Note: This is an unedited rush transcript. Please check any quotations against the audio recording.
Nico Perrino: Welcome back to So to Speak, the free speech podcast where every other week we take an uncensored look at the world of free expression through personal stories and candid conversations. I am, as always, your host Nico Perrino. We have an exciting podcast and livestream video for you all today. We’re going to be discussing The Constitution of Knowledge, A Defense of Truth which is Jonathan Rauch, his fourth coming book. When is it due out, Jonathan?
Jonathan Rauch: June 22nd
Nico: Very exciting.
Greg Lukianoff: There’s still time to preorder.
Jonathan: Mark your calendars. Yeah, the hardcopy showed up the other day.
Greg: Woo hoo.
Jonathan: There it is, back from the printer.
Greg: That’s gorgeous.
Nico: I’ve got the collector’s edition uncorrected page proofs. We’re also here, of course, with Greg Lukionoff, he is the president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education, Fire, our regular guest here on So to Speak.
Greg: Hi interwebs. I didn’t realize you were gonna be able to see me from the bottom down so I wore my cargo shorts. But I realize, you know what, I’m a Gen-Xer and I’m a dad and I’m gonna live my truth.
Nico: Well, this is the first day that the conference rooms in our office are open so we figure we’d make use of it. But that also means that we get a wider shot and get to see Greg’s shorts, so.
Jonathan: Well, I dressed up for the occasion but now I feel, at 61 years old, that I actually am.
Nico: I intended to dress up but then I realized that all of my shirts with collars just needed to go to the dry cleaners because I haven’t gone out into public in a year or whatever it’s been.
Jonathan: Right, moths fly outta that closet.
Nico: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Also, my wife was asleep when I woke up this morning so I couldn’t see into the closet. We’ll use that excuse too but let’s get into it. Jonathan, you were the first guest on this podcast almost five years ago.
Jonathan: I know. Incredibly, it seems like a different era.
Nico: Yeah, and we were discussing your book Kindly Inquisitors, now we’re discussing The Constitution of Knowledge, let’s just start. What is the constitution of knowledge?
Jonathan: So, this is the system of norms and institutions that we, all of us, rely on to keep us as a society collectively moored to reality as opposed to unmoored to reality. There are two or three big concepts underlined in this book. And the first of them, maybe the most important, is it’s not the marketplace of ideas, it’s the constitution of knowledge. It turns out free speech is essential, it’s important, I’ll be a lifelong advocate, but it’s not enough to make knowledge because humans are inherently biased and we don’t see our biases. And the only way to turn our views into knowledge is not just to speak, because then you get a cacophony, you get people following each other down rabbit holes of conformism and conformation bias. You have to have a structured social conversation, negotiation, and that takes a lot of work, it takes a lot of settings.
It takes building institutions like courts and law enforcement and scientific organizations and academia and news rooms and all of this stuff that we rely on to turn these conversations in productive directions. And then the second big idea of the book is all of that is what’s coming under attack right now in an unprecedented way from cancel culture and trolling and disinformation and other enemies that you and I weren’t even talking about five years ago.
Nico: Yeah, let’s put some color on that. You have this great paragraph in the book. You say, “Consider a shaggy-haired man furiously scribbling equations and theories in his room in Bern Switzerland. Perhaps he is Albert Einstein discovering new truths which will rearrange the whole universe, or perhaps he is a mad man writing gibberish. Either way, he thinks he is a genius doing great science. Even in principle, however, he is not doing science as long as he works alone.” Can you explain that?
Jonathan: Yeah. You know, we tend to think that where knowledge comes from, objective reality, is us thinking well. And that’s true, it’s important, you know, to be logical and sensible but that’s not where reality comes from. The great breakthrough in western society that allows, for example, the shot that I got in my left shoulder is protecting me from COVID right now isn’t from individuals thinking well, it’s from creating this constitution of knowledge, this social process where we outsource our ideas of reality to this vast social network of literally, any given day, millions, tens, maybe hundreds of millions of people looking for each other’s mistakes in a structured way. So, that’s where scientific knowledge comes from. A person alone in a room, you know, that could be a mad man, it could be Einstein, but it’s only when other people acquire those ideas, start to test them, to debate them in an impersonal way that’s crucial, and in a non-coercive way that’s also crucial.
That’s where you actually look at those ideas, evaluate them, refine them, decide to send them on to other nodes in the network. What comes outta that network at the other end, that’s our knowledge.
Nico: Is that not sort of a marketplace though? I mean, the idea that you take your goods, your ideas, so to speak, and put them into the marketplace for either people to purchase or not purchase. I know you say this isn’t about the marketplace of ideas and freedom of speech is important, but it is kind of like that, right?
Jonathan: Yeah, it is kind of like that.
Nico: And I know Greg’s very critical of the marketplace of ideas, idea in general.
Jonathan: You know, actually I –
Nico: Necessary but not sufficient.
Jonathan: Yeah, necessary but not sufficient, that’s exactly right. I love the metaphor as far as it goes, but here’s the problem. The marketplace of ideas metaphor makes it sounds like you’ve got this abstract world where ideas are clashing, where people are trading ideas as individuals. And the problem with that is it doesn’t prepare us for the attacks that we’re facing now because those attacks are not based on abstract conceptions of ideas somehow clashing out there. They’re based on the real world where it’s important, for example, that you have organizations like the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that are actually systematically doing the hard work of comparing in rigorous organized ways according to rules. And that’s what people like Donald Trump, you know, when he changes the weather forecast, that’s what those guys are attacking. So, the notion that somehow the marketplace of ideas is that it all takes care of itself. You have freedom, that’s enough, the good stuff will happen automatically. The attackers right now all recognize that’s not the case and that they can disrupt all of these mechanisms in the middle, all of these things like courts of law and government agencies and academia you’re dealing with, your bailiwick. If they can disrupt all of that, they can game it, they can manipulate it, they can organize it for political gain, and that what they’re doing. The marketplace of ideas doesn’t really help you with that because it kind of assumes well, you know, we’ll all just talk and more speech will be better speech.
Nico: Yeah. Is this marketplace of knowledge new? I mean, or is this always existed and we’ve just kind of formalized it more recently. You talk about medicine in your book and the development of medicine. It’s probably a good place to kind of explain how the constitution of knowledge develops within any given sphere, right?
Jonathan: Yeah, the ideas go back to the mid-1600s and John Locke, our old friend, who’s actually the founder of both, at the stemic liberalism meaning, the constitution of knowledge where we get knowledge, and also political liberals from our constitutional structure. So, no coincidence that they line up in a lot of ways. But the actual, what I call the reality-based community, which is all of us who are in a day-to-day way participating in making knowledge that’s law and government and journalism and especially research, science, academia, all of that is more recent and it grows up basically mostly over the last 200 years. And yeah, medicine is a good example because for many centuries we had medical ideas, but we had no way to systematically turn those into knowledge, right, and figure out, so what are actually best practices? What works and what doesn’t?
And it’s only actually been over 100 years ago in the 19th century that you begin to systemize that by getting a medical community, organizations like the AMA, research universities that began doing controlled experiments, journals that began publishing those experiments, regulations that began saying you have to pass certain tests in order to get medication. It’s only then that you bring these various kind of home remedies and random cures that people are using into direct contestation. You begin to weigh them, you begin to say, “Well, okay, this works, penicillin really works.” Where, you know, alligator tonics don’t work. And you see that replicated all across the spectrum. You see it in my field which is journalism. Nineteenth century journalism in the U.S. was just absolutely written with extreme partisanship and fake news.
Jonathan: Gossip arguably started the Spanish-American war just for circulation.
