How We Know What’s True with Jonathan Rauch
Truth–and the institutions that defend it–are under attack. What can the rest of us do?
In this episode of In Reality, co-hosts Eric Schurenberg and Joan Donovan are joined by Jonathan Rauch, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of ‘The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth’.
In this captivating discussion, Jonathan unpacks what is best described as a crisis of knowledge in Western culture, the result of a multi-front challenge to citizens’ ability to distinguish fact from fiction and elevate truth above falsehood.
What has always bound Western societies together in a shared sense of reality, Rauch explains, is a commitment–not to a set of pre-ordained beliefs but rather to a process of constantly testing claims against objective experience to determine which claims are true. Rauch calls this process ‘The Constitution of Knowledge’ because, like the US Constitution, it relies on a system of checks and balances to prevent the truth from being defined only by those in power. Up to this point, we have implicitly trusted institutions like science, medicine, government and media–what Rauch calls “the reality-based community”--to safeguard the process.
Social media, however, has short-circuited all of this. Social media makes no attempt to test the claims that appear in its content, and instead revels in broadcasting claims to millions online at Internet speed, without regard to whether they are true or not. Social media exalts popularity over expertise, speed over reflection and division over consensus. It’s no surprise that trust in the reality-based community is crumbling, and many citizens are no longer sure where to turn for truth.
By the interview’s end, though, Rauch expresses cautious optimism. At the moment, fake news, misinformation and extremist propaganda (from both sides) seem to have the upper hand. But truth has a singular advantage: It describes the world as it really is. It works–while falsehoods inevitably collide with reality and fail. The reality-based community–and reasonable citizens outside those institutions–have their work cut out for them, Rauch says. But in the end, they will win.