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. 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. 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.”
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:
- You don’t need any other information – only ours
- Don’t listen to anyone else on the topic – dismiss anything other than our messaging – take it with a grain of salt
- We are the single source of truth – an echo of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth
- 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.) 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.
 http://skoveronline.net/dod/index.htm (Last accessed 2 August 2022)
 https://www.brookings.edu/book/the-constitution-of-knowledge/ (Last accessed 2 August 2022)
 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)
 Indeed, the quotation examined above contains resonances of cancel culture – “dismiss anything else” “Everything else you see – a grain of salt”.
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[…] have written before about what I consider to be the decline of reasonable discourse. Certainly any hope for reasoned argument and a discussion about differences in opinion and point […]