Jonathan: And that was changed by people making deliberate choices just over a hundred years ago to set up The American Society of Newspaper Editors which propagated ethics standards, journalism schools, which began to train people, better and worst ways of doing things, you know, second sourcing, checking back for comments, running timely corrections. And you began to get structured newsrooms that were organized around these conventions of okay, “We’re gonna stay truthful and here’s how we’re gonna do it.” That’s not just sort of the marketplace of ideas spontaneously arising, these are actual human beings who make these social decisions to create the reality-based community and that’s what we’re defending and that’s what you’re defending.
Nico: Yeah, essentially institutions, Greg, I know you’re a big fan of this book. You were one of the early readers of it, Jonathan gives you a shout out at the end. What most stuck out to you about the book? I kinda wanna ask too about your thought about institutions and how they play into Europe because I know you’re also very into, what was it, Martin Gurri’s book?
Greg: Yeah, Revolt of the Public.
Nico: Yeah, Revolt of the Public. So, you know, what are your thoughts? Why do you find this book so good?
Greg: Oh, wow. I mean, I think I’ve been very clear about it, I think it’s the most important book of 2021.
Nico: And he’s got the hardcopy version, so.
Greg: I got the hardcopy. I think that, you know, I’m such a huge fan of Kindly Inquisitors and this feels like a follow up, but it takes it kind of to the next level. It also does a great thing of combining some of the best practices of sort of popular nonfiction by connecting it in an entertaining way to what’s currently going on but also is intellectually extremely deep. And I think just the whole – people really underestimate how difficult it is to know the world as it actually is. And that’s one of the things that I thought reconceptualizing, you know, the enlightenment as, I don’t know who came up with this term, but you’ve all heard who writes about it and homo and sapiens, the discovery of ignorance. That essentially, that was actually the revolution, was realizing that our intuitions are wrong when we start testing things, the world looks nothing like we actually thought. And what we’re currently seeing, at the moment, all over the political spectrum are people who are insisting that their preferences, you know, be true and it’s really dangerous when it comes from the right.
And what I’m seeing in, you know, journals in academia, they’re not understanding what they’re messing with. If they try to make academia more activist or make journalism more activist, the end result is people won’t trust those epistemic institutions. And in situations where you don’t trust epistemic institutions, that’s where you get, you know, explosions. Not that you don’t have these under other circumstances, but you get the explosions of hoaxes and conspiracy theories and all sorts of stuff. And I think that, you know, Jon is shining a light on how sophisticated the arduous process with knowing the world that simply is actually is and how essential it is to our society. So, I think this is, I guess, this is extraordinary work.
Nico: When you talk about the corrosion of institutions, you mention Kindly Inquisitors and Jonathan, one of the first questions I had when starting to read this book was this reads a lot like Kindly Inquisitors, and then you get on and you realize well, how it’s different. You write in the book, “Over the years, I came to believe that the framework of Kindly Inquisitors could be strengthened by paying more attention to the institutional and communitarian foundations of collective inquiry.” Greg, to get back what you were saying about institutions and the lack of trust in institutions, have we seen any of that in COVID and how has that effected the constitution of knowledge at least within medicine?
Greg: Oh, I think it’s been a terrible year for trusting experts. I think that, you know, I talk about the different sort of rhetorical fortresses that people have, and I think that there is like one that comes out of academia that I’ve dubbed the perfect rhetorical fortress, and I think the conservative equivalent of that is something I call the efficient rhetorical fortress, which basically just means you’re off the hook for, you don’t have to listen to liberals, you don’t have to listen to experts, and you don’t have to listen to journalists. And bravo, you’ve gotten to 85 percent of everything you actually need to know. But the thing that makes my job harder when I advocate for these kinds of things, is when experts start believing that they can lie to people for their own good. And you saw a fair amount of this during COVID, at least the best I could tell, where, you know, at first with the mask thing, saying that the mask don’t actually protect you or anybody else but we desperately need them for nurses and doctors. That was, in my opinion, a disaster for expertise because they should have just been straight with people.
Like, listen, we’re trying to keep these, they are effective, but please, you know, keep these for our doctors. Trying to lie for their own good was a bad mistake. Then, of course, you know, Megan McArdle pointed this out –
Nico: Washington Post columnist, yeah.
Greg: Yeah, and I think a lot of other people made this observation. Having experts, you know, doctors come out and say, you know, you should avoid COVID and you should avoid crowded places except for Black Lives Matter protest. It’s like no, that’s undermining your own credibility. Like, every time this happens you start adding to the accuracy of being skeptical of experts and all this kind of stuff. And I think we erode that trust to our great, great peril.
Nico: Yeah, and we kinda see that in the due process conversation on campus, right? You know, you see these activists trying to take shortcuts around the fact-finding process which is, you know, to discover the truth of any allegation and, as a result, people just lose trust in the process.
Nico: Because they think the results are foreordained. Jonathan, The Constitution of Knowledge is a comparison of sorts to the United States Constitution, right?
Jonathan: Not of sorts.
Nico: You spend a lot of time comparing that.
Jonathan: It’s very direct.
Jonathan: It’s not just a metaphor, it’s not just a simile, it’s actually a lot of very direct parallels and how both of these constitutions, the ones written and ones not, organize social cooperation and negotiation in a non-coercive constructive way, which is incredibly hard to do. Sorry to interrupt.
Nico: No, no, that’s the question is how are they similar? And, you know, I’m thinking they kind of came up at the same time. We think about the liberal systems and liberal science, we go back to Kindly Inquisitors, you think about how we organize our truth finding processes through the constitution of knowledge, you think about market capitalism, and then you think about democracy.
Jonathan: The big three.
Nico: Yeah, and all of them came up in the enlightenment, right?
Jonathan: And they’re all grounded in the same fantastically profound important but also counterintuitive and hard to defend propositions, which is that the safest most efficient and the most reliable way to make social decisions is to put no one in particular in charge to outsource to some of these networks of impersonal rules. So that’s what we do with markets where we have lots of exchange going on. There’s lots of institutions in there in the middle. It’s also what we do with politics. No one person is in a position to run the whole government, at least not for more than short stretches.
Nico: And this is to eliminate biases, right?
Jonathan: Yeah, and this it’s also to make sure that no one faction can seize control. The typical way of – so every society, small or large, has to deal with disagreement, and they have to deal with reality. They have to figure out how to come to some sort of account as a society what’s true and what’s false. Not on every little thing but, you know, even the travel society they’re gonna come to common beliefs, for example, about religious practices, about how they’re gonna deal with the weather, migration, all kinds of things like that. It’s important for them to stay moored for reality but that’s hard to do because human beings look to each other to decide what to believe and that leads to distortions. And we look for beliefs that confirm our biases, that confirm our identities, and that support our standing in the group. And that can lead whole societies into rabbit holes of unreality and then they split into sects and then the sects go to war. And they settle disputes about reality by going to war, that was the 30 years war, about maybe a third of the population of Germany might have been killed. Or they go to authoritarianism, the standard way of doing it, which is some authority, a priest or a pope or a prince decides what’s true. So, the liberal revolution, and what you guys, and we are all defending in Fire, is a very different way of doing it. It’s saying, well, wait a minute, let’s create a set of impersonal rules in which no one has special advantages and no one has coercive power and then you guys are all gonna have to persuade each other.
And politics, it means you’re gonna have to compromise to get stuff done, whether you like it or not. But that will be a dynamic force because the compromise process will introduce new ideas and new players and actually better solutions than either side would have had. Same with knowledge. If I have a proposition and I wanna get it taught in the textbooks, get it established, I’m gonna have to get it published, it’s gonna go through multiple levels of review, I’ll have to persuade people around the world in a variety of disciplines, and only after it’s been through that process, does it get in a textbook, and that’s what Fire is defending.
