Before Trump was in the White House, Harry Reid was in the Senate. In 2012, while the Nevada Democrat was majority leader, he brassily said during the presidential campaign that the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, had paid no taxes for a decade. This was wildly, demonstrably untrue: Romney, unlike the Republicans’ nominee four years later, did not hide his tax returns. Reid, however, remained proud as punch of his accusation when, three years later, he was asked why he still defended it: “Romney didn’t win, did he?”
Although 2018 has 2½ more months in which to provide redundant evidence against belief in progress, it is not too soon to award the trophy for the year’s most cogent distillation of urgently needed thinking. It is this: “We don’t mail Elvis a Social Security check, no matter how many people think he is alive.” No. Matter. How. Many.
This apercu comes from the Brookings Institution’s Jonathan Rauch. His essay, titled “The Constitution of Knowledge,” in National Affairs quarterly is his response to Trump’s guiding principle, as stated by Stephen K. Bannon, whose body but not whose mentality has 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” and outsourced it to no one in particular. It was given over to “a decentralized, globe-spanning community of critical testers who hunt for each other’s errors.” This is why today’s foremost enemy of modernity is populism, which cannot abide the idea that majorities are not self-validating, and neither are intense minorities (e.g., the “Elvis lives” cohort). 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 many” are in it.
“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. Disparagement is the default position of all levelers.
Rauch surely knows that he stands on the shoulders of Friedrich Hayek. Hayek 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” (e.g., Russia’s Internet Research Agency and Trump’s Twitter account), 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 is not trustworthy.” Imposing opinions and promoting political agendas, many academics have descended to trolling, forfeiting their ability to contest he whom they emulate.