Intro. [Recording date: July 15, 2021.]
Russ Roberts: Today is July 15, 2021, and my guest is journalist and author Jonathan Rauch. His latest book, and the topic of today's conversation, is The Constitution of Knowledge, a deep look at how we know what we know, or at least what we think we know, how that's been changed in the internet age, and what might be done to make it better.
Jonathan was last here in September of 2008, talking about the Chevy Volt and corporate culture. A long time ago.
Jonathan, welcome back to EconTalk.
Jonathan Rauch: I am happy to be here. One of my favorite shows.
Russ Roberts: Thank you.
Jonathan Rauch: We should do it more often.
Russ Roberts: You got it. I think 13 years is a little long for in between episodes. You're lucky I'm still around.
Russ Roberts: What do you mean by the 'Constitution of Knowledge'? It's a lovely title. What do you mean by it?
Jonathan Rauch: It's our system, collectively as a society, for figuring out what's true and what's not true, and doing that in a way that respects our freedom, and keeps us sane, and keeps us civil.
Every society, large and small, needs a way to do that. Many, many societies have broken up over questions of truth, of fact. Western societies--wars raged across Europe and many other places until we got a constitution of knowledge, which says, 'You know what? Instead of having rulers make decisions about facts, let's have rules to do it.' And, we set up a system to do that. It looks a lot like the U.S. Constitution in many ways. And, that's the constitution of knowledge.
Russ Roberts: But, you say we set it up. The Constitution of the United States was hammered out by a group of people; but as you point out a number of times in the book, there's a parallel between the Constitution of Knowledge--that is, the process by which we try to figure out peacefully what is true and what isn't true--and the marketplace, the economic system we have, where they're both decentralized, they both rely quite a bit on competition, and on the norms and feedback loops that really sustain it and make it do positive things, and not just randomly produce outcomes.
I was struck with what you just said about the wars because I used to like to quote--I haven't done it in a while, but I like to quote Walter Williams, who said, 'In the old days, if you wanted to get rich, you hit your neighbor over the head with a stick and took your neighbor's stuff. And, capitalism was a way, markets were a way, for a lot of people to get rich instead of a zero-sum game strategy.' Similarly, if you kill someone, have a war to make them believe what you think is true, it's not as effective as what you outline in the Constitution of Knowledge.
Jonathan Rauch: Yeah, yeah. Well, that's exactly right--
Russ Roberts: Well, it might be more effective but it's not as nice.
Jonathan Rauch: And then the same is true of the U.S. Constitution. There is the disanalogy that you mentioned, that the U.S. Constitution was written down by a group of people in a room. But, as I say, again and again in the book, the real U.S. Constitution isn't--it only starts with the words on paper. What it really is, is all the norms, the institutions--things like political parties, and judicial review, and popular sovereignty, and all the many things that built up. And, the same is true of the constitution of knowledge. It wasn't written down to begin with but it was set up by human beings. It does have rules. It was conscious about that. It has lots of institutions.
The big four branches of it are research--which is academia and science, of course. Second is the world of journalism--the world I come from, also fact-based, also professionals trying to figure out what's true in a disaggregated, decentralized way. The third is the world of law. Now, people don't know this, but the idea of a fact originally comes from law. It predates the world of science because you had to have some facts in common in order to figure out how to rule in a law case. And, the fourth is government, which has to be reality-based in order to function. And, until 2017, January 20th, was fact-based. And, still mostly is.
So, those are the big four. And, they all function using a set of rules, and lots of institutions--lots of settings that you have to get right, which is the problem with the standard metaphor for where knowledge comes from, the marketplace of ideas. That assumes free speech is enough, and that leaves us vulnerable because you need to get a lot of settings, a lot of institutions. You get a lot of rules in place, a lot of professionals. And, those are easy to attack, and are under attack.
So, that's the idea in my book.
Russ Roberts: Let's talk about the informal norms, because I think they're so important in all these worlds that we're talking about--the world that produces knowledge; the world that produces political outcomes that the U.S. Constitution mediates; and the commercial world, of course--the world that markets, what we would normally call, real markets, what they deal with.
And, norms are underrated, and I think the last five to ten years, as the internet has ramped up, and the world has changed, a lot of norms that used to, I think, sustain decency in human behavior, civilized outcomes have been degraded. The behavioral expectations of people in, I would say, in academic life, in journalism, and in politics have all taken a hit. Yuval Levin--I'm sure you know his book, A Time to Build; he was on here talking about it. And so, many people use their platform as a place to perform rather than a place to be obligated to a duty to the institution.
And, I think some of what's going on is that degradation of the institutions as the norms have deteriorated.
Jonathan Rauch: Well, you're a college president, so you're, in some ways, in a better position than I am to speak of that. And, your job is going to be to defend those norms against some of the trends that Yuval is talking about.
Yeah, Yuval Levin's wonderful book, A Time to Build. I should be plugging my book. I should be--they tell you what you do: you hold it up three times, at least. There it is! Available at a bookstore near you.
Russ Roberts: And, for those of you listening on the audio only, it's a lovely cover. You're missing out.
Jonathan Rauch: But, I'm going to plug Yuval Levin's book because it's been such an inspiration to my own. And, Levin notes that no society can function without functioning institutions that shape us as people. The journalism profession that I came into, the newsrooms that shaped me by really hammering into me that I've got to get it right, I've got to be accurate, I've got to check, I've got to double-source, I've got to go back to people before I write about them, I've got to run corrections if I'm wrong, even though I'm not happy about it, and no one else is happy about it.
Institutions shape us. And that's very true of the constitution of science. Unlike the commercial marketplace, the constitution of science, the reality-based community, is mostly a professional network because it takes, typically, years in any of these fields--law, journalism, public administration, and especially science--to get up to speed, to understand the ideas, to get the jargon, the education, to learn the literature, to build a track record so that others know that you're on the level.