Nico: Well, that attackers on it, you would think, and, you know, I’m sure I attack the constitution of knowledge with my biases all the time, but you would think just from a pure self-preservation standpoint, that you use the constitution of knowledge to determine action at some point in the chain, that you would see more support for it because it makes your life better, it makes your life easier or is there something about applying the constitution of knowledge to large groups and societies? For example, I think in the book you use, “If you unmoor yourself from truth or from knowledge in the Savannah, you might get eaten by a lion” or something, right? Like, the connection between discovering where the lion is and getting eaten by it, there’s a lot of skin in the game, right?
Nico: There’s less skin in the game, perhaps, and when you’re thinking about whether to believe this or that piece of journalism or the CDC, but at the same time, not believing them seems to have significant consequences although they might be two or three steps removed. It might be the burgeoning of a global pandemic that then gets back to your –
Jonathan: Yeah. So, that’s the problem. This has been called the epistemic tragedy to the common – sorry, lots of jargon thrown at you. I know Greg doesn’t mind. But suppose I decided to believe in QAnon, that will, apart from the friends I might lose, that will have no particularly negative impact on my life because it doesn’t really matter if I think that Hilary Clinton is leading a pedophile ring of Democrats and maybe choose that they’re kidnapping and killing children. I’ll believe that. But if that’s good for my ego, or if it lets me feel like I’m initiated into some network of people who know better, or it’s getting me new friends online, I’m feeling an improvement in my life, not a disimprovement.
I mean, this is way more fun and way more energizing and motivating than believing difficult stuff that’s really complicated about politics. The problem is if a lot of people make that same self-oriented decision and start going that epistemic route, whole societies begin to break apart, they lose touch with reality, and you get into a world where 75 percent of Republicans believe completely falsely, completely falsely that the election was stolen in 2020. And that is a direct threat, that’s an epistemic threat to maintaining our political order.
Greg: That scares the hell outta me.
Jonathan: Yeah, and so I mention the first big lesson of the book, it’s not just a marketplace of ideas, it’s a constitution of knowledge. Here’s the second, you’re being manipulated. What’s going on here is not just people kinda wondering off the reservation. It’s not just a generalized sort of environmental reduction in faith and institutions, something I don’t know that Gurri and others are well enough aware of, this is a deliberate, systematic, very sophisticated disinformation attack on the institutions, norms, and practices that keep us moored to reality. This is Donald Trump and his allies and people in cancel culture, especially on campus, the people you are dealing with, these are activists, they’re operating in an organized, sophisticated way to deliberately unmoor us from reality for political gain.
Because once you detach people from reality, ask a Soviet propagandist, you open them to demagoguery, to deceit, they become cynical, they become demoralized, immobilized, all of these things that make it easier to control the political environment, and that’s what we re seeing now.
Jonathan: This is not happening accidentally.
Nico: This is Peter Pomerantsev’s, Nothing is True and Everything is Possible.
Nico: And I know you interview him in the book but –
Greg: I have to read.
Nico: Yeah, I mean, he’s fantastic and that book was written before 2016. You write that, “Old style censorship is expensive and efficient and leaky, especially in open society like America, suppose instead of smothering on welcome ideas, you swamp and swarm them, essentially covering them in shit.”
Jonathan: Yeah. It’s called the firehose of falsehood. It’s a tactic that the Russians have perfected.
Greg: Hey, not all Russians.
Jonathan: Not all of them. Donald trump, I believe is the greatest propaganda innovator since maybe Goebbels. I think he’s of that stature. People say, well, you know, the guys a buffoon thank goodness he couldn’t really do much. The realm of information warfare, he’s better than Putin. Because he figured out how to take these Russian style propaganda tactics like, as his aide, Stephen Bannon said, “Flooding the zone with shit, just drowning out good information by swamping it with lies.” In his 2016 campaign PolitiFact found that 70 percent of his checkable claims were false. Think about that. Seventy percent of what the guy was saying was false. That’s not like trying to persuade people of particular lies, that’s swamping them in so much bullshit that they won’t know which end is up.
Nico: But my conservative friends would respond, and perhaps this proves your point, that PolitiFact is just a liberal left wing fact checker employed by Facebook to censor them on social media.
Jonathan: And that’s exactly the goal.
Jonathan: Create cynicism, mistrust, make people think that mainstream media is just another racket. So, the only other person you can trust is Donald Trump, as he will tell you.
Nico: Greg, it sounds like you have a thought.
Greg: Oh, no, no. I remember it was something like PolitiFact got something horribly wrong though and it got me so sad. Because I’m kinda like even the checkers, you know, need checking.
Jonathan: Of course.
Greg: It seems there’s so much giving up going on on both sides on both extremes, you know, at the moment.
Jonathan: Giving up meaning?
Greg: Giving up on truth. Giving up on the idea that truth really matters, it’s about political motivation. And I mean, honestly, this also ties in Coddling the American Mind, you know.
Jonathan: Oh, yeah, sure. But even if it feels good and even if it –
Greg: Or if they think it’s gonna be politically useful. Like one of the things is that I actually have moved to being kind of open about, the fact that actually makes me angry, that if we know this many students are coming and are already anxious and depressed, the idea that we would fill their heads with an ideology that’s essentially hopeless, but the goal is to get them to act in a particular and political way more than anything else is cruel. And, yes, and I’m pretty overwhelmed by the changes we’ve seen just in the last 10 years and, at the moment, not feeling super optimistic. What do you think the long term look like?
Jonathan: Well, just a small point is I wanna make a defense of PolitiFact. The Washington post fact checking team, yeah, of course they get some wrong, they will infuriate you. But notice the reason they’re infuriating you is that they spell it out, and they show their work, and they tell you what their sources are, and put you in a position to say, “that’s the totally wrong conclusion.”
Jonathan: Everything there is not made up. Unmoor from reality, the citations are going to be real and it’s like, you know, you read a bad academic paper. But if it’s playing by the rules, it won’t be using fake data.
Jonathan: And that’s the distinction here. You can disagree with PolitiFact and you can say they got that one wrong, and journalists get it wrong all the time. But the key to the reality-based community, the great innovation that put this vaccine in my arm a month ago so I can be sitting in this room with you, is not that it doesn’t make mistakes, it’s that it makes them incredibly quickly. And then it corrects them incredibly quickly and it does that by making sure that the price of being wrong is not that you lose your job or your reputation or your life, it’s that you lose the argument, and we all move on. So, this brings us on what you were talking about and what I think is the core of Fire’s mission, and maybe, if I may Nico, what I think is the most directly relevant part of the book to what you guys are doing, which is the only way this era correcting mechanism works, inside or outside of academia, is if you have lots of viewpoint diversity.
You’ve gotta have pluralism because we can’t see our biases and if we only talk to other people who share our biases, all we’ll get is a distortion of reality. It will just be in an echo chamber confirming each other. So, what do you do if you wanna disrupt the scientific process in ways that steer it politically, that dominate politically? Well, it turns out you can game the environment by coercing people socially. If they’re afraid – one whole side of the argument is afraid to speak up, or one whole side of the argument isn’t even represented in a particular say, department on campus, you’re gonna get a distorted, manipulated reality in which only one side will be heard and that side will be able to dominate politically and that will be their goal.
And I worry, as you see in the book, I worry a lot about that environment increasingly growing on campus, and that’s why I think Fire’s work, you know, you think of yourselves as you should as a free speech group, as a liberty-based organization, you guys are also a science organization. You are defending the norms and practices that make it possible to gather knowledge and that gives university credibility in seeking knowledge by defending intellectual pluralism and by trying to keep the dialogue open and prevent this kind of information more for its kind of dominance.
