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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 190

Jonathan Rauch — The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth

The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth (book cover)

Disinformation. Trolling. Conspiracies. Social media pile-ons. Campus intolerance. On the surface, these recent additions to our daily vocabulary appear to have little in common. But together, they are driving an epistemic crisis: a multi-front challenge to America’s ability to distinguish fact from fiction and elevate truth above falsehood.

In 2016 Russian trolls and bots nearly drowned the truth in a flood of fake news and conspiracy theories, and Donald Trump and his troll armies continued to do the same. Social media companies struggled to keep up with a flood of falsehoods, and too often didn’t even seem to try. Experts and some public officials began wondering if society was losing its grip on truth itself. Meanwhile, another new phenomenon appeared: “cancel culture.” At the push of a button, those armed with a cellphone could gang up by the thousands on anyone who ran afoul of their sanctimony.

In this pathbreaking book, Jonathan Rauch reaches back to the parallel eighteenth-century developments of liberal democracy and science to explain what he calls the “Constitution of Knowledge” — our social system for turning disagreement into truth. By explicating the Constitution of Knowledge and probing the war on reality, Rauch arms defenders of truth with a clearer understanding of what they must protect, why they must do — and how they can do it. His book is a sweeping and readable description of how every American can help defend objective truth and free inquiry from threats as far away as Russia and as close as the cellphone.

Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow in the Governance Studies program at the Brookings Institution and a contributing writer of The Atlantic. His previous books include Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, and Gay Marriage: Why It is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America. Rauch resides in Washington, DC.

Shermer and Rauch discuss:

  • What has changed since his book Kindly Inquisitors was published in 1993
  • What is the “constitution of knowledge”?
  • How do we validate knowledge?
  • free speech and hate speech,
  • words as violence,
  • What about fraud, libel, perjury, blackmail, espionage?
  • liberal and conservative attitudes toward free speech and how they shifted,
  • private vs. public speech, government censorship vs. cancel culture,
  • social media companies: did they alter the 2016 and 2020 elections?
  • Frank Zappa on censorship and conservatives,
  • liberalism vs. illiberalism,
  • enlightenment humanism vs. theism/authoritarianism/anti-humanism,
  • political correctness,
  • cancel culture,
  • identity politics,
  • pluralistic ignorance and the spiral of silence,
  • how we reverse the illiberal trend working against the constitution of knowledge, and
  • how to talk to someone who believes weird things.

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Retrospective

Skeptic cover art by Pat Linse

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If humans came from apes, why aren’t apes evolving into humans? Find out in this pamphlet!

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