Editorial: Constitutional crisis
Gaining knowledge is a community effort.
By Patrick Flannery
Just finished a really great new book by Jonathan Rauch called The Constitution of Knowledge. It’s all about how we know things and how we agree, as a society, on what is true. Until recently, these weren’t things any of us had to think about very much. If someone asked us how we knew a certain fact, we’d say “I read it in the paper,” and that was pretty much that.
If you’ve been following the news for the last five or six years, you’ll know things aren’t that simple any more. In the early days, proponents of the internet promised a brave new world where more ideas and information than ever before could be put into the public square, debated, and the very best conclusions reached through the inherent wisdom and intelligence of many minds. A brave new world of free-flowing data, freed from the choking influence of narrow-minded editors. Unfortunately, things haven’t worked out like that. It turns out that in an ocean of unfiltered information, the human reaction is to cling to that which confirms what we already wanted to believe, and to accept sources based on their membership in our particular tribe rather than on their expertise or honesty. Rather than a wider pool of knowledge and opinion, people have segregated themselves into bubbles where only the information that confirms prejudices and stokes outrage is admitted. In recent years, this has been aided and accelerated by social media platforms that use algorithms to selectively feed their users content based on what they have previously seemed interested in, with the goal of driving clicks and views rather than a well-rounded picture of an issue.
All this may seem terribly academic, but we have seen the real-world consequences in recent years. Without getting into the sticky world of politics, I’ll just point to the effects on our response to the pandemic. Depending who you talk to, lockdowns and masks were an unnecessary burden imposed by bureaucratic busybodies – or necessary and perhaps even insufficient measures to protect every single person from COVID infection. Vaccines are either a godsend from modern medical technology that will save us all – or an experimental money-grab by corrupt Big Pharma. Our inability to arrive at anything like consensus on these urgent issues that are, in the end, primarily questions of provable fact, raises the question of whether our society can ever again pull together for a common cause.
Rauch laments this decline in our ability to arrive at shared conclusions that add to our body of knowledge. He calls for a re-focus on the principles that have underpinned our legal, political, scientific and economic systems, and a renewal of the institutions that have used those principles to such great effect since the Enlightenment. Of course, institutions are not perfect. But they at least offer hope for reality- and reason-based determinations of truth and the possibility of error correction when they do go wrong.
What does any of this have to do with your business? In the business world, we have institutions of our own. Associations where leaders come together to share and formalize best practices. Government agencies that regulate and enforce rules. Unions that conglomerate and communicate their members’ concerns. Dare I mention B2B trade publications that tell our stories and pass along helpful insights and information? And your companies themselves, which pull in different people to find the right way forward through collaboration and reaction to markets.
Good information and good decision-making are obviously critical to your business. Perhaps we need to refocus on our institutions – on participating in and supporting them as much as we can – in order to be sure our businesses are finding the useable truths we need.