Nico: Yeah. Yeah, I think you are kind of tipping your hat to the idea of cancel culture there?
Jonathan: Yeah. Yeah.
Nico: The idea of cancel culture really entered the public consciousness in the summer of 2020 last year, though it existed long before that. Jon Ronson had written his book, We Addressed It, and Can We Take a Joke? the movie, and a bulk of the last half of your book deals with cancel culture, and if I’m reading the book correctly, you started the book in 2018?
Nico: Was cancel culture always something you kinda wanted to fit into the argument or do you just see the trend emerging and said this is a threat?
Jonathan: Yeah, yeah, I saw the trend emerging. We didn’t have the word cancel culture when I started this book. We had call out culture.
Jonathan: Which is how Jon Haidt used to refer to it.
Jonathan: And even that was new. I kind of had to write it in as I was going along. So, yeah, it came up gradually. So, the inside of this book that I think is new and might be helpful, is to understand that what we call cancel culture, although it’s not new, it’s in fact very old, it’s an age-old form of propaganda.
Jonathan: It’s now operating at a much higher level of capacity than it did in the past because of social media which make it much more efficient. But we need to think about it as not just random people being mean to each other online, or not just a bunch of, I don’t know, extreme activists who are acting out. We need to think of this as targeted information warfare. It’s about groups with particular ideologies on campus and off using social coercion to manipulate environments so that a lot of people are afraid to speak out. So, it turns out you can create what’s called a spiral of silence on campus, you see this all the time. People who, for example, think affirmative action are counterproductive are very reluctant to talk about that. But that means other people who think the same thing assume that they’re isolated, they become silent themselves, so you create this cascade, this spiral of silence. Well, one group which is, in fact, a minority on campus actually, in many cases, is able to dominate as if everyone agreed with them. That’s what they’re aiming for and they’re doing it on purpose.
Nico: This is like the “emperor has no clothes idea” spiral of science –
Jonathan: Yeah. Yeah.
Nico: It’s similar.
Jonathan: It’s very sophisticated, it’s not new. Tocqueville, in the 1830s came to America and said the biggest threat to democracy is people become afraid to speak out once they see the direction of public opinion. John Stuart Mill, warned against it in 1859, he said that, amazes me, but Mill said the biggest threat to liberty in England, at that time, was not from the government, it was from enforced social conformity that made the person genius, the eccentric, the person with a really out of the box view reluctant to pursue that or to voice that.
Greg: Yeah, and actually, of course, in the very famous 15th anniversary speech by Steve Hanker, he even talks about pluralistic ignorance. And yeah, it’s amazing how much we sort of depend on weirdos and oddballs and we can sort of like sing hymns to them later on and at the same time trying to cancel the ones that are actually –
Jonathan: Or just dissidence even if they’re not weird, you know. There’s nothing weird, for example, about arguing that, I don’t know, take any controversial proposition on campus. It may be black on black crime is a bigger problem than white on black. Police shootings are not all that important. I mean, believe that, disbelieve that as you like, but am I right to think that those propositions would be very hard to discuss on most major – at least elite American universities and that that’s lopping off a whole part of the conversation.
Jonathan: Which you have to be able to have in order to understand where the problem is that you need to solve.
Greg: I think it depends on the campus. But that’s one of the reasons while we’re really stepping up our data collection. And so far, it has, to a degree, confirm what we’ve experienced is that these kind of like heavy ideological presumptions against arguments are the strongest at the most believed schools.
Jonathan: Are they everywhere or only at the elite schools?
Greg: Oh, they’re everywhere it’s just a question of degree. But when I go to like a working-class school or where most people don’t come from elite backgrounds it tends to be a better environment for argument.
Jonathan: And if I’m right to understand what you’ve been saying recently and certainly what my interviews and research for the book confirmed, it’s at the source of this pressure has more from kind of official repression in the form of speech codes and those are still there in many cases, to unofficial repression in the form of peer pressure, ostracism, damage to reputation, worries about getting investigated –
Jonathan: Worries about generating complaints among students. Is that right?
Greg: I would say it’s both, and because what we saw what led to Coddling the American Mind was just watching this hit campus like a lightening bolt and it was just right at the end of 2013 through 2014. We just saw this – suddenly the students who were the best on free speech were suddenly the worst on free speech and they were going after their fellow students. But it ends up being complimented by the administration who has the biased related incident programs and all the stuff and sometimes will actually encourage, you know, student activism only in one direction.
Greg: So, it ends up creating this kind of –
Jonathan: And the student activists figured out how to game the system in order to start investigations or threaten them or use teacher evaluations –
Greg: Yeah, and then why bother?
Jonathan: And they realized at saying, “I’ve been traumatized” sets off a whole chain of consequences, and then right on cue, 2018, four years later, we begin to see it in the culture outside the university.
Jonathan: Is that the story?
Greg: That’s the way it seems to be working out. It’s funny because Haidt and I were kind of just like people kept on saying that these elite students were gonna graduate and the real world would change them. We’re like, no, no, no, no, they’re going to change the real world. And so far, unfortunately, from what we’re hearing from different corporations –
Jonathan: Yeah, I did not see that coming. I thought the real world would kick their ass.
Greg: I think in some cases it is and companies that are so reliant on elite institutions that they end up having sort of a critical mass of people from these particular schools, it ends up being dysfunctional. I mean, so much so, that Saturday Night Live has even managed to make fun of it, but let’s see how long that lasts.
Jonathan: The famous Star Trek skit.
Greg: The famous Star Trek skit.
Nico: Well, is the reason the real world hasn’t kicked their ass, so to speak, because they’ve highjacked the language and weaponized it in a way that prevents advocates of the constitution of knowledge or makes them uncomfortable advocating for the constitution of knowledge. For example, arguments towards racism, sexism, or other bigotry, you hate to be accused of that and as soon as you’re arguing that you’re not, you’re losing, you’re arguing from you’re heels. The other is the medicalization language, you know. As you said Jonathan, you know, this language is traumatizing. You’d point to the New York Times who published the Tom Cotton op-ed and I forget how the New York Times staffers responded in unison.
Jonathan: He said it made them unsafe.
Nico: Unsafe. How do you even respond? How do you advocate for the constitution of knowledge if the results of the constitution of knowledge “are making people unsafe?”
Jonathan: Which, of course, the reality-based community is about being unsafe because new ideas are always threatening and challenging. So, yeah, it’s both of those things. I mean, you guys have a probably a better feel than I do for what’s going on here. But yeah, number one a lot of these attacks – let’s give folks credit. The activists on campus are not snowflakes, they’re impassioned people who are making arguments that come from well-intentioned places including anti-racism, I think which is something we all support. We may disagree about how to define it, but that’s not something any of us wanna be on the wrong side of. We wanna pursue that social goal. And then the second thing is the culture we’re in now, we don’t like making people feel upset.
I’m gay. I can tell you that there’s, you know, a very serious downside to being in a world where people believe things that are false and harmful about you and you ingest that as a child. You know, that’s the whole story of my life. So, those two things are very compelling and then there’s a third thing which is really important. And this is where I think Fire’s work, especially its upcoming work is gonna be so important, which is you can’t over emphasize that one side of this argument came on very quickly and took everyone else by surprise. No one was prepared for this; they were all dismissing it or not taking it seriously.
Nico: What do you mean when you say one side of the argument, what do you mean? The tactics used by cancel culture?
