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 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] (Last accessed 2 August 2022)

[2] (Last accessed 2 August 2022)

[3] Hansard Debates 2 September 2020  Oral Questions – Questions to Ministers – Question 1 (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”.


Lessons from “The Newsroom”

The excellent Aaron Sorkin created series “The Newsroom” is presently screening on Soho. In Series 2, Episode 3 (Willie Pete) the following exchange takes place between Will McAvoy (Jeff Bridges) and Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterson)

Will: There’s a third option,It involves having faith in my mission to civilize… The bitchiness has to stop, Charlie. We’re inhaling it like it’s a carbon emission blowing out the exhaust pipe of the crosstown bus we’re stuck behind… All it takes is one great man. A friend of the angels… There are things we can do, Charlie. Things that we can do everyday. Things that are free. We can be one inch nicer to each other. An inch more polite. We can be decent.”

Charlie: Maybe,but in the meantime we should just keep lying.

It was what Will said at the end of his dialogue that attracted me. The observation that we can be nicer, more polite, decent. The clear inference is that in many of our dealings with one another we are not.

This caused me to reflect. Aaron Sorkin’s shows tend to do that. In many ways “The Newsroom” and The West Wing” are idealised versions of TV journalism and US Presidential politics – not as they necessarily are, but what they could be. The reflection was not so much on journalism but upon the way that we behave towards one another and what new and mainstream media convey to us in terms of behaviour and what may or may not be the norm. (I am going to avoid the use of the words “appropriate” or “acceptable” because they come with a load of value-ridden excess baggage)

Let’s think for a moment about what Will said. Perhaps using a word like “nice” isn’t the best (A very good friend of mine used to object when it was used in the wrong way) but it conveys the message, especially when coupled with “polite” and “decent”. I don’t think that this is necessarily a matter of etiquette, but it is a question of what used to be described as good manners – something lacking in many respects these days. Good manners, treating people nicely, decently and politely all has to do with respect. Some might claim that many people are undeserving of respect, but I respectfully disagree. We are human beings together on the planet. We are social beings and irrespective of how good or bad individuals might be they all, as counsel (now a Judge) once said to me, people of worth. The fact of their existence means that in some way they may enrich the lives of others and bring something to the table. And for that every human being, every person is entitled to respect – respect for their being, for their individuality, for their identity and for their character. As I say, many people may do terrible things but we should respect them for their humanness and their existence.

I think that a lot of the problems that we see today flow from the fact that we are not taught to respect others, nor do we understand why we should. This starts from the derogatory exchange that one might have with another in a supermarket checkout to a horrible exhibition of bullying – and bullying – that most disrespectful of conduct – occurs not only in the school yard but through all strata of society.

Much of the exchange between Will and Charlie was in the context of the news media but it was more than that. It was against a backdrop of an audience at a candidates debate who booed a serviceman – a person who had put his life on the line for his country – who wanted the “gays in the military” issue addressed. But I won’t look at the news media context. I think that what Will had to say in that arena speaks for itself.

There are many areas where those who should know better respond in an ungracious way to others – who aggressively challenge, who interrupt, who denigrate, especially when they have the last word, who are abusive, unkind, disrespectful, uncaring of the distress that they might cause to others. The examples are legion – those who force their way into a lane on the motorway and who won’t wait in the queue and think that a flipped off wave justifies their behaviour. Those who insist on carrying on phone conversations while travelling on the motorway (not only disrespectful and unsafe but unlawful as well) and holding up traffic. Those who park across a driveway while collecting their kids from school and who, when politely asked to move, tell their interlocutor to F*** off. And that is just in the context of road use. The level of confrontation, of aggression that we experience in our day to day lives is quite extraordinary and concerning. Is it any wonder that our kids reflect what they see.

We have met the enemy

The only thing is that the problem with kids and their aggressive behaviour is recognised as bullying and we cry out that we must do something about it without realising that the problem lies within ourselves. We have met the enemy – as Pogo said – and he is us. We set the examples and then we complain about it when we see those behaviours reflected in our kids.

