce stories that keep New Zealanders informed and engaged, and support a healthy democracy. Again, so far so good.

The Cabinet paper supporting the fund sets out the difficulties that were faced by mainstream media organisations during the pandemic. But it is in paragraph 5 of the Cabinet paper that one of the objectives of the fund becomes clear. It states “The spread of misinformation related to COVID-19, particularly through social media channels, has sharpened public awareness of the importance of, and reliance on, a strong and independent media sector.”

As is so often the case in the current discussions on misinformation, the term is not defined but it is clear that there is a concern about the expression of contrarian views and that a viable and well-funded mainstream media may provide a counter to contrarian expression. Nothing wrong with a healthy debate, but a shadow is apparent when one considers the optics of the fund. From the contrarian position, the investment of $55 million in sustainable journalism is a means of controlling the message. The view is that of course mainstream media will report the government position favourably, if only to ensure that the cash keeps flowing. Although the presence of the funding may not lead to bias, it is the perception of bias that is the problem.

All of this is further complicated by the fact that the State sees itself as the sole source of truth. As the Prime Minister said to Parliament on 2 September 2020

“I want to send a clear message to the New Zealand public: we will share with you the most up-to-date information daily. You can trust us as a source of that information. You can trust the Director-General of Health. For that information, do feel free to visit at any time—to clarify any rumour you may hear—the covid19.govt.nz website. Otherwise dismiss anything else. We will continue to be your single source of truth. We will provide information frequently. We will share everything we can. Everything else you see – a grain of salt.”[3]

It is little wonder that the contrarians have a perception of bias by mainstream media. The facts can give rise to that inference, and although there is a body of literature to the contrary, in the minds of many, perception is reality. Interestingly enough I understand that Fire and Fury was a beneficiary of that fund. In the minds of the contrarians, QED.

There can be little doubt that mainstream media and its position the arbiters of “truth” has been threatened by the rise of the Internet and social media. In many respects the Internet potentially provides everyone with a platform and in that respect enhances and enables a level of freedom of expression – the reception and dissemination of information – to an extent that society has not seen before. That everyone potentially has a voice is a long sought aspect of democracy.

What follows from this is cacophony and the expression of many and varying viewpoints. Many of these viewpoints are personal opinions only. They may be based on an incomplete or incorrect factual basis but they may, nevertheless, be validly held.

And if some of these views challenge established points of view or perspectives, so be it. To have our viewpoints or opinions challenged is the price we pay for being able to express our viewpoints and challenge those of others.

“Democracy is built on the right to dissent, on the right for people to hold opposing positions. Our societies need freedom of expression to protect us from the worst atrocities that governments can visit on their citizens.”[4]

There are times when a contrarian position will give offence. Salman Rushdie has made a number of comments on the freedom of expression and offence. The starting point is that no one has a right not to be offended. It doesn’t appear in any international instruments on human rights. Rushdie’s view is that

” If you are offended it is your problem, and frankly lots of things offend lots of people.”

Then he locates offence within the context of the freedom of expression

“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”

One of the ironies that came out of the Fire and Fury documentary were the expressions of offence on the part of some of commentators including Dean of AUT Law School Khylee Quince who expressed her offence at some of the associations that were developing within the contrarian movement. I would have thought that Ms Quince would have been a little more objective in the expression of her views. Being offended is simply not a good enough argument in my view. Perhaps she should have expressed her disagreement accompanied by reasons.

Underlying the documentary is a concern at the way that social media platforms enable the expression of contrarian positions. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other “big tech” platforms have taken steps to address some of the more extreme positions adopted by contrarians but there are other platforms like Telegram and Gab that appear to be quite unregulated and not susceptible to control. These platforms are seen as breeding grounds for disinformation.

Part of the problem about communications technology is the way that it can alter and change our approaches to and our expectations of information. A clear example is in the way that the printing press was an agent of change in the way in which information was communicated and the way that it enabled the expression of contrarian views. Martin Luther’s 97 theses that sparked the Reformation were circulated throughout Germany within two weeks of Luther initiating the debate by pinning his theses to the church door in Wittenberg. His views were as contrarian as they possibly could be and the printing press enabled the dissemination of contrarian points of view and still does.