Jonathan: I’m saying the pluralistic liberals, people who wanna defend free speech and especially intellectual pluralism and both the right and the positive need for people to say things that are outside the box and controversial. Those people weren’t ready for any of this. They weren’t organized, Fire was doing important work on campus, but you know, there wasn’t a whole lot outside of that. Most people focused on the First Amendment and legal defenses. So, I’m not sure people saw coming that there was gonna be a major kind of focused targeted campaign trying to shut down whole aspects at the bay. And what I’m seeing now is the beginnings of a counter mobilization. I’m seeing the beginning of liberals, small little liberals. People who believe in pluralism, diversity of ideas, toleration, even if that upsets people, I’m seeing them start to organize and fight back in a way that we’ve never seen before. I think they finally tumbled to the fact that this attack is coming from, what I call, Purists. The people who only wanna tolerate and accept one viewpoint, their own. And they’ve come to see that that’s incompatible with the liberal order, not just incidentally, but fundamentally. And I think they’re starting to understand that there’s also kind of this weird neo-Marxist structure going on here. You know, this notion of a kind of eternal, endless revolution. And as that happens, you can see they’re starting to figure out how to organize groups and ideas that are, I think, going to come to the defense. But it takes a lot of time to counter organize.
Nico: Yeah. Well, in your book your response to this is to speak up. It’s almost simple in its conception. It says you argue that if it applies to anyone, the term snowflake more aptly describes people who profess to support intellectual freedom and diversity, but fail to speak up for it, especially tenured professors whose jobs are among the safest yet who often dive under the furniture when academic freedom is challenged.
Greg: So true and one of the great disappointments in my career was seeing how few tenured professors actually bothered to stick up for their friends or for their students. There are some real big exceptions though, of course, people like Allen Charles Kors who cofounded Fire or –
Jonathan: Donald Downs.
Greg: Donald Downs is recovering from –
Jonathan: [Inaudible – crosstalk] in living form.
Greg: Donald Downs, by the way, he’s a free speech hero that everybody in the free speech movement actually knows. He’s recovering from double lung transplant.
Greg: Like, really serious surgery, but so far, he’s doing okay.
Nico: He was just on the podcast in February here, early March.
Greg: But Robby George, you know, Keith Whittington, like, you know Megan Estralston, of course, there are a lot of people who are exceptions but it has been disappointing how little use so many professors make of the safest job in the world.
Nico: Yeah, and one of the surest ways to defend yourself against cancelling, it seems, and you kinda hint to this in the book is to just not apologize, to not give in. You say, “By hardening their defenses organizations make themselves more resilient if hit by cancelers and therefore less tempting as targets.” You seen this with some presidents at universities, Camille Paglia at the University of the Arts, for example, Mark Hamilton at the University of Alaska.
Jonathan: President Zimmer, at Chicago.
Jonathan: President Daniels at Purdue, yeah leadership at the top –
Greg: Really matters.
Jonathan: Really matters because that’s able to say, “We’ll have your back.” Just because you offend a student doesn’t mean you’re gonna be investigated for losing your job. But, Nico, to me, the moral of the story is you have to work both sides of the equation at once. Remember, the point of information warfare is to demoralize and demobilize the other side. Again and again, I talked to professors who would say something like, “Well look, I don’t like what’s going on. I’m having to change the way I teach because I’m frightened of my students? But there’s nothing I can do about it as in individual. I don’t wanna get investigated, and I know that if I’m just one voice, I’ll be demolished.” So, they don’t speak out, of course, everyone else makes the same calculation, and you’re back to what we talked to before the spiral of silence, the intimidated environment which is what the activists are speaking.
So, you have to do two things: First, you have to say to that professor you can make a difference. Sokurov made a difference. In fact, he played a key role in bringing down the Soviet Empire. Because what does disrupt the disinformation campaign, a spiral of silence, is when it hits that anchor in reality that says, no, no, no, facts, facts, facts, truth, truth, truth. Here’s the evidence and I’m not shutting up. But just as important you have to make it worth that professors while by providing group support. They have to have resources to file a lawsuit, that can be Fire. They need cultural resources, they need support groups, they need other people like Keith Whittington, and I think the Academic Freedom Alliance are gonna do this. Coming to them and saying, “We’re a community, we share your values, how can we help?” You’re gonna need all kinds of institutional resources so that people can organize and only after they’re organized and countermobilized, can you fight this disinformation campaign. Remember it is a campaign, it is coordinated, it is a front, not just an individual that you’re fighting and you have to organize against it.
Nico: And you think the liberal system, the constitution of knowledge, is a sufficient weapon to defeat the disinformation campaign, or is it as people have described, democracy or other liberal systems a suicide pact? And says soon as the adversary is, you know, figure out how to hack it, so to speak –
Nico: You bring in a knife to a gunfight
Jonathan: What a great question because that’s really the question that the book ends with. This is not the first major information warfare attack or disruption in the constitution of knowledge. In fact, the first big information disruption was before John Locke. It was the invention of moveable type. And that was used immediately to put out fake news about witches which led to the murders of tens of thousands of people across Europe and people fretted at the time. We can’t even have an organized society with the printing press because there’s so much wild stuff out there, so many conspiracy theories and fake news led to a war across Europe.
So, we have faced disruptions in the past. In general, the way we face them down has been you build new institutions and norms or you adapt old ones so that people start to understand what the challenge is and how someone like us should react in that situation so that its not up to the individual. Like, we turn journalism into a fact-based to reality-based community by saying, “Okay, it’s not just me.” People like us, professional journalists, we’re gonna run a correction for a wrong. If I write something about Nico Perrino and it’s wrong, well I’m gonna call him up before I put it in. So, you develop these norms and conventions –
Nico: But the hack there is that, as Greg said, you know, like PolitiFact, they get one thing wrong, people see they get it wrong then the whole system is discredited, right?
Jonathan: Well, I don’t think the whole system is discredited but over time we get –
Nico: But that’s what they’ll say.
Jonathan: That is what they’ll say. And the point is you need to counter that in systematic ways. So, to go back to your question, sorry to be so roundabout.
Jonathan: But to go back to the point you’re making, I don’t think we know yet if we rise to this challenge. We haven’t talked about digital media, huge challenge because it’s –
Nico: Yeah, we’re gonna get to that, I have some questions.
Jonathan: Yeah. That’s a huge challenge, cancel culture is very effective and very well organized, disinformation is weaponized by Trump. All of these things are really tough, and whether we fight back effectively depends on do we understand the nature of the attacks? And do we begin to counter organize so the we can respond effectively and regain people’s trust. I mean, a lot of people like me in journalism, you know, a lot of it is on people in academia. Greg referred to this, to understand that they are badly damaging the reputations of their institutions when the allow themselves to become politicized on one side.
Greg: And that’s a shift I’ve seen in my own career is, you know, it used to be my entire career the public relations office has gone after professors who say obnoxious things or things that the university look at, sad but true, been true as long as there been colleges. In other cases, the lawyers will contact them saying, “Oh, you know, this might be a timeline violation” even if it’s wildly not, we have those fights forever. It was only around 2013 that we started seeing, you know, the students really getting in the act and people saying they’re afraid of their own students. Then you start having the right, you know, mobilize also coming after them on Facebook and Twitter and that blew up around 2014 as well, but the thing that I’ve seen that really, frankly, frightens me is the actual occasional, doesn’t happen that often, but the occasional withdrawal of academic papers –
Nico: Oh, yeah.
Greg: – in the face of anger. Now the Rebecca Tuvel story it has a happy ending, but they didn’t actually pull back –
Jonathan: They didn’t back down.
Nico: I didn’t know she became the chair of her department.
Greg: You have that in your book.
Greg: And we need more of that because if you’re looking at an epistemic system where, you know, your suspicious of everything stacked in one direction, but it also turns out that if you dissent, you will get cancelled for it, or your paper will get withdrawn, that’s bad.