I wonder in the long run whether or not Will’s ideal of being a little nicer, more decent, kinder is just that – an ideal. And as I have been writing this – and it has been a piece that I have picked up and put down – I have struggled with dealing with a theme that requires a critical examination of behaviour in order to find a way forward for improvement. And then I came across a piece in the New York Times Magazine for 7 August 2013. It is by Joel Lovell and it is entitled “George Saunders’ Advice to Graduates”. 

Saunders has been described as a writers’ writer. In a profile published in the New York Times on 3 January 2013 the following was said

“Tobias Wolff, who taught Saunders when he was in the graduate writing program at Syracuse in the mid-’80s, said, “He’s been one of the luminous spots of our literature for the past 20 years,” and then added what may be the most elegant compliment I’ve ever heard paid to another person: “He’s such a generous spirit, you’d be embarrassed to behave in a small way around him.” And Mary Karr, who has been a colleague of Saunders’s at Syracuse since he joined the faculty in the mid-’90s (and who also, incidentally, is a practicing Catholic with a wonderful singing voice and a spectacularly inventive foul mouth), told me, “I think he’s the best short-story writer in English alive.”

Have a look at Saunders’ advice to graduates. It is not a hard read and the focus is on a very large regret. Saunders’ regret is associated with the issues that I am concerned about in this piece – lack of respect, niceness, politeness, decency, Saunders’ says that what he regrets most in life are failures of kindness. He puts it this way:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. 

Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded…sensibly.  Reservedly.  Mildly.

Or, to look at it from the other end of the telescope:  Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

Now, the million-dollar question:  What’s our problem?  Why aren’t we kinder?

Here’s what I think:

Each of us is born with a series of built-in confusions that are probably somehow Darwinian.  These are: (1) we’re central to the universe (that is, our personal story is the main and most interesting story, the only story, really); (2) we’re separate from the universe (there’s US and then, out there, all that other junk – dogs and swing-sets, and the State of Nebraska and low-hanging clouds and, you know, other people), and (3) we’re permanent (death is real, o.k., sure – for you, but not for me).

Now, we don’t really believe these things – intellectually we know better – but we believe them viscerally, and live by them, and they cause us to prioritize our own needs over the needs of others, even though what we really want, in our hearts, is to be less selfish, more aware of what’s actually happening in the present moment, more open, and more loving.

So, the second million-dollar question:  How might we DO this?  How might we become more loving, more open, less selfish, more present, less delusional, etc., etc?

Well, yes, good question.

Unfortunately, I only have three minutes left.

So let me just say this.  There are ways.  You already know that because, in your life, there have been High Kindness periods and Low Kindness periods, and you know what inclined you toward the former and away from the latter.  Education is good; immersing ourselves in a work of art: good; prayer is good; meditation’s good; a frank talk with a dear friend;  establishing ourselves in some kind of spiritual tradition – recognizing that there have been countless really smart people before us who have asked these same questions and left behind answers for us.

Because kindness, it turns out, is hard – it starts out all rainbows and puppy dogs, and expands to include…well,everything.

One thing in our favor:  some of this “becoming kinder” happens naturally, with age.  It might be a simple matter of attrition:  as we get older, we come to see how useless it is to be selfish – how illogical, really.  We come to love other people and are thereby counter-instructed in our own centrality.  We get our butts kicked by real life, and people come to our defense, and help us, and we learn that we’re not separate, and don’t want to be.  We see people near and dear to us dropping away, and are gradually convinced that maybe we too will drop away (someday, a long time from now).  Most people, as they age, become less selfish and more loving.  I think this is true.  The great Syracuse poet, Hayden Carruth, said, in a poem written near the end of his life, that he was “mostly Love, now.”

I guess kindness is a term that encompasses niceness, politeness and decency – respect for others – you don’t have to like them, but they are human beings, they have their own sense of worth and dignity and are entitled, at the very least, to respect. And that respect can be manifested by a nice attitude, by polite speech and a polite attitude, by listening as well as talking and by decency of conduct. As Will said – we can be decent.  We live in hope.