So, it's very much a professional network, and it relies heavily on a lot of unwritten rules, and they range from obvious things, like you can't make stuff up. In regular life, you know, people make stuff up all the time, where you can't believe stuff just because somebody told you, and you think it might be true. You can't do QAnon in science or journalism. You have to be fact-based. That's really hard. And, all of those norms can be undermined; and I argue in the book that they're too big a tax on them right now.
One of them is from the outside, and that's from people who are using disinformation and other forms of epistemic warfare. And, the force at the center of that right now in America is Donald Trump and MAGA [Make America Great Again] and his movement. Very, very dangerous.
But, the other is the one that you mentioned, Russ, and that's from the inside. And that's factions that come into academia, increasingly, journalism; and seek to politicize it, seek to erode the norms, that what really matters is accuracy above all, and that we shouldn't be following political agendas. We should be seeking and following facts.
Sometimes it's hard to know the difference. But, where our hearts should be, what we should be striving to do, is keep political agendas out of it. And, there has been a pretty serious diminution of that at a lot of institutions.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, we'll come back and talk about both of those. I'm going to bring an economist's perspective that I think is important to add to the--just so the cultural trends that we're dealing with, and some of those cultural trends, I fear, are the result of the incentives, which is the economist's perspective.
Russ Roberts: But, before we get there, I want to talk about the constitution of knowledge in its ideal form, which you are quite eloquent and thoughtful. It's lovely to have a book like this, where you get to actually show some nuance, and let the reader understand the subtlety of what you're talking about. And, we won't do justice to that in the next 15 minutes or so of trying to cover that. But, I really like that part of the book where you try to give the flavor of what is actually going on.
But, at a higher level--it's sort of a bird's eye view--you talk about the epistemic funnel: the way that ideas get turned into what we have as knowledge. And, in particular, the importance of it's being shared knowledge, which I have not really seen people emphasize enough. You draw on Charles Peirce, who's a personal favorite of mine almost never gets mentioned outside this program. So, I'm thrilled that he's in your book in a number of places.
But, talk about that epistemic funnel, and the rules and norms and institutions that take the myriad of ideas down to, what we would call, shared knowledge.
Jonathan Rauch: I'd love to, because that really goes to the heart of the matter. And, it also relates to what I said earlier: The marketplace of ideas is not enough.
So, most people, most of the ideas that most people have about what's true and what's not true, most of time, are wrong. Just wildly wrong. It's a human condition. We're in a state of bumbling error most of the time. We're, you know, we're pretty good at immediate problems that affect our lives and demand, and give us immediate feedback, like, you know: Is that a tiger in the bush or just a breeze? Or, where is the next tribe camp?
But, we're not good at all at bigger, abstract questions like: What's the cause of the disease that's decimating our society, our tribe? Or, where is the next--or pardon me--or, which god do we worship?
And those, we tend to be deeply in error because we're riddled with cognitive biases; and we look for evidence and actually perceive, favorably, evidence that favors, that helps us with status, or that favors our point of view. Really, really--
Russ Roberts: It makes us feel good.
Jonathan Rauch: It makes us feel good. Yeah, that's pretty much how we choose ideas.
And, the result of that is that most of what people want to believe on any given day is not just wrong but wildly wrong.
So, the question is: How can a society find that small fraction of 1% of people's ideas that actually advance knowledge? And, that's finding needles in haystacks.
And, the way you do that is to set up a kind of--I liken it to a giant funnel. The input end is free speech. That's the idea. Anyone can believe anything. Anyone can say just about anything. And, that's the raw material for the reality-based community.
But, then it goes into this process. I think of it as like a system of pumps and filters. Many, many nodes in this network. Most ideas are so screwball, they don't even get acquired. Like, some people think Elvis is alive, but no research dollars--well, I hope not at your university, anyway--are going to be spent finding out why Elvis is still alive.
A small fraction of ideas will be acquired by the system, and science and journalism will say, 'Okay, we need to look at this.' And, then it'll be divided up into units that are refutable, that are checkable, will be parceled out; peer reviewers will look at it, editors will look at it. If it passes muster--and only some of them will--then it will be passed on. It'll be published. Then, others can pick it up. They look at it. They do their own assessment.
Over time, and actually pretty darn quickly, through all of these nodes and this network of checkers--I think of them as like being pumping and filtering stations--the good stuff drips out at the end of the funnel. A very narrow end at which, on any given day, is new knowledge. A tiny, tiny, minuscule--precious--fraction of what goes in.
This is a way, what it does is two things: First, it converts information--which is free and cheap, and mostly wrong--into knowledge--which is very expensive, and very precious, and is humanity's greatest resource. Objective knowledge is a species-transforming invention. It put the shot in my arm that's protecting me from COVID. It changes from small tribal societies in which knowledge essentially never grows from generation to generation, to one in which we now add more to the canon of human knowledge any day, any one day, than we did in 200,000 years.
But also very importantly, it gives us a way to settle disputes: to work very quickly through this massive of ideas. And, do that in a way that's peaceful and that's decentralized, that no one can take control of. No prince or priest or politburo can say, 'Okay, Russ Roberts. Here's what you're teaching at your university today because we think it's true.' They can do that in China, in the Soviet Union, in Jonestown, in religious sects. Most human societies function that way, not this way. But, this is the only way that gives you peace and knowledge. And, by the way, freedom.
Russ Roberts: Yeah; that's beautiful. As I mentioned before, and you allude to it but you don't write about it quite as much as I would, which is the competition part, right? Because there's all these nodes trying to get--and they're not just devoted to truth, they're devoted to the rewards that come with adding that knowledge. So, it could be a published paper. It could be a tenure position. It could be a front-page story on your paper or a position in a magazine.
And, the thing I worry about--and sorry: again, I want to just praise what you wrote. It's a beautiful exposition of the ideal. Of course, in real life, it doesn't work quite as well as that romantic story you just told. One of the temptations is to extend the norms and institutions that work very well in science, and extend them into places that don't work quite as well, and to make them look that way--the way they do in science.