The underlying properties of internet-based communications technology enable, as I have said, everyone to have a platform and to express a point of view. As I have observed, this is cacophonous but it does mean that people are far more willing to express themselves, often quite pungently, knowing that there may be little consequence visited upon them. The communications technology has enabled this shift in behaviour. The technology enables it.

One of the commentators on Fire and Fury expressed the somewhat interesting point of view that people can be radicalized by over-exposure to extreme ideas. This is an extraordinarily patronizing perspective as well as being a very wide and all-consuming generalization. There can be little support for the view that a whole community is going to become radicalized if they watch Counterspin media too frequently. This does a disservice to the intelligence and common sense of the greater majority of the community.

There are some who have adopted extremist views. Some in the Fire and Fury documentary use extreme language, calling for extreme and violent consequences. How much these people were playing to the camera would need to be assessed and in some cases such expression may be fuelled by highly charged emotions and anger. Although the protest at Parliament ended violently if there had been a true undercurrent of revolutionary violence it would have happened.

We may decry the over-exuberant expression that we see on Internet platforms. Our concerns must be measured against a recognition of the importance of freedom of expression. But regrettably I do not see a return to polite conversation. Communications platforms have been with us for too long and our behaviours have become too ingrained for there to be any likelihood of change. Although this may be seen as a form of technological determinism, it must also be recognized as a reality.

The final point that I would like to make is about the lessons of history, referred to in the opening introduction to the documentary. Was the protest at Parliament that unusual in the overall scheme of things. Was the language of the protesters so extreme. In 1787 in (to our ears) an erudite letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Stephens Smith, Jefferson said

“And what country can preserve it’s liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it’s natural manure.”

This language is probably as extreme as some that was used in March 2022 and yet it is over 200 years old and written at a time when the American Revolution had been successfully achieved.

History is full of similar examples – the French Revolution, the 1830 Revolution in France, the European Revolutions of 1848, the anarchists, Socialists and Bolsheviks of the period leading up to the 1917 Revolution and the student protests in Europe on 1968.

More recently one only has to look at some of the messaging from Al-Quaeda and Islamic State to see that the rhetoric continues. In 2012 protesters erected a mock guillotine to “decapitate” leading politicians as a demonstration against the sale of state assets. In 2014 a musician sang about wanting to kill then then PM and violate his daughter.

In New Zealand certainly in my time some of the so-called radical movements such as the Progressive Youth Movement, Halt All Racist Tours and associated organisations in the mid-sixties, spurred on by perceived societal injustices and taking their lead from similar organisations in other countries, protested and occupied public facilities, but often the radical language of the time was offset by the trending peace, love and flowers of the hippies.

The violence that accompanied the Springbok Tour of 1981 was as bad in its way as the violence at the end of the Parliament Protest, and was just as frightening. But all of this seems to have been forgotten and overlooked by the authors and producers of Fire and Fury. The point I am trying to make is that this is not new.

Interestingly enough, one of the leading lights of the 1960’s protest movement went into politics and was elected Mayor of Waitakere and latterly Invercargill. It is a matter of comment in mainstream media that some of the leading lights of Voices for Democracy and other contrarian groups are putting themselves forward for election in the upcoming local body elections. Some of them have done so before. None of them have so far been elected. Yet there is concern about contrarians exercising their democratic right to stand for election. As I understand it the availability of democratic process does not depend on the quality of your beliefs, although those beliefs may cause rejection by the electorate.

