Trump’s trolling versus the ‘constitution of knowledge’
WASHINGTON » On the road again, and full of indignation about what he called “made-up” and “fabricated” Democratic accusations during the recent judicial confirmation, America’s feral president swerved into a denunciation of a nonexistent bill — “It’s called ‘the open borders bill’ ” — that, he thundered, “every single Democrat” in the Senate has “signed up for.” Now, before you wax indignant to such breezy indifference to reality, remember this: Donald Trump is not the first.
In 2012, Nevada Democrat Harry Reid was the Senate majority leader and during the presidential campaign he said the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, had paid no taxes for a decade. This was wildly, demonstrably untrue. When Reid was asked, three years later, why he still defended it, he said: “Romney didn’t win, did he?”
The Brookings Institution’s Jonathan Rauch has written an essay, “The Constitution of Knowledge,” in National Affairs quarterly in response to Trump’s guiding principle, as stated by Steve Bannon, whose mentality hasn’t left the White House. Bannon says: “The way to deal with [the media] is to flood the zone with shit.” Rauch says: Trump’s presidential lying, which began concerning the size of his inauguration crowd, reflects “a strategy, not merely a character flaw or pathology.” And the way to combat Trump’s “epistemic attack” on Americans’ “collective ability to distinguish truth from falsehood” is by attending to the various social mechanisms that, taken together, are “the method of validating propositions.”
Modernity began when humanity “removed reality-making from the authoritarian control of priests and princes.” It was given over to “a decentralized, globe-spanning community of critical testers who hunt for each other’s errors.” That is why today’s foremost enemy of modernity is populism, which cannot abide the idea that majorities aren’t self-validating, and neither are intense minorities. Validation comes from the “critical testers” who are the bane of populists’ existence because the testers are, by dint of training and effort, superior to the crowd, no matter how big.
“Think,” says Rauch, “of the constitution of knowledge as a funnel”: “At the wide end, millions of people float millions of hypotheses every day. Only an infinitesimal fraction of new ideas will be proven true. To find them, we run the hypotheses through a massive, socially distributed error-finding process. Only a tiny few make it to the narrow end of the funnel.” The authors of those that do receive the prestige of recognition — and the enmity of populists, who worship the many in order to disparage the few.
Rauch surely knows he stands on the shoulders of Friedrich Hayek. He recommended to governments epistemic humility, and preached the superiority, and indispensability, of markets, society’s spontaneous order for gathering dispersed information and testing it.
Rauch says Trump’s “trolling of the American mind” has enjoyed “the advantage of surprise.” But as this diminishes, the constitution of knowledge can prevail because, although trolling has “some institutional nodes,” they are, over time, much inferior in intellectual firepower to the institutions of the constitution of knowledge.
Ominously, in the most important of these, the colleges and universities, serious scholars “are not the dominant voices.” Trump, bellowing “fake news” and “sham” this and “rigged” that, is on all fours with his leftist, often academic and equally fact-free despisers who, hollering “racist” and “fascist,” are his collaborators in the attack on the constitution of knowledge. “No wonder,” Rauch writes, “much of the public has formed the impression that academia isn’t trustworthy.” Imposing opinions and promoting political agendas, many academics have descended to trolling, forfeiting their ability to contest he whom they emulate.