So I would say: social science struggles to be as reliably knowledgeable about what it claims to know than, quote "real science." Real science also has trouble, right? But, my worry is, in my field and in the other social sciences, that scientism, not science. Science, as in the trappings of science, are revoked because they're rewarding monetarily and they encourage people to make claims that aren't quite as reliable as they are in certain other fields.
Comment on that, if you would.
Jonathan Rauch: Yeah. I'm going to comment by pushing back. What I described is not the ideal. It's how it actually works.
And, that isn't to say that any human social system is perfect. But, if you think of what this system is doing, in--what it is it? December or so of 2019--a new virus is discovered. Within a period of weeks, actually days, but certainly weeks, hundreds of thousands of expert minds in all kinds of disciplines around the world are spontaneously, without centralized control, organized, pivot to solve that problem. Hundreds, if not thousands, of institutions go to work on it. Within a period of a couple weeks, it's sequenced. Within a period of a couple of days, a vaccine is designed. And, now it's in my arm in less than a year later. That's an incredible feat of human organization.
No, it's species-transforming. And now you're going to say, 'Well, that's an example of science'--
Russ Roberts: Yes--
Jonathan Rauch: But, it breaks down when you try to bring it to economics, and to other fields. And, I say no. I'm against scientism. But, scientism is just basically lazy practice, where you're trying to look for shortcuts by using methods that may not apply in your field.
But, the bigger point--Russ, I'd be curious if you agree or disagree with this--is that the constitution of knowledge can organize any kind of debate or argument. Including even, weirdly enough, theology, which is the definition of something that's non-scientific.
It can't resolve, adjudicate, every kind of dispute because a lot of stuff, like literary criticism, it's just much harder to find evidence that people can agree is dispositive. That's the nature of the field.
Chemistry, it's relatively easy. Economics, I don't know where you'd put it but probably somewhere in between?
And, that's the nature of the beast, and, you know, we've got to live with that.
But, there is no kind of social argument about truth that cannot be organized by the principles of using decentralized methods of checking, of debate, structuring this around looking at what you can check, and giving that priority. And, that, in fact, works, I argue, for literary criticism. It even works for moral disputes like abortion. It doesn't resolve them in a crisp way. That's asking too much. But, it does give us a way of approaching them which says, 'Okay, abortion. What kind of arguments can we bring to bear on this that would be persuasive to any reasonable person? What kind of evidence do we have about the development of fetus? What can we say about the history of ethics?' It gives us a way to approach these ideas in an organized fashion. And, that's so crucial, compared to all the alternatives.
Russ Roberts: So, I'm going to disagree. But, before I do, I do want to say that there's a gorgeous two paragraphs or so in your book where you defend religion. I don't want anyone to think, from that last remark, that you think that theology is some weird, goofy thing that doesn't have evidence but we could still make some progress or something. But, you actually talk very eloquently, beautifully, in the book about, with respect for the aspects of religion and science, and that they're not in conflict.
Would that be a fair summary?
Jonathan Rauch: Yeah. Maybe a better way to say it is that one of the great attributes of the constitution of science is that it is a liberal system. And, liberal systems are liberal. The word is free, because they don't insist on dominating every part of our lives. So, the U.S. Constitution does not govern what we do in our family dining table or what we do in prayer at church. It has its specific realm, and when it's behaving it stays there.
And, the same's true of the constitution of knowledge. We don't have to be professional truth-seekers doing experiments when we're in church. We're left alone there in our realm of personal beliefs. The constitution of knowledge only applies where we need to make public decisions about truth or falsehood. And, it says, 'Okay, here's how we're going to structure those arguments.' And, that's a revolution for human freedom, right? Because other epistemic systems say, 'No, we're going to control your entire life. You're never allowed to dissent, because dissent is a threat to the regime.'
Russ Roberts: And, of course, as we worry somewhat in this current atmosphere that we're in, in a really powerful totalitarian state, not only are you not free to say what you want, you're really not so free to even think what you want. There's a natural incentive to curb your, um, any thoughts, ideas, that might get you in prison. And, in the modern times--again, we'll talk about it in a minute--but the fear that you'll say the wrong thing, I think, is incredibly dangerous in reducing the power of the mechanisms that you're talking about.
But, just to come back to this issue of--
Jonathan Rauch: Scientism?
Russ Roberts: Social science and scientism. You know, in 1940, you didn't make a particularly good living as an academic or a journalist but you did it because you loved it, and it made your heart sing, and it was, you know, psychologically rewarding.
Today, if you're at the top of those two fields, you make an enormous amount of money. Only at the very top; but you do make an enormous amount of money.
The stakes are much higher, and I think--and that's true in science as well. And it's distorted, I think, some of the natural norms that protected us, the liberal order you're talking about.
Again, to remind listeners, 'liberal' here does not mean politically liberal, but the freedom to write what you want, say what you want, take a stand. All those things, I think, have been challenged--awkward for me to say as a free-market guy--but it's been challenged by the monetary rewards in these professions, and the monetary incentives that I think have made it much more likely that people make broad, bold claims that aren't necessarily true. They are able to dismiss alternatives without admitting that they might be true. What gets rewarded is certainty rather than subtlety.
So, I think those are huge problems in--I think they're true in every field today, particularly--but I think they're very true in journalism and economics. And, I think, from the inside, economists tend to think they're just truth seekers: They don't respond to those incentives. I know journalists feel that way. I've talked to them a zillion times about it. They hate being told that they might be responding to incentives. I understand that. But I do think it's a serious problem.
Do you agree?
Jonathan Rauch: Well, I don't know much about economics, at least the economic structure of the field. And, I'd like to know more. Are you seeing this as distorting the product of economics? Or are you seeing it in bad science, so to speak? And--
Russ Roberts: I think it's--
Jonathan Rauch: What are we talking about? Are we talking about sort of consultants making a lot of money by telling clients what they want to hear? Or what--give me an example.
Russ Roberts: What I have in mind is--you know, I didn't keep the paragraph:I meant to save it--but you talked about how much has been published about COVID: how many articles, how many peer-reviewed articles. It might be 100,000. I mean, I can't remember from your book. It's a giant number. So, it's not just the vaccine.