So where does this leave us. Certainly during the early days of the Covid-19 Pandemic the Government was able to prey on public fears of the outbreak of plague and imminent death to justify lockdowns and to enable the acceptance of discriminatory treatment of citizens based on their vaccination status. The initial response was unplanned but necessary. But we are past that now

What the Fire and Fury documentary seeks to do is re-channel that fear to a form of opposition to and distrust of the contrarian movement. But after viewing the documentary I was left with an uncomfortable feeling. In all the talk about the weird conspiracy theories put about by the contrarians perhaps the underlying theme of the documentary is a conspiracy theory itself and it seemed to come from Kate Hannah who is one of the heads of the Disinformation Project. She implies that the real threat to democracy comes from a few people given to euphemistic language who make no secret of their views, who are openly all over social media, making no secret of their views and who are well known to Police and the Security Services. Do we really need to fear this vocal minority.

Perhaps Fire and Fury is an example of a mainstream media-based conspiracy theory based on fear and should be treated as such. Or perhaps it is rather a tale told by an idiot, full of Sound and Fury signifying nothing.

[1] Graham Adams “Fire and Fury is often funny – unintentionally” The Platform 18 August 2022 https://theplatform.kiwi/opinions/fire-and-fury-is-often-funny-unintentionally (Last accessed 19 August 2022)

[2] Madelaine Chapman “Giving a Voice to Voices for Freedom” The Spinoiff 2 March 2022 https://thespinoff.co.nz/politics/02-03-2022/giving-a-voice-to-voices-for-freedom

[3] Hansard Debates 2 September 2020  Oral Questions – Questions to Ministers – Question 1 https://www.parliament.nz/en/pb/hansard-debates/rhr/document/HansS_20200902_050580000/1-question-no-1-prime-minister

[4] Ben Okri “Authors on the Salman Rushdie attack: ‘A society cannot survive without free speech’” The Guardian 14 August 2022 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/aug/14/authors-on-the-salman-rushie-attack-a-society-cannot-survive-without-free-speech

Knowledge, Truth and Discourse

The information landscape has become a rocky one. Trying to discern truth from half-truths from untruths, information from misinformation from disinformation has become a real challenge.

Two books examine and discuss the problem. One is by Ronald Collins and David Skover and is entitled The Death of Discourse[1]. It was first published in 1997 and a second edition was published in 2005. The second book is by Jonathan Rauch, published in 2022 and is entitled The Constitution of Knowledge – A Defense of Truth[2]. I recommend both books although they approach the topic in entirely different ways.

Death of Discourse looks at the modern use of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. It notes that much of our public talk resembles in character and form the distracting pleasures of Huxley’s Brave New World. We are deluged with the fact-free and amusing sound and click bite spectacles of television and other screens for our most important news and information. Our free speech system equates electronic self-amusement with enlightened civic education, the marketplace of items with the marketplace of ideas and passionate self-gratification with political realisation. In short, Collins and Skover consider that the eighteenth century Madisonian principles of discourse seem ill-suited, if not completely irrelevant, for our 21st Century mass communication. It argues that discourse is dying yet everywhere (at least in liberal democracies) free speech thrives.

The Constitution of Knowledge in fact hearkens back to the Madisonian idea and agrees with the overall thesis of Collins and Skover that there is an epistemic crisis in that discerning truth from the morass of communicated information is difficult. Although the marketplace of ideas – a metaphor from the Enlightenment Age inhabited by Jefferson and Madison – should filter out those that are true and valid, conversations are mediated through institutions like journals and newspapers and social media platforms. Largely newspapers and journals rely on a network of rules and norms – truthfulness, fact-checking, the expertise of professionals like peer reviewers and editors. The whole structure sits on a shared understanding that there are right and wrong ways to make knowledge.

Rauch suggests that these shared foundational values are for knowledge what the US Constitution does for politics. These shared foundational values create a form of governing structure forcing social contestation onto peaceful and productive pathways. Collectively Rausch calls them the Constitution of Knowledge. And he points to recent events, particularly in the US which put pressure on the norms top which he refers. In science, journalism and usually in politics truthfulness is a civic norm and not a legal requirement. He cites President Donald Trump’s disdain for truth as an example of pressure on such norms emanating from the highest level.