Jonathan: Just so people know what Greg is referring to, this is a professor who came under attack she’s a philosopher. She wrote a perfectly good paper, it involved trans issues, some people decide to go to war to make an example of her, that’s how information warfare works. You go after vulnerable individuals and that suppresses actual speech and a whole class. And they, among other things, demanded that the paper be retracted, although there was nothing wrong with it. And in that case, the journal said, “No, that’s not how it works. We retract things because they’re fraudulent or because of ethical violations, but we don’t retract things because some people don’t like the message.” And those instances are super important.
And there are others, you know, I’m talking a little too abstractly but, for example, Purdue University now in its fifth year including a First Amendment module, a free speech module, in its freshman orientation. And that’s important because that prepare students as they come in the door for the kind of environment they’ll have in college. And they’ll understand that yeah, there’s a right to be offensive at Purdue, a public university and at the United States. And amazingly a lot of students just don’t know that. Well, we can’t defend what we don’t know even exists.
Greg: Does there need to be a constitution of knowledge or liberal science module?
Jonathan: And my book should be adopted by every freshman course in the country.
Greg: By law.
Jonathan: By law.
Nico: I asked that kind of in seriousness because I’m thinking about when I went to college, no one talked to me about the system that produces knowledge or the purpose even of a university. You know, I got my –
Greg: To be clear we’re not serious about it being required by law but the idea of this being introduced in orientation as sophisticated concept not just a legalistic concept, absolutely.
Jonathan: Well, that’s the goal of the book. When I set out to write this book, it was not just from my understanding it’s – so here’s the thing, Nico, the constitution of knowledge is by far the most benign and powerful social system in the history of humanity. This is transformed our species from a group of small tribes or maybe religious sects each with a separate truth, none of which is particularly well attached to reality, into a species that has a species wide network that’s finding knowledge at a fantastic rate and expanding exponentially. The number of papers on COVID-19 went from zero in January of last year, it was doubling every two weeks through August.
Jonathan: This is the rate at which this global system is able to make mistakes, find mistakes, turn that into knowledge, and then turn that into good stuff.
Jonathan: But it’s so successful. When the system is that successful over that long a period of time, people take it for granted. They think well, it’s just gonna happen automatically no matter what we do. We’ll have a marketplace of ideas, we’ll have free speech, and the rest will take care of itself, and the point is that’s not true. It’s like the U.S. Constitution, people need to understand how all this stuff works, you know, checks and balances, Congress, courts, where laws come from, why it’s important to have rotation in office even if your side loses. Same thing with the constitution of knowledge, people need to understand why it’s important to have dispassionate fact checking, why it’s so important not to have truthiness, not to be believing and teaching stuff just because you think it should be right. What’s wrong with the idea of safetyism. Your book is about this, but when you start to believe that some ideas are so dangerous that you can’t voice them or so traumatizing, you lose the ability to understand reality.
Nico: Yeah. Well, the other problem with that sort of language is you can’t falsify it. You almost have to take it at someones word, right?
Jonathan: It ends a whole debate, right? Because having the conversation is traumatizing.
Nico: Yeah. It’s a nuclear weapon for the traumatizing.
Jonathan: And that’s what it’s designed to do. So, the point of this book is to say, “Hey, wait a minute, look at all of these things that we need to understand if we’re gonna defend the culture that we rely on, the surface that make it visible,” that’s what I was saying.
Nico: Your point about the benign, this of the constitution of knowledge, but without the power of it, the COVID example is great, right?
Nico: I mean, especially with the constitution of knowledge, science brings itself –
Jonathan: Reality based-community, I mean, incredible. This is why I try –
Nico: The New York Times published a piece that’s predicted that the vaccine wouldn’t be ready for 10 years and it was being put in people’s arms –
Jonathan: And that was, well, that was based –
Nico: On science, yes. [Inaudible – crosstalk] Yeah, yeah.
Jonathan: –soundly on previous examples. So, where I kinda disagree with something Greg said earlier.
Nico: What’s that?
Jonathan: Maybe not disagree but it’s a difference emphasis. I think one of the things that’s happened out of COVID is people looked around to say, “Oh, wait a minute, science is actually good, reality is actually good, these institutions perform extremely well.” And yeah, there were mistakes about masks, I disagree with you that it was lying. I think in the early days people didn’t understand that the disease was contagious before it had symptoms, so they said, “No, you don’t need a mask you just stay home when you get sick like flu.” So, they got it wrong, but I think the bigger lesson here is the fantastic performance. I mean, they had the genetic code of this virus within a weekend.
Jonathan: And the first vaccine was designed in what, about 10 days? So, I say this is species transformed.
Greg: And that’s exactly what I hope happened. I’m worried that we actually have had a bigger crisis of expertise, you know, as Martin Gurri put it. So, it’s interesting, because you kind of disagree with them to Gurri as this being this epistemic crisis as being organic, you know. Just kind of coming out of a million new voices on the scene. And you’re talking about the intentional –
Jonathan: Yeah, both are true and they interact, but yeah, the system is being manipulated.
Greg: That too, yeah.
Jonathan: Yeah. I mean, take Trump. People say well, you know, he’s a bozo he doesn’t know what he’s doing. He spent the last 30 years; he’s built his career on manipulating the information environment. You know, this is a guy who had got on the phone and pretend to be someone else in order to manipulate the media. This is a guy who learned the art of what did he call it, truthful hyperbole?
Greg: Oh, I didn’t know that one.
Jonathan: I think that’s from or maybe he didn’t even say truthful. I can’t remember the phrase but it’s in The Art of the Deal. This is someone who’s entire career is based on creating illusions, manipulating the media, using intimidation tactics to silence or isolate people who he doesn’t wanna be heard from. It’s no surprise when he comes into office and then weaponizes those things on an unprecedented scale and then turns an entire political party into what amounts to a propaganda organ. So, I think it’s wrong just to say, “Well, the internet came along and it shattered old institutions.” There is an element of that but if we’re gong to defend the system, constitution of knowledge, it is important to understand it has very real and very potent enemies and those people are working every day. Rush Limbaugh, okay, he’s been on the radio 30 years, his big constant gig has been attacking day after day the institutions that we rely on to make knowledge. He talks about the four pillars of deceit and that’s science, academia, journalism, and government. He’s on the radio everyday saying you can’t trust them, they’re all out to deceive you, only trust me. Well, that’s gonna have an effect, right?
Jonathan: So, gotta stay focused on that.
Nico: You talk about the attacks here. You write in the book that one is predominantly right wing and populace, the other is predominantly left wing and elitist, one employs chaos and confusion, the other conformity and social coercion. We’ve talked about this. We’ve talked about the disinformation campaigns on the right and we’ve talked about cancel culture and call out culture on the right. Both, and this is where we’ll get to digital media –
Nico: –seem to me to be super charged by the digital media environment, in particular, social media. But I was kinda surprised at the end of your book. You don’t say it outright but you seem to be more open to social media companies moderating content.
Jonathan: Oh, yeah. No, I do say that outright.
Nico: Something others see as censorship.
Jonathan: Yeah, I don’t see it that way.
Nico: Yeah, you talked earlier about journalism and how it took a while for the constitution of knowledge systems to kind of catch up and formalize it and make it what we know it is today. Is social media the next frontier? You write, “At this writing, perhaps surprisingly” – and this is what makes me think that you were in support of content moderation, “At this writing, perhaps surprisingly, the organizations working hardest to build institutional barriers to propaganda and intimidation are the ones most often criticized for doing too little, social media companies, or doing too much if you’re looking at the right. Figuring out how to moderate oceans of content non arbitrarily is a herculean job but major companies Facebook, Google, Twitter are spending millions hiring thousands innovating to do better.” So, I’ve put a lot there.