And, by the way, that vaccine, we talked about it on the program before, one of the reasons it was produced so quickly is we had an enormous army-in-waiting of chemists, biochemists, epidemiologists, and others who could spring into action because they were on the payroll of--and I think we probably have too many. But, it turned out they have a good side-effect, which was because we've subsidized the pharmaceutical industry so much, when we needed them they were there to help us. And, I think it's a glorious thing. Don't misunderstand me.
But, I think then the academic work that came out of this pandemic, it's not the vaccine. That is, did lockdowns work? The power about masks? I just don't see it as being so advancing of our knowledge.
And, in particular, in social science, so what I'm suggesting is, is that 99% of the peer-reviewed articles that they get published are not adding to knowledge. They're just adding to their resumes, the people who wrote the articles. And, I think that's a product of the financial incentives that academic life has in the United States and other parts of the world today. And, I think that's tragedy. It's a reality. But, I think people make claims that, you know--
Now, your--one answer would be, 'Well, but they get tested eventually, and they get refuted. The ones that aren't credible can't be replicated.' And, it's true. But, I think the whole system is not nearly as--the norms that used to be there have been pretty much destroyed.
But, let me pick on journalism because that's easier, because that's your inside--
Jonathan Rauch: Yeah, I know--
Russ Roberts: world. Let me leave mine alone.
In the last five years--you could argue whether it's a response to Trump or whether it's Trump was responding to it. I don't really care. But, the journalists that I follow on Twitter? They don't act the way journalists acted 10 years ago. They're openly partisan. They're openly dismissive. They distort things all the time. They--you call lying.
Now, you could argue, 'But, they don't lie as much as the politicians,' whether it's Trump or whoever you don't like. It's true. But, they lie a lot more than they did 20 years ago. And, I think that's deeply disturbing.
And, I think the reason they do it is very simple. There's a reward to doing it. And, their publications, their institutions, without eyeballs, are going to die. It's not like in the past, where you had a nice comfy situation with only a handful of producers of information. Now, the marketplace is wide open. And, if you do not energize your followers with anger, fear, and other motives, and other results, you don't get eyeballs. And, I think that's a huge problem.
Jonathan Rauch: Well, there are a lot of problems with journalism. I wouldn't put that one at top. I'd put it somewhere in the middle of the pack.
Most of what journalists do is not being on Twitter. And, I'm one of those people who regrets to turn to Twitter. The turn to Twitter actually was encouraged in the early days of social media. Media organizations thought: You've got to be on social media. They told all their staffs, 'Get a Twitter account, start tweeting.'
Believe me, they regret doing that. I have talked to editors at some of the country's leading publications who say that they would give their eyeteeth to get these reports off Twitter; but they can't do it at this point because the reporters have brands, and it's--
Most journalists actually behave responsibly on Twitter, and tweet about a story that they wrote; and then put it in the headline, and put it in the link. But, some don't, and those are the ones that stick in your mind, unfortunately. That's a problem.
Russ Roberts: Sure enough. Sure enough.
Jonathan Rauch: It's not the biggest problem. I think there are two problems that are significantly bigger. The biggest problem is--we're back to economics again--but it's the lack of the business model; and it's the fact that all the things that we're talking about--making knowledge, doing it right--it's very expensive. And, some of the stuff that you talk about in academia that's just published because it's easy, and because it pads someone's resume, and maybe helps get them to the next appointment--well, some of that is just because that's the cheap and easy way to do it. Right?
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Jonathan Rauch: Really advancing the frontiers of knowledge can be very, very costly. And, journalism, investigative reporting, very expensive. Opinion is cheap and easy. And, that's a problem we haven't solved, and it's fundamentally it's an economic problem.
Because I can tell you, journalists are very unhappy--
Russ Roberts: And, that's what I was trying to say--
Jonathan Rauch: in this environment.
Russ Roberts: But, you just said it better--you just said it better than I did, which is--
Jonathan Rauch: And, then there's a second problem, which I think ranks significantly above tweeting, though I do worry about the social media forms of corruption and temptation that that introduced. But, that's the diminishing ideological diversity in newsrooms. That's an even bigger problem.
In fact, it's a, I think, a major problem in academia, at least in the social sciences and humanities, where you can walk a country mile and not find anyone who voted for Trump or even for Mitt Romney. I think that's begun to distort a lot of fields in the humanities. Economics, somewhat less.
But, we see the same thing in journalism. And, there are a couple problems with that. One is it distorts the product. We can never see our own errors. We can never see our own biases. The genius of the Constitution of Knowledge is it says, 'I don't have to see my biases, but you'll see them for me, and you'll correct them, or someone else will correct both of us.' Because we don't see our own biases and errors, if you've got a newsroom that's got only progressives, they're not going to get the reporting right because there are questions that they're going to forget to ask. There are distortions that are going to creep into the newscopy.
And, that's a problem in itself because it means we're not serving our audiences well or doing our job as well as we should. But, it's also bad for our credibility as journalists. Because, other people who are not progressives read us and see these assumptions that we're missing.
So, I would fix the Twitter problem, if I could. I don't know how. But, before that, or at least in addition to it, I would challenge more journalistic publications to work harder to make sure that there is a critical mass of conservatives on the staff--of libertarians, of people who think differently. And, I would be extremely worried of social dynamics in newsrooms like we saw at one major paper last year, where you see a faction of politicized journalists rise up to get someone fired because he's publishing or saying conservative things. That should never happen.
Russ Roberts: Well, that's what I meant. I didn't mean to suggest Twitter was the biggest problem. What you just said is what I think is the biggest problem, which is the illusion that I think some people have that the biggest competitor for CNN [Cable News Network] is Fox News. CNN's biggest competitor isn't Fox News: it's MSNBC [Microsoft/National Broadcasting Company]. And, the New York Times' biggest competitor isn't the Wall Street Journal: it's the Washington Post or the Boston Globe--you pick it--some other online opportunity.