I don’t intend to discuss Rauch’s book in great detail. I recommend the book to anyone who is interested in the nature and validation of knowledge as truth and who is interested in the discernment of reality from the mass of communicated chatter with which we are bombarded.

I shall, however, make a couple of points. Rauch, like Collins and Skover, takes the First Amendment to the US Constitution as his starting point. The Amendment reads

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

I have highlighted the relevant language.

James Madison introduced 12 amendments to the First Congress in 1789. Ten of these would go on to become what we now consider to be the Bill of Rights. Based on the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the English Bill of Rights, the writings of the Enlightenment, and the rights defined in the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights contains rights that many today consider to be fundamental to liberal democracies.

In New Zealand the freedom of expression is incorporated into section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 and reads

Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive, and impart information and opinions of any kind in any form.

It will be noted that “speech” has been expanded to expression, and section 14 protects information flows in that not only is the right to impart information and opinions protected but the seeking and receiving of information is also protected.

In the minds of many the idea that obnoxious, misguided, seditious, blasphemous and bigoted expressions deserve not only to be tolerated but, of all things, protected is, in the opinion of Rausch, the single most counterintuitive social principle in all of human history.

Every human instinct cries out against it, and every generation discovers fresh reasons to oppose it. It is saved from the scrapheap of self-evident absurdity only by the fact that it is the single most successful social principle in all of human history.

Rauch is of the view that those of us who favour it, and also our children, and also their children and their children will need to get up every morning and explain and defend our counterintuitive social principle from scratch.

The Constitution of Knowledge, those norms and standards that underpin truthfulness and reliability, relies upon the full-hearted embrace and full-throated defense of its principles by ordinary members of the reality based community.

Rauch places reality front and centre of his thesis. Reality, he says, is that which is reliable and intractable and cannot be wished away. However, we have no direct access to the objective world independent of our minds and senses, and subjective certainty is no guarantee of truth.

When we think of reality, therefore, we think of it epistemically – as that of which we have objective knowledge. Reality becomes a set of propositions which have been validated in some way and have been shown to be at least conditionally true – unless they are later debunked. Some propositions reflect reality as we perceive in daily life – the sky is blue – water is wet. Other propositions like a physicist’s quantum equations, may be incomprehensible to intuition.

The problem comes in the validation of a proposition as reality. The only way is to submit the proposition  to the reality based community. Otherwise a proposition may be validated by brute force, torture, oppression as history has taught us in the past. Or the proposition may be shared among a closed community who talk only to one another in which case it is submitted to something akin to a cult.

Rauch suggests that there are two core rules and any public conversation which obeys those rules will display the distinguishing characteristics of liberal science.

The rules are described as the Fallabilist Rule and the Empirical Rule.

The Fallabilist Rule holds that no one gets the final say. One may claim that a statement is established as knowledge only if it can be debunked, in principle, and only insofar as it withstands attempts to debunk it. Thus a speaker is entitled to claim that a statement is objectively true only insofar as it is checkable and has stood up to checking. This means that there may be an argument but the rule directs us as to how we behave. We must assume our own and everyone else’s fallibility and we must hunt out our own and others’ errors even if I am confident I am right. Put another way, if I put up an idea I must accept that it is liable to be challenged and I must accept that and be prepared to engage to validate my idea or accept that it may be modified.

The Empirical Rule holds that no one has personal authority. I may claim that a stament has been established as knowledge only insofar as the method used to check it gives the same result regardless of the identity of the checker and regardless of the source of the statement. A proposition must be capable of being something anyone can do and get the same result. In addition, no one proposing a hypothesis gets a free pass or special treatment because of who he or she may be or dependent upon whatever group to which he or she may belong. The fact that I might have a PhD in no way validates or provides any extra weight to my proposition. The proposition must stand on its own. Thus who I am does not count. The rule applies to everyone. If my method is valid only for me or my affinity group or people who believe as I do, the proposition cannot be checked and validated by everyone.

Applying the Rules

So let us put a proposition for examination to see if it complies with section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act and Rauch’s two reality based rules.