Jonathan: Yeah. Yeah. I’d be curious to get your views on this. This is one of the few areas where I think Nadine Strauss and I take different views. There’s kind of a classic libertarian view in which Facebook, for example, is a public forum and more speech is always better speech, and the less moderation that goes on the better and I don’t take that view. Partly because I came up in mainstream journalism and what we understand is, if you turn your newspaper over to your readers and get rid of all the editors, what you get will be raw sewage. You’ve got to have people in the middle making some decisions about what goes and doesn’t goes and, in fact, Facebook does. Often, they’re algorithmic, sometimes they’re human, but these are not open markets where absolutely anything goes on.
They’re making decisions everyday about what to present. The problem has been that they’re making those decisions based on things other than truth value. They’re making those decisions based on what’s going to attract large audiences and that turns out to be falsehood and outrage and that’s always been the case. That’s 19th century media in America.
Jonathan: And the only ways to get outta that box, if you’re Facebook, is the same way everyone gets out of it, mainstream media, science, you’ve got to have some institutional judgements which try to sort truth from falsehood and prefer truth. You don’t necessarily need to band falsehood, that tends to backfire and we see that all the time, but you can change your algorithm so that if something is fact checked, it’s gonna be higher up and Google has started to do that. You can change your algorithm so that if something is outrageous and false, you know, vaccine denialism, it’s lowered down, you don’t see it on Page One. Facebook’s oversight board, which a lot of people kind of dismiss, is self-serving, I take it very seriously as a big potential step forward. Because historically, consistently, the way we’ve dealt with earlier information disruptions and attacks like this, is you build institutions that have some legitimacy and credibility to counter them, and Facebook is saying, okay, let’s try to set up some rules of the road that are fairly consistent and fairly good and let’s set some, you know, let’s set a real commission to do that and let’s try to bind ourselves. That’s exactly what we did when the Royal Society was set up in Isaac Newton’s day to try to guide science and create some rules of the road, exactly what the American Society of Newspaper Editors did in the 1920΄s, what the Association of American University Professors did in the 1920΄s when they said, “Hey let’s have some standards for tenure, academic independence.” It’s exactly the same thing and in the past that has worked. And if it doesn’t work, I’m not sure anything else would work.
Nico: You say they’re basing their algorithms on falsehood and outrage, maybe perhaps, what gets the most clicks or anything like that, but I think people would also contend, and this is where you get into the censorship debate, that they’re basing their algorithms based on where the largest constituency is that would push back. You know, for example, you put something on Facebook or Twitter and there are interest groups on the right or the left that is then calling out Facebook to censor.
Jonathan: And that’s exactly why building institutions and guidelines are so important because you wanna be able to say, okay, well, we’re developing some actual codes that people have given some thought too. And we’re even gonna follow those codes when it’s against our commercial interests. It’s the commitment Mark Zuckerberg has made. We’ll see if he lives up to it. But he’s saying let’s not do it ad hoc based on politics and to me that’s a major development. Like, that’s the right idea for how you approach this.
Greg: And honestly, that’s one of the things that David French and I have been saying for a long time is we advocate for First Amendment standards, not because they are First Amendment standards, but because we think they make a lot of sense and it’s something you can appeal to when making some of the decisions about what is and is not protected, you know, for example. It doesn’t mean they have to, but I do think there’s a tremendous amount of wisdom that you can glean from First Amendment Law.
Nico: And without going all the way to what First Amendment Law protects, I mean, First Amendment protects pornography, it protects crush videos, presumably we wouldn’t or a lot of people wouldn’t want that on their social media feed. I guess the problem I have, Jonathan, is that they create these standards and I don’t like the standards just from a normative valid point of view, but what you’re saying is that even thinking about the standards is the first step.
Jonathan: Yeah. And no one is always gonna like the standard of the outcome but remember that core of the constitution, whether it’s the U.S. Constitution or the constitution of knowledge or even market systems, you won’t always like the outcome. You’ve gotta believe that the rules are in some sense fundamentally legitimate. But you’re not gonna always like the outcome and it’s very important that not everyone will. Back to the point you were making just now, Greg, I wanna throw in a friendly amendment to what Fire is doing.
Jonathan: Because, yeah, you’re defending free speech on campus, but in doing that you’re also defending all of these rules and norms. Some are written, tenure protections, plagiarism, and abuse protections. Some of them unwritten, like free speech on campus that allows for open discourse, challenging discourse, not letting safetyism interfere with that. You’re also defending these rules of the road that make it possible for academia to produce knowledge in a non-politicized way, right? You’re defenders of knowledge not just free speech.
Greg: Yeah, absolutely. The academic freedom, whenever I explain what Fire does, you know, I say free speech academic freedom, and there are people who like Stanley Fish who actually think these are entirely separate ideas, whereas, I think it’s kinda like free speech of this giant bully in circle and academic freedom is this somewhat overlapping. But in terms of importance, you know, the academic freedom part of it, you know, like that’s how we know the world as it is and it’s –
Jonathan: Yeah. And you also make important distinctions which are easy to forget like academic freedom and free speech does not include the right for a biology professor to teach creationism as a fact.
Jonathan: And you would never, I assume, that someone came to you and said it’s a violation of my First Amendment rights, I’m a medical professor and I wanna teach Christian Science –
Jonathan: You would not take that case.
Greg: No. And what’s funny about this is one of the reasons why I refer people back to the First Amendment Law so often is it deals very well. You know, it’s not like it’s some mechanical machine like, when it actually looks at situations involving actual professors, it’s able to make these distinctions and remember the function of it is to help us understand what the world is and there’s competing levels of academic freedom on institutional individual and even to some degree perfect. And it’s better thought out than people give it credit for. And all these ideas that actually do a better job of producing knowledge are kinda baked in. But what I would love to get, just like you said, just like we’ve discussed before, is priming students when they come in for this being a very noble, very strange, very important endeavor that’s fundamentally nothing like K-12. It’s about being part of the way the world looks at itself.
Jonathan: Yeah. And it’s not like everyday life.
Jonathan: Something I make a big deal out of, I fuss about it in my book because it’s so important, is that we don’t conduct our everyday lives, according to the constitution of knowledge, I mean, every time we walk into a church or a synagogue or a mosque, we’re not doing science. We’re in a community, an epistemic community with certain beliefs which, you know, we don’t send those out for a lab to be tested or put them in journals and hope that scientists around the world will correct us. It’s a very different world and so we’re not telling students look, you have to give up all your beliefs and be some kind of volcan, but we do need to tell students, yes, free speech, you’ll hear things that are offensive and yes, academic rigor.
If they’re gonna be certain requirements for what we say is knowldege around here, you can say anything you want, but if you wanna say that what you’re saying is actually true, is actually objectively true, we’re gonna teach you the steps you have to go through to do that. And you’re not allowed to shortcut that by just saying well, but subjectively, I think like X or Y is true.
Nico: Or as a –
Jonathan: Or as a, yeah that’s the classic example. As a gay person, I feel like there is an epidemic of trans violence. Well, the numbers show what, 44 last year in a country with 16,000 to 19,000 homicides. We can debate whether that’s an epidemic but we have to have that debate. You can’t just make the assertion because you feel like it’s true, right?
Jonathan: It’s really hard to get people to function that way. But in an academic environment, not a church environment, you gotta do that.
Greg: Yeah. I mean, probably not everybody knows this, but I’m actually a political liberal. But doing this for 20 years, it’s made more sympathetic to the conservative critiques of higher ed and what would you say to people who just think that the system is kind of rigged against their point of view?
Jonathan: You mean conservatives?
Greg: Conservatives and essentially like how few conservatives there are in so many departments that you have – [inaudible – crosstalk]
Nico: You see the new conservatives saying, well we’ve tried the liberal idea of freedom of speech even, but it hasn’t worked out like –
Jonathan: So, I’d like to know what you think about that.