And, so, adding the diversity that you're talking about, which I think is lovely, ends up losing you the audience that a publication might have to people who aren't going to be so diverse. Because, their viewers and listeners don't care so much about diversity. They want to get angry or feel good about themselves.
I think the biggest problem we have, and it's a human problem that can't be solved overnight, is that I don't think people care very much about the truth. I think they care about feeling good about themselves, or comforting themselves, or getting angry at people that they think are worth getting angry at. And, I think the Internet has allowed that to be on steroids. And, because of competition, they're forced into those partisan, ideological boxes. And, it's horrible. It's horrible on the Left, and it's just as horrible on the Right--obviously.
Jonathan Rauch: I think it's worse on the Right, actually. Because [crosstalk 00:32:17]--
Russ Roberts: Could be. It doesn't matter. They're both--basically, people listen to one all day long, whether it's on the Left or the Right. And, as a result, they get angrier. And, if you said to them, 'Don't you think we should have some other voices on here?' they'd say, 'If you do that, I'm going to change the channel.'
Jonathan Rauch: There's some of that. It's the human condition, and you're correct that digital media has put that on steroids by making it possible to measure the clicks for every headline. And, that's, very easy to follow your audience is down all kinds of rabbit holes.
But, on the hopeful side, we've been through something a bit like this in 19th century American journalism; and we saw similar patterns, which is: You had the invention of the Penny Press, which basically meant that newspapers now had subscribers, which means they had bases of people who were expecting certain things--party lines. And, then you had the inventing of offset printing, which allowed you to have these giant presses and the huge spools of newsprint that allowed you to print 200,000 copies of a newspaper in your basement overnight.
And, these led to a race to the bottom, where everyone was trying to capture eyeballs.
And, in 19th century journalism, you wound up with, basically, a kind of swamp, a fetid swamp, of fake news and hyperpartisanship, because that's where it seemed like the readers wanted to go. That's where you were making money.
And, if you'd been alive to have this conversation with me back then, we both would have thrown up our hands and say, 'This is terrible, and there's no way to get out of it.' Heh, heh, right?
So, how did we get out of it? And, the answer is incentives and institutions, which is kind of the way we always get out of these doom loops, right?
The environment--the information environment that was being created back then was toxic for the business model--in the long term. You can only publish so much stuff that's fake and extremely outrageous before people get on with their lives and want to do something less toxic. It was bad for the country, and a lot of people didn't like it.
People in journalism realized this was unsustainable. So, in the early part of the 20th century, they formed institutions like the American Society of Newspaper Editors. The first thing they did was start promulgating some professional standards and ethics codes, like: Don't make stuff up. Be accurate. Run corrections. Things that we take for granted now. Well, someone had to come up with that.
And, then they had the development of journalism schools, professional schools, that basically inculcated those norms, said the right and wrong ways to do things. And, then those people fanned out into the process.
And, then you had the incentives. This I know is dear to your heart, Russ. In all of the Constitution of Knowledge, it relies much more heavily on rewards than on punishments, which is really, as you know, the thing that works in this society.
And, in journalism, they set up a bunch of prizes. Ironically, the biggest is The Pulitzer, which is named after a yellow-journalist news baron.
But, there are lots of other formal prizes and informal prizes in the form of: if I write a great story, others will pick it up; I'll get more famous.
So, they began building in incentives to use journalism responsibly, and to make it truth-seeking and fact-based. And, that, in turn, retrained the audience. People then said, 'Wait. Okay, this is valuable to me. I like this. This is sustainable.'
And, that gets us in a period of about 40 years, still a long time, but it gets us from yellow journalism to Edward R. Murrow and what's now considered, I think rightly, a golden age for American journalism.
So, the question becomes, can we establish institutions and incentives that will reverse the flow so that, instead of rewarding people for fake news, cheap opinion, outrage, we can begin start rewarding ourselves and retraining ourselves for other incentives?
We have done it before. Can we do it again? Not sure. I'm hopeful. I'm not optimistic but I'm hopeful. I think we're seeing signs of that happening, maybe.
Russ Roberts: I'm going to let you articulate that hope in a minute. I want to make a point related to yours, which is: the standards you talk about, they get articulated, which is huge, right? Just articulating them is not unimportant.
There were often no formal ways to enforce them. It was a guild where your honor was at stake, that you lived by these rules. No one monitored you. No one--there were imprecise rules, and they're not easily enforced because they're not precise.
And, I think about doctors. I think about academics. I think about journalists. I feel again that all those fields, the internal monitoring that we do in our day-to-day lives has somehow fallen by the wayside to some extent.
I think I mentioned on the program before, my mom goes into the doctor, and the first thing they do is they give her an EKG [electrocardiogram] and this is like a post-surgery visit. And, I'm thinking, 'Mom, why did they give you an EKG? Didn't you just have one two days earlier in the--whatever?' And, she said, 'Well, they always give me one.' And, I'm thinking, 'Sure they do,' because it's just like, 'cha-ching.' I'm making it sound like that it was somewhat reasonable. At the time, I thought, 'There's no reason for this. It's totally just a fake procedure that they're doing,' because, you know, that's what they do, and they ring it up. They give you the--the anesthesiologist from outside your coverage--and they don't ask you. And they don't even ask you because they never usually ask and people don't usually care, and because a lot of times it is covered.
But, then, there's the times that aren't, and the people get stuck with it. And, it's like, 'Why would you treat somebody that way? Why would you give them a procedure that they might not--why wouldn't you have a conversation with them?'
And, I just think there's so many internal norms that practitioners in medicine, and dentistry, and law, and other areas used to have. And now it's like, well, again, there's a lot of money at stake. Let's just--you don't have to ask.
And, a lot of it's subsidized. Of course, it's part of the problem. A lot of people aren't spending their own money. And I'm talking about medicine. A lot of times, the students aren't paying the tuition. They're not the real customer in the university.
So, I just feel, in many, many areas, the internal mores of culture that used to enforce excellence, people have just kind of gotten kind of sloppy. Do you think that's fair?
Jonathan Rauch: I wouldn't know how to measure that.
Russ Roberts: No, I wouldn't either.