On September 2nd 2020 the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Ms Jacinda Ardern said to the Parliament

“I want to send a clear message to the New Zealand public: we will share with you the most up-to-date information daily. You can trust us as a source of that information. You can trust the Director-General of Health. For that information, do feel free to visit at any time—to clarify any rumour you may hear—the covid19.govt.nz website. Otherwise dismiss anything else. We will continue to be your single source of truth. We will provide information frequently. We will share everything we can. Everything else you see – a grain of salt.”[3]

The New Zealand Bill of Rights Act.

The Prime Minister’s answer to the question is quite breath taking in its scope. Remembering that everyone has the freedom to impart or receive information, in essence she is saying as follows:

  1. You don’t need any other information – only ours
  2. Don’t listen to anyone else on the topic – dismiss anything other than our messaging – take it with a grain of salt
  3. We are the single source of truth – an echo of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth
  4. If anyone else expresses a point of view dismiss it (effectively silencing contrary points of view)

This has some pretty significant consequences for the nature of discourse. The Prime Minister is limiting discourse and the flow of information to a one-way stream – from the Government to the listeners. Everything else is rumour and should be dismissed. There can be no challenge to the Government’s position. The Government is the sole and single source of truth. In other words, disagree with the Government and you are not telling the truth.

The Fallabilist Rule

The Prime Minister’s answer to the question fails the fallibilist rule for challenging propositions. Remember, no one gets the final say. Yet the Prime Minister is saying that anything that the Government says is truth and uncontestable. It assumes that the Government’s statement of truth is infallible. It ignores the possibility of challenge and indeed suggests that if there is a challenge, it must be false or wrong or to be taken with a grain of salt. It denies the possibility of debate. It denies the possibility of checking because it assumes that there can be no other reality other than that expounded by the government. Such a position leads to atrophied thinking at best or outright error at worst.

The Empirical Rule

The answer to the question challenges the empirical rule on a number of fronts. First it urges listeners to trust the Government. Then it goes on to urge that the Government is the sole source of truth. Can the propositions advanced therefore be subjected to independent verification? In many respects the statement itself claims the weight of Government authority for the truth of the statement. The proposition, in that case, cannot stand on its own and cannot be independently verified. Indeed the challenge in the statement is implicit. Trust us – there is no need for independent verification. The suggestion that any challenge to the statement may be false, questionable or be taken with a grain of salt clearly is designed to discourage independent enquiry or embark on any sort of error checking. Perhaps the most outstanding breach of the empirical rule is that listeners should trust the Government without question. That is a breath taking example of the free pass based on status rather than critical examination.


The Fallabalist Rule and the Empirical Rule are starting points offered by Rauch in the quest for truth or reality within the framework of the Constitution of Knowledge. It is very much a book for our times. It not only examines methodologies for proper discourse and truth seeking but examines the effects upon reality and discourse of misinformation and disinformation (largely seen as tools of the political Right) and the impact of the cancel culture and the silencing of debate (largely seen as a tool of the political Left[4].) It also discusses the means by which proper analysis of topics of discourse may take place. Freedom of expression can be cacaphanous but working within the Constitution of Knowledge may assist in filtering out the noise and arriving at a sensible destination of reality and understanding.


In accordance with the Rules of Discourse and the Knowledge Constitution discussed, the material in this article is subject to the Fallibilist Rule and the Empirical Rule.

[1] http://skoveronline.net/dod/index.htm (Last accessed 2 August 2022)

[2] https://www.brookings.edu/book/the-constitution-of-knowledge/ (Last accessed 2 August 2022)

[3] Hansard Debates 2 September 2020  Oral Questions – Questions to Ministers – Question 1 https://www.parliament.nz/en/pb/hansard-debates/rhr/document/HansS_20200902_050580000/1-question-no-1-prime-minister (Last accessed 1 August 2022)

[4] Indeed, the quotation examined above contains resonances of cancel culture – “dismiss anything else”  “Everything else you see – a grain of salt”.