Greg: But I’m talking specifically about higher ed and expertise essentially being when the base rate is so low already and it actually seems like even if you do dissent, you could potentially get cancelled for it.
Jonathan: So, I worry about that a lot and I think conservatives of good faith not just, you know, people like Rush Limbaugh who were doing propaganda. But conservatives of good faith have a case, and I’m worried about it, but I think they kinda mislocate the problem. But you tell me if you think this is right. I think people have the idea that there’s a kind of higher ed conspiracy of the far left to politicize the whole thing and turn it into social justice warfare. And I don’t really think that’s the case. I think most professors and most students are still there to do in good conscience the job that they were trained to do which is to find knowldege in fairly rigorous ways and that more of the problem has to do first, with a coterie of activists who are using their tactics we talked about, social coercion, intimidation, silencing, to distort the environment that makes it harder for people of good faith to do that work and to feel protected doing that work. But second, maybe more important, that in certain disciplines and departments at major universities there’s no longer enough viewpoint diversity on the faculty so that people are actually testing each other’s beliefs. And so, it’s not a deliberate effort to suppress one side, it’s the lack of representation of one side leading to a skewed outcome. We also see that increasingly in journalism, I’m sorry to say, at some major outlets, we won’t name them right now but you know who I’m talking about –
Greg: We sure do.
Jonathan: And one of the things the book says is that it’s just imperative that the university put as high a premium on viewpoint diversity as on other forms of diversity. There’s a lot of discrimination now that’s documented against conservatives in hiring and in tenure and even in publication. That has got to stop because I think it’s damaging the credibility of the entire reality-based community.
Greg: Yeah. I’m definitely, whether it comes to Martin Gurri’s theory, you know, of being sort of a natural organic growth of so many voices leads to a sort of cacophony, I tend to lean also towards that idea in higher ed. That essentially like some people were attracted to certain professions and it tended to lead to, you know, self-reinforcing ideological conformity kind of situation. But since writing Coddling of the American Mind, one thing that I have been made aware of is the, you know, one thing that I really think we underestimated was the role of departments like education, for example. Like, this was pointed out to me by Lyell Asher that, you know, some of these real kind of, frankly, intolerant kind of ideas like we saw at university of Delaware, that program.
This is coming from some of the education schools and it seems that some of the worse things – well, I think the majority are professionals who would like to, you now, continue with a search for truth. I do think there are people who really would like it to be much more uniform and that higher ed exists to perform a political function more than a knowldege seeking one.
Jonathan: Yeah. You know, and in fairness, the American university was not born as a research institution, it was born to train ministers and pastors and also farmers. But from there they got a deep DNA which says that they should be about social justice and morals. So, this is an old argument. Do you think I’m Pollyanna in saying that what’s happening is less a politicized takeover broadly across academia and more a lack of diversity that’s been allowed to creep in and encouraged by some forces?
Greg: I think it’s both happening at the same time. I think that part of it’s natural, but it also becomes self-reinforcing, and I think that a lot of people in academia have, what I’d say lost the thread, but they’d see it as no, but we found the real thing. Like, we’re trying to achieve a better society and that they’re practicing no epistemic humility whatsoever. We know what the end point is supposed to look like so what are we waiting for?
Jonathan: But we’re talking about mostly specific fields, yeah.
Greg: Yeah, definitely.
Jonathan: We’ve seen some problems in math departments.
Jonathan: Some guy was pilloried because he wrote a statistical paper that showed it can be true that different groups can have different preferences without the presence of discrimination. But mostly we’re talking about social sciences and humanities?
Jonathan: Is that right?
Greg: As best as I can tell you, yeah.
Jonathan: And we’re talking primarily about elite schools which the education –
Greg: Although the education schools, the funny thing is, some of the worst policies we’ve seen come out of middle tier schools like the University of Delaware.
Nico: Yeah, the northeast tends, and I think you might have had this in your book, tends to have the least political diversity, the schools in the northeast, that is and then schools elsewhere. But yeah, Fire sees cases all across the spectrum, not just politically, but as far as the diversity of different types of schools go. And this is one of the things that probably frustrates us the most about the conversation about free speech on campuses, people tend to pay attention most to those at the more elite colleges. Meanwhile, we have outrageous cases at places like Jones College down in Alabama or at Chicago State in Chicago. You know, a lot of our cases are at community colleges and sometimes they don’t involve the same sort of culture war issues and that’s maybe one of the reasons that they’re not in the headlines as much as the other cases. But the other reason is they’re just you know, at lower tiered schools and the New York Times and the Washington Post –
Jonathan: They’re kind of off the grid.
Greg: Oh, and that is something that I say all the time and I would like to repeat it again. There’s a huge middle of Fire cases that aren’t all that political and sometimes don’t take place in the sexiest schools even sometimes at fairly well-known schools even –
Jonathan: So, your parking garage case?
Nico: At Alaska State, yeah.
Greg: That they get almost no coverage. If it fits a culture where a narrative, it gets a lot more viewers, particularly if its political correctness run amok. It actually gets better attention from the New York Times if it fits that narrative which I find amazing. And I really wish sometimes people would focus on the big middle of cases where a lot of cases it’s just a, you now, a bureaucrat who has gotten a little drunk on having power and no accountability.
Jonathan: Well, I’m a huge fan, of course, of Fire’s work and others work on campus free speech per se and like the Valdosta case where someone criticizes the president’s plan to build basically, you know, an eastern European style monument to himself in an unnecessary parking garage and then gets persecuted. But I’m also a big fan of Heterodox Academy and now the Academic Freedom Alliance and others which are starting to pay attention to what I think is in some ways kinda the underlying problem which is this lack of intellectual diversity and they’re beginning to say, look, as academics, as professors, we’re seeing the toxic effects of lack of intellectual diversity.
My hope is that there’s enough reserves of that kind of integrity in academia so we can begin to see some focus coming from inside the academy on making sure that it’s hospitable to multiple points of view. But I don’t know, I mean, some people say forget it, it’s not happening.
Nico: Well, you spend the end of your book talking about the institutions that you think support the constitution of knowledge so I would urge our viewers and listeners to read that, but there is something that we can do as individuals, right? You have a quote at the end of your book. It’s not from you it’s from a, I think, a soviet dissident and said, “Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me.” Who’s that?
Jonathan: Alexander Solzhenitsyn.
Nico: Yeah, there you go. Well, I think we need to leave it there because we only have this room for so long. The book is The Constitution of Knowledge, A Defense of Truth that’s due out on June 22, the author is Jonathan Rauch and joining us in conversation today, of course –
Greg: Can I make a quick announcement?
Nico: Go for it.
Greg: I saved this livestream and I’m gonna announce this later this week. Kindly Inquisitors actually won the 2021 excessively prestigious award by popular vote. I had nothing to do with it. It placed first.
Jonathan: All right. All right.
Greg: It’s excessively. It included a $200 gift certificate with the Gold Belly that he’s donated back to Fire.
Jonathan: And I will say I have not won the MacArthur prize. I’m 61, I’m still waiting, maybe next year. But this is close second best.
Nico: Well, wonderful. Thank you both for being here and let us meet here again.
Jonathan: Thank you.
Nico: This podcast is hosted and produced by me, Nico Perrino, and recorded by my colleagues Aaron Reese and Chris Maltby. To learn more about So to Speak, you can follow us on Twitter at twitter.com/freespeechtalk or like us on Facebook at facebook.com/sotospeakpodcast, take email feedback firstname.lastname@example.org. We also take reviews on Google Play and Apple Podcast. They help us track new listeners to the show and until next time, thanks for listening, thanks for being here.