Jonathan Rauch: And, you know, data is not the plural of anecdote. So, I'd be crazy to deny that there are perverse economic incentives that are just, just riddling American medicine. But, to me, that's the problem, I guess, I'm not really too well equipped to address.
I am more prepared to address some of the specific forms of politicization, and some would call them corruption--I think that's fair in many cases--that have crapped[?] into these disciplines because certain ideologies come along in the past--you know, things like Marxism and then post-modernism, and now there are aspects of critical race theory, and others.
You'd basically have imperialistic ambitions, and say, 'You got to toe this line. You've got to take this line or else you're not doing science.' And, that's an anti-scientific attitude.
Those, I'm not sure I'd argue it's worse today. I think I might argue that we've always had those problems, and that we rely on professional norms which are very delicate in many ways to push back.
And, one of the reasons I wrote this book is to get people to push back--to be our best selves, to remember the Constitution of Knowledge is there; it requires a lot of us.
This is the biggest message of my book. The notion of a marketplace of ideas in which free speech is enough, and everything else is self-maintaining is completely wrong. You need to have all of these structures and incentives. You need to understand them. They were made by humans for humans.
And then you need to protect them. You need to get them right. You need to be in a position to call out the kinds of distortions when you see them, that we're talking about.
And, that's why I wrote this book. I am concerned that these distortions inside the Constitution of Knowledge are becoming costly, and may be dangerous. And, I'm certain that distortions outside from propagandists and other forms of epistemic warfare are a real threat.
Russ Roberts: Well, let me come back to the U.S. Constitution. When we used to talk about this on the program, I'd make the point that the Constitution used to restrain certain political outcomes. And, now, basically, the Constitution doesn't really restrain anything other than gun ownership and some freedom of speech. But, in the economics sphere, things that used to be up for grabs, in terms of whether they were constitutional or not, it's like, 'Well, if Congress votes on it, it's probably fine. We don't--.' Somewhere in the New Deal and around there, there were, all the Constitution and restraining the economic power of the government was lost.
And, there, when a counter-argument to that is, 'Yeah. Well, but if people don't really believe in it,' and people just want, quote, "good laws, even if they're unconstitutional"--it doesn't really matter what the Constitution says. That implicit, as you said earlier, the sort of living part, the organic part of the Constitution is as relevant as the piece of paper.
But, what happens, then, is that--you know, in the old days, if I said to a member of Congress, 'You know, it's really not right to funnel[?] a lot business to your constituents just because they're yours. That's not right. Shouldn't you put the base--the military base, or whatever it is--in the right place for it?'
And, they eventually convince themselves, when there's no real Constitution, no paper Constitution that restrains them, 'Well, if the other guy's doing it and I don't do it, I'm going to lose my job, and--'
So, everybody starts to behave in a way that was morally unacceptable. You'd just say, 'Well, that'd be wrong. I wouldn't do that.' And, then it becomes sort of like, 'Well, if you don't, you lose your job.' But, then it's like, 'Yeah, it's kind of the way the system works.'
And, I worry if that's the kind of loss of internal monitoring that I feel we've had across many, many institutions.
Do you think that's worrisome? Real?
Jonathan Rauch: Um, no. I think we got too little, too few earmarks. Corporal spending has become too difficult. I think the world of politics is much harder and more difficult than economists realized, and the notion the technocrats should decide where things go on the basis of efficiency does not understand that a Madisonian system relies on building coalitions in a peaceful way. And that's extremely difficult.
And, one of the ways that you do that is, indeed, one of the hardest things to do is cut spending. And, if you want to cut Medicare, for example, well, it's going to be pretty darn helpful to be able to call Representative Roberts and say, 'I know this is a tough vote for you but you know that second runway at the airport in your district you've been asking for? I think we can do that this time.' Well, maybe no planes are going to land there, maybe it's a runway to nowhere, but that's how politics works.
So, you know, this is a separate conversation but you might want to have a look at my little mini-book. It's really an article. It's called "Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Backroom Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy." And, I think we've actually gone--a combination of libertarians and progressives and conservatives--have gone too far in moralizing against all of that stuff, and thinking that we could substitute some kind of clean system in which politicians have less discretion, and the result is the chaos that we now see.
How's that, Russ?
Russ Roberts: That's awesome!
Jonathan Rauch: Did I throw down the gauntlet there, or what?
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I loved it. Except the implication that I think technocrats should decide where things go. I just want government to be less powerful.
But, I take the point. It's a really interesting observation that the system--it kind of, it runs through this book. It's [inaudible 00:44:55] throughout the book. I'm sorry but it runs through this book, the idea that you don't get exactly what you want. Almost no one does. You've got to compromise in the political arena, and that that's healthy in all kinds of ways even though you might not like any one outcome. So, that part, I--
Jonathan Rauch: You beautifully--
Russ Roberts: like the creative--
Jonathan Rauch: Beautifully stated. You wrap the whole thing up there in one elegant, elegant loop. That was wonderful.
Russ Roberts: Thank you, sir. But--
Jonathan Rauch: You should be a college president--
Russ Roberts: Yeah, thanks. I'm working at it. I play one on TV, or on the Internet, I guess.
Russ Roberts: Before we leave, I want to get a little--close with some discussions of where we might encourage that hope and optimism that could be here. But, before we do, I just want you to talk about the two principles that underlie the Constitution of Knowledge that we haven't mentioned yet.
You talk about liberal science, meaning the freedom to explore and test ideas--and just the two ideas: no final say and no personal authority. And the reason I like that--first of all, it's only two. It's fantastic. I know it's not the whole story. But they are hugely important.
And, I think they have something to say for our own personal lives, not only just for the system of the Constitution of Knowledge. So, talk about what those principles mean, and why they're important. And, then, maybe we'll talk about the personal side.
Jonathan Rauch: Yeah, I'd love to: I'd love to hear your reflections on how they inflect our personal lives.
