Jun 28, 2021Liked by Jonathan Rauch

Jonathan - thank you for this wonderful piece. Just bought your book. I'm very glad that Persuasion exists as a place to support such writing. Keep up the good work.

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You say: "No final say” insists that to be knowledge, a statement must be checked.

It follows then that the fact that I hate the taste of over-cooked peas is not knowledge.

Now that is true according to your definition of knowledge, but that shows that your definition is not the common definition. Now I agree that you get to define the words you use.

But it is common practice in math and science (both of which routinely redefine common words) to warn people that they are changing the definition on us. (See the definitions of charm, color, flavor, and strangeness used by particle physicists. Or "open" and "closed" used in math.)

It's also considered polite not to use personal definitions when there is no need to (as the woke so often do). So I would suggest that you use the term "scientific knowledge" or "checkable knowledge" and leave the term "knowledge" to its common meaning. That way we don't need to argue over whether or not I know I don't like over-cooked peas. I say I know that. You say I don't. A pretty silly argument, but I think many people would side with me -- because that's the common English definition of "know" and they trust me on over-cooked peas.

Why does that matter? Because we are in the midst of a huge political fight, which you discuss -- Some say I know that hearing the sound of the word "nigger" affects me just like physical violence. And some say that is not knowledge. That's no different epistemologically than the question of over-cooked peas.

Of course, you could insist that your definition of "knowledge" is known to be the true definition, but I don't think that's checkable. So you would be trapped in self-contradiction.

So I'm not convinced you have really solved that problem, which is too bad because it's an important one.

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How do we go about mitigating the profit motive in the Constitution of Knowledge? How do we prevent an entity from putting their thumb on the scale at the marketplace of ideas?

The social network is ripe for incentivization. Upton Sinclair put it like this: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it." That difficulty increases when "salary" is defined in a broader modern-day sense, in which subscribers and followers are a coveted currency in the flourishing influencer market. Clicks and shares are the gold standard of the digital exchange rate. As long as selling people a bill of goods made of whole cloth remains profitable, performance capitalists will remain riveted to giving them whatever reality they want.

Returning to my question of mitigating the profit motive, I wonder if one solution might be a kind-of "Consumer Reports" outfit. By that I mean a cooperative enterprise dealing in good faith that assesses the level of fulfillment a Reality™ brings. That assessment would explore why-when-where a manufactured vehicle of truth brings satisfaction, and point out any potential hazards that would impact the quality of life of a passenger riding inside the vehicle of truth.

UPDATE: my wife just read the last paragraph and said, "Why do you need a cooperative? That's what family and friends and co-workers are for." She makes an excellent point. Let's hope the relaxation of pandemic rules leads to more interpersonal interaction and less reinforced tribalism.

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Knowledge is best viewed as a shared ecosystem or collection of many ecosystems. It is evolving organically, not mechanistically. Rules and institutional roles are important ways to describe and understand the relationships, and values inform the various perspectives that can help guide how knowledge is shared and used, but the corpus of knowledge develops independently of our ability to control it. "The more I learn, the less I know" is an aphorism I use to describe the Zen of Knowledge.

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