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The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth

Jonathan Rauch · 1 HN comments
HN Books has aggregated all Hacker News stories and comments that mention "The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth" by Jonathan Rauch.
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Amazon Summary
Arming Americans to defend the truth from today's war on facts“In what could be the timeliest book of the year, Rauch aims to arm his readers to engage with reason in an age of illiberalism.”—NewsweekA New York Times Book Review Editors' ChoiceDisinformation. 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.
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Hacker News Stories and Comments

All the comments and stories posted to Hacker News that reference this book.
> company is on a website that makes it a tech company

Well, we generally consider social media companies tech companies. And since they don't really have anything else other than the tech stack (and the users on it, but they don't "have" those), not sure as what you would characterise it.

> ideas for improvement don't revolve around the engineering aspects of keeping a website running

What makes you think that the desired engineering improvements are about "keeping [the] website running"?

It seems to me that what is being sought are engineering solutions to, for example, stop the spread misinformation without censorship. That would be pretty cool, I think. And I can imagine a way of pulling it off, because we actually have such mechanisms in the (non-internet) social networks that make up what Jonathan Rauch calls The Constitution of Knowledge.[1]

These mechanisms use network effects to amplify good information and attenuate (but not censor) bad information. What is good and bad? The network decides this by what information it attenuates or amplifies. Bad scientific papers don't get cited, good ones do. The stories in the National Enquirer don't get picked up by other papers, and nobody believes them to be true.

This obviously isn't perfect, but it's about as good as it's gonna get, and works pretty well in practice.

Internet social media disrupted these mechanisms by its extreme virality, which seems to apply specifically to bad information. It just spreads extremely fast, literally exponentially (not the "very large" meaning of "exponential"). Kind of like a virus.

And we learned recently that to suppress a viral pandemic, completely 100% sterilising immunity is not actually needed. You just need to slow it down enough to get the R number below 1, ideally significantly below 1. That's what I think the "Do you want to read the article first before retweeting?" prompts are for: slow things down a bit.

Of course "slowing things down a bit" is counter to your economic self-interest and fiduciary responsibility when you're an ad-driven company. So getting off ads completely or at least partly is an important part of it.

> Thinking that by having engineers go "hardcore" you're automatically going to have a better product

Who thinks that? Why do you believe that anyone thinks this? While I don't agree with Elon's approach, the causation would clearly be the other way around: there is a lot of engineering to do to get to a better product (less dependent on ads, more attenuation of bad information without censorship etc.). And all that has to be done while under a bit of pressure, this ain't a Greenfield project with unlimited runway. So yeah, might get a bit "hardcore".


> engineering solutions to, for example, stop the spread misinformation without censorship.

I really don't think this is an engineering problem. If I was a tech lead and a product manager came up to me with this, I'd tell them they need to figure out what they mean before they start talking to engineers. Software-Development is not concerned with the nature of truth and misinformation, it is concerned with what works given precise goals. Nobody in engineering school or at an engineering job gets taught or learns what counts as misinformation and how to assess it: you need people with humanities expertise for this.

The "Do you want to read..." prompts are actually a good example of what I mean, because the engineering that goes into making those is quite trivial. But the idea of using them, trying to make them effective at their goal, and determining how much they're working, these are all things that fall outside of engineering, and have more to do with product-design and sociology.

Creating a feature is not as important as getting people to use it, and use it the right way.

Based on the features Elon has rolled out so far (Twitter Blue), it seems to me they're putting more emphasis on just building it, rather than figuring out how people will use it and whether it will be beneficial

> and the users on it, but they don't "have" those

Buzz. Not only do they "have" them, those users are literally the product the social media companies market and sell

> Not only do they "have" them,

1. Only if you are very sloppy with the meaning of the word "to have", which I wasn't.

> those users are literally the product the social media companies market and sell

2. No, they don't "have" those users. They have some of those users' attention, for as long as they can keep it. Not the same thing.

3. And once again, that is exactly the business model Twitter under Elon is trying to get away from, because it is driving the toxicity.

> Well, we generally consider social media companies tech companies. And since they don't really have anything else other than the tech stack (and the users on it, but they don't "have" those), not sure as what you would characterise it.

Consider where the bulk of the revenue comes from and you’ll find out what industry the company is actually in.

Not that I personally disagree that revenue source is a good metric, but that's not the consensus.

Facebook and Google are generally considered tech companies.

And of course the current attempt is to not have advertising be the primary income source.

Facebook and Google have huge tech operations, but Facebook and Twitter are content distributors and market aggregators, not tech companies.

You can buy a jet or a rocket, but you can't buy a Twitter or a Facebook. You can't even hire part of their stack. (FB has content deals and APIs for advertisers and marketers, but not - so far as I know - direct access to the servers.)

Which is why AWS is a tech company. But Amazon is an online store that happens to use tech.

It's like saying book publishers are really just printers, or FedEx is really an airline and truck driving company.

Some publishers do indeed do their R&D for print operations and logistics. But they're still primarily content houses. Any engineering that happens is a means to a productive end, not a product in itself.

I always thought tech was used as the lever in a tech company..

Doesn't matter what you sell, or service you offer, but if you're leveraging technology to add large numbers of users with a marginal increase in cost, I see that as a tech company.

This generally means there is an internal focus on the technology itself as any improvement can have a direct link to a user's LTV.

But maybe I'm talking less tech company, and more tech led organisation..

So ads.. as much as I dislike the industry, that's also an eng intensive task, right, as you attempt to predict user tendencies, raise engagement by showing the right shit, capture more data, and engage in the bot arms race.
> raise engagement by showing the right shit,

The stated goal is exactly to get away from that...

Maybe youre right about them pursuing engagement for its own sake, maybe they're not in that game.

Though, whatever approach you have in discovery, or ranking posts, you're having an impact on your users, and promote a certain dynamic, no? I imagine their next approach won't be the equivalent of letting go of the steering wheel, just maybe not mindlessly chasing the same metrics as they are currently.

Maybe that's a little too social psych to call tech/engineering, but I imagine the data science that would support that would be quite exciting.

Interestingly enough, it turns out that Twitter never really built a DR system for performance ads, hence why the brands pulling out can crater their revenue.
What is a DR system?
DR is an acronym for Disaster Recovery, seems to be what they meant (but I'm not sure).
nope, it's direct response advertising, which is the stuff that gets you to click and purchase online.

Both FB and Google have really successful systems for this, and it insulates them massively from brand safety concerns. It appears that Twitter never invested in this (which is kinda insane tbh), and hence the large brand advertisers have a lot more power over them.

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