So, what I call liberal science--also the Constitution of Knowledge, this whole system that we have of figuring out what's true and what's false by essentially outsourcing it to a giant social network--a lot of things go on there, as you just say. But, there are two rules that are at the heart of it. And, wherever those rules are followed socially by people, you'll see the emergence of something that looks a lot like modern science, a lot like modern journalism and law.
The first is: No final say. This is a radical new idea that says no matter how certain you are, you might be wrong, and so might everyone else, and that means you need to put in place a system where, first of all, any idea can be floated because it might have something to contribute to correcting an error somewhere.
And, second, no one's allowed to be in charge of this process. No one's allowed to come along and say, 'Okay, you can say X, but you cannot say Y.' Because Y might be right. You never know.
So, that sets up an open-ended process of constant criticism and checking.
And, that's a revolution in human affairs. No one had thought of that until, basically, the mid-1600s. That's the underpinning. It's called the Fallibilist School. That's the underpinning of, not only free speech, but the whole error-checking system we rely on.
The second is no personal authority. And, this one's equally revolutionary, and even harder to implement. And, this says: 'Okay, so how are you going to figure out what's right and what's wrong?' Well, you can't do it by saying God revealed it to you, or by saying, 'I'm the dictator. I'm the President of the country. I'm going to tell you what's right.' You can't just say, 'I'm Xi Jinping, so here's what true.' No one gets authority just simply based on who they are. So, whatever you do to check an idea, you're going to have to persuade other people who are not like you because no one is in a position to take control of the argument.
So, this basically says, you're going to have empiricism. It's going to mean checking what you believe. And that's going to mean that you should be able, in principle, to convince any reasonable person. If you're doing an experiment, it should be replicable for anybody, not just for people in your tribe or people who share your religion. If you're making an argument, it should made sense to people who speak an entirely different language and come from a totally different discipline.
This allows you to create a global network of truth seekers, the reality-based community who bring in many different points of view to essentially one reality. They all have to be interoperable. They have to be able to plug in and talk to each other. Admittedly from different disciplines. But, that gives you the scale that we now have where you can have hundreds of thousands of minds pivoting and working on the same problem from many points of view.
So, those are the two rules that, basically, become the foundation of science, journalism, law, all the rest. And, the rest elaborates on those.
But, they are species-transformant.
Russ Roberts: And, as you said, and I think you say it more thoroughly in the book--we haven't really devoted enough time to it. It's not just then what you think is true. It's what's widely accepted as true, but not as a form of group thing. It's because it's been tested, and shared, and pushed back on, and so on.
And, of course, we come to believe things that aren't true, like Moby Dick is the greatest American novel. No, I'm kidding about that. It could be. I have no idea. But, we come to believe serious things that are so-called scientific, actually scientific and amenable to prove, that turn out not to be true. Right? You know, the lonely--there's so many tragic examples of this. The lonely scientist who steps forward with a crazy theory that ulcers are actually not coming from worry. It's actually a bug. Who says that Africa and South America used to fit together. It's like, 'Oh, come on!' Or [crosstalk 00:50:22] that--
Jonathan Rauch: Here's one close to my heart. Homosexuality is not in any way pathological. A crazy idea that Evelyn Hooker floated in the 1940s and 1950s. That myth, which had been deeply established in psychiatry, thanks to the work of some non-empirical people, caused devastating harm to generations of people like me. Well, someone comes along in the 1950s and actually does experiments, and says--gives a bunch of psychological tests to people who were gay and people who were straight. And, then takes the label off and shows them to a panel of psychiatrists [?] and says, 'Tell me which ones are gay.'
They can't do it. Because there's no difference in their mental health.
So, another example, one that's very close to my heart.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. My point about courage though, and heroism, of these people who step forward--the one I always think of is Semmelweis, who says, 'You know, the reason women are dying in childbirth' is because doctors are poisoning them after visiting the morgue and then delivering a baby. And, people think he's crazy because no one wants to believe that.
And, he--the truth does eventually out in those situations; but it takes often decades and lots of death and suffering in between.
But that process, as you point out, is an extraordinary one. It is very powerful.
But, the point I was going to make at the personal level is that no final say and no personal authority is not a bad way to live your life. You should be epistemologically humbled in your own views. You should have strong opinions weekly held because you should be open to the possibility that you're fallible, right? You're just one human being.
And, no personal authority. Don't rely on an expert who you trust to prove that, to decide what you believe. There are some you might learn from. Many. But, don't think of them as divine in any way.
I don't know if this has ever happened to you. It's one of my most chilling experiences. I'll be trying to figure out if something--trying to find a fact to support an argument I'm making, or an opinion, and I'll start googling around and I'm looking for some--just like an insight that'll support what I think is true. And, instead of finding something convincing, I find something I wrote 12 years ago, and I thought, 'Well, that's not reliable. I wrote that.'
Has it ever happened to you?
Jonathan Rauch: I don't know.
Russ Roberts: Okay. Anyway. Let's close and talk about what might reverse some of the degradation and destruction of the Constitution of Knowledge that the Internet has wrought. The book has a lot on trolling, the outrage, what I call the outrage epidemic, and I've talked about it here. There's a lot--there's the book: The Constitution of Knowledege--
Jonathan Rauch: There's the book.--
Russ Roberts: Yeah. The book. By Jonathan Rauch. Available where all fine books are sold.
But, you also talk a lot about cancel culture, you know, we didn't spend much time on it here. But, those are all being driven by social media and opportunities on the Internet, to--I like how you quote someone saying, 'Everybody is in a book club': you're the book, and they're panning you or criticizing you. I like to think of it as someone can go around and put a bumper sticker on your car that you drive around with, that you didn't choose to put there.
So, that's really disturbing. What do you think we might do about that? What might make that better?
Jonathan Rauch: Well, the first thing to say--
Russ Roberts: And, why are you hopeful? I mean, come on!
Jonathan Rauch: Yeah. It's so much more fun to be pessimistic.
I'm hopeful because optimism is too complacent. The idea that these problems just all go away if we wait them out: that's not true.
If we don't defend the constitution of knowledge and redesign some of our personal expectations and behaviors, as you just said, and also some of our institutions and organizations, then it's not clear we keep the constitution of knowledge.
It's what Ben Franklin famously said when asked: What form of government the Constitutional Convention had produced? He said, 'A Republic, if you can keep it.'
So, optimism is too complacent, but pessimism is too fatalistic, and in between is hope. And, that means that people who are serious, who put their minds to it, to defending and understanding these institutions, I believe, will be able to do so. But, we've got to do the work. So, what does the work consist of?
There's--a hard thing about explaining this book, Russ, is that there's not a three-point bullet list. It's going to involve fixing a lot of incentives, and a lot of structures, and a lot of institutions, and no two will like quite alike.
So, with Facebook, I am very keen on the oversight board experiment, because that's exactly the kind of thing that worked for journalism 100 years ago.
You start trying to see if you can develop some guidelines, some guardrails, some norms and principles. And, then, if they're pro-social, if they begin to work and improve the social media environment, then maybe others in social media will opt in, and say, 'Okay, that's a better way to do it. It's actually more attractive to our customers. It's actually better for the business model.' Do we know that it will succeed? No. Do we know that it's moving--that it's trying the right kind of thing? Yeah. I think so.
And, social media, so-called platforms--I call them companies--it's going to mean a lot of technical tweaks behind the scenes in terms of what their algorithms do. Right now they promote a lot of stuff that's false because it gets eyeballs, but that's creating a toxic environment. There are a lot of really good minds trying to figure out how to do that.
Or how to create private algorithm systems. So I can go buy an algorithm and plug it into Facebook or Twitter, and get a feed that I think is going to be more truthful and reliable.
All kinds of ideas there. Twitter is implementing stuff that seems small; but, again, you're in the world of incentives, and you understand that a series of fairly small incentives can dramatically change behavior.
So, for example, yesterday, I tried to tweet out one of my own articles, and I was interrupted by a splash screen that said, 'Are you sure you want to tweet this without reading it first?' Well, I did because I'd written it. But--
Russ Roberts: [chuckling] I've seen that--
Jonathan Rauch: But, that's an effort to get people to stop and think, and use their slow brain instead of their fast brain. And, there's lots of efforts to do stuff like that. And, there's going to be policy changes. But it's going to be about--there's going to be top-down stuff like that where these institutions and organizations begin to try to build in better structures and incentives.
And, then, there's the bottom-up stuff. And, those are the things that you and I can do. And, that's what you just referred to earlier, Russ, which is why I'm so glad you said what you said. That's, 'Am I going to retweet fake stuff just because it's fun? Am I going to take the burden of actually checking, for example, whether something is true? Am I going to join in on a trolling campaign or a cancel [inaudible 00:57:32]? Or, am I going to actually say, 'No. This is wrong. I'm going to stay way from this.' Am I going to stay strictly accurate in what I teach in my classroom?' Even when I tweet something I, personally, I try to check it. I try to make sure it's accurate. And, I think that's the social norm that if individuals pursue that, we're not, certainly not, the best gauge of accuracy but it turns out, actually, that if you change incentives a little, and you just prime people to consider accuracy when they're doing a social media post, actual experiments find that they do it better. And, all you really have to do is prime them to care about accuracy with a statement like, 'Accuracy. You agree or disagree, accuracy really matters, is important in life.'
So, it's going to be top-down; it's going to be bottom-up; but it's got to be kind of an all-of-society, multi-layered response. The bad news is that's really hard. The good news is we've done it before. The good news is markets are based on all kinds of incentives like that. The constitution of knowledge is, too. We can't be complacent but we also shouldn't assume that it's an impossible job.
Russ Roberts: I'll just close with a crazy idea, and let you react to it, which is: I don't think the Internet was designed to destroy journalism or anything. It just happened. It's an outcome. And, I wonder sometimes whether it's not just--it's not a vehicle for--I have to say it: Most of the internet I love. I think it's fabulous. I don't want to--I love Twitter. There's a lot of things I don't like about Twitter, things I don't like about the internet but it's an extraordinary thing, and I do have your hope that like many other innovations that we struggle with at first, we will figure out the norms and institutions that'll make it better.
Maybe even the regulation. It's not my first choice but it could be true--because I don't have any final say here. But, I'm believing the Fallibilist principle.
But, I do think there's an interesting aspect to this, that you do talk about in the book, and we've talked about many times here, which is tribalism. And, you could argue that what the internet's really been good for is tribalism: a way to feel that you belong to something, whether it's through virtue signaling or ganging up on someone; and especially anonymously, as you point out. It's part of their problem.
I wonder if we might think of some other ways to indulge our tribalism. As religion is on the wane throughout the world, certainly in America, that was one way that we felt we belonged, was through our religious life. Some people still have that, but the number's getting smaller. Maybe we could find other ways to feel connected to each other. Certainly, the internet has the potential to do that in ways that are not outrage-driven, not just virtue signaling.
So, that's my area of hope.
Jonathan Rauch: Well, there's nothing crazy or strange about that. It's a beautiful statement of the walk we've somehow got to walk. And, that's making, not just the internet, but the constitution of knowledge and markets and democracy itself--figuring out ways to adapt that so that people feel it's responsive to their lives so they don't look for illiberal and dangerous and sociopathic alternatives. And, to find ways to deter people from, and organizations from, presenting sociopathic alternatives. And, that's been a problem for every society since Plato's Republic.
Plato got the wrong answer, which is a totalitarian, top-down, very hierarchical system. And, we know that doesn't work. We know that what does work, when we can do it, is trying to create a form of liberalism which provides a lot of good things to people but doesn't try to provide everything, and leaves strong realms of civic society, family, faith, and all the other goods of life that science can't provide, journalism can't provide, government can't provide. You've got to have that part going, too.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Jonathan Rauch. His book is The Constitution of Knowledge. Jonathan, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Jonathan Rauch: Thank you for having me. And, don't forget, go look for the book available at fine bookstores everywhere. Thank you so much, Russ. It's been a pleasure.
Russ Roberts: You're welcome.