Heterodox Academicians, Make Madison Your Model
This piece is available in audio format on our podcast, “Heterodox Out Loud: the best of the HxA blog.” Narration begins at :55.
My new book, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth, is deeply informed — inspired, even — by the work of Jonathan Haidt in particular and Heterodox Academy generally. In it, I embrace HxA’s project — promoting viewpoint diversity and open and rigorous inquiry — as my own. That project is essential not only in protecting free speech on campus (and also off campus) but also in defending the integrity of science and earning the public’s trust in academia, journalism, and other hard-pressed sectors of the reality-based community.
Thanks, HxA folks! Your work is essential. That’s one message of this blog post. I also hope to assist the cause by providing HxA with a new (or at least newish) way to frame the argument for healthy heterodoxy. I call it “Madisonian epistemology.”
James Madison was the greatest political institution builder who ever lived. His insights were so profound and farsighted that even today they remain astonishing. But we do not ordinarily think of him as active in the epistemic and scientific realms. Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin associated themselves with the sciences, but Madison less so.
Yet, as my book argues, Madison’s essential insights carry over to the epistemic realm, and not in a small way: The ideas that frame the U.S. Constitution also undergird the Constitution of Knowledge, our social system for establishing facts and settling disagreements — the system that spans science, academia, journalism, law, government, and all the other modern truth-seeking professions. Both constitutions, the political and the epistemic, depend on impersonal rules, compelled compromise, checks and balances, and pluralism.
The parallel between the political and epistemic constitutions is not a mere metaphor or analogy; it rests on a multitude of functional and structural similarities. I won’t recapitulate my argument in detail (for that, I hope you’ll buy the book!), but here are some essentials.
Every society, whether small tribe or large nation, faces a problem: how to make decisions of public import in the face of divergent preferences and beliefs. Throughout most of humanity’s 200,000 years, societies large and small relied on versions of authoritarianism, tribalism, and cultism. The results were poor: instability, oppression, and warfare in the political realm; ignorance, oppression, and warfare in the epistemic realm. Historically, even democracies proved unstable and unsustainable, prone to factional capture or intractable sectarianism. Madison, after studying the failures of previous republics, developed several profound insights.
First: Who is to be trusted to run a government? Answer: no one in particular. Disperse power among factions and institutions. Rely on rules, not rulers, and make the rules impersonal. Anyone can vote; anyone can run for office. Purely personal authority is blocked. You can earn authority, but maintaining it is conditioned on following the rules and being accountable in the same ways as everyone else.
Ditto with the Constitution of Knowledge. Whatever experiment you perform or argument you make to prove your point, I should be able to replicate or test it, and so should anyone else. Knowledge is that which any reasonable person would conclude. No particular authority or faction is in a position to dictate to others or end the argument. Of course, in practice, many arguments are difficult to resolve; but coercion, personal revelation, and tribal privilege are off limits, even in principle.
Second: In practice, how can a workable public consensus be forged? Answer: compromise. Though the U.S. Constitution does many things, at bottom it is a mechanism for forcing social negotiation. No matter how strongly you or I feel, none of us can make law without consulting others; with rare and fleeting exceptions, making policy requires negotiating with other actors, often many others. Madison’s genius was to recognize that compromise is not a mere splitting of differences: By forcing contending demands into constant negotiation, it brings dynamic creativity to the system as actors seek new ideas and allies to break old logjams.
Ditto with the Constitution of Knowledge. The only way to establish facts is to persuade others. In the giant social negotiation — now global in scale — everyone is forced to contest, compare, adjust, and adapt hypotheses. The result is the astonishing dynamism that mobilized minds, institutions, and dollars all over the world to decode the Covid-19 genome in days and design a vaccine in weeks. No other intellectual order can do anything like that. Not even close.
Third: How can the system cope with ambition, the drive for status and domination that caused the downfall of so many democratic orders? Answer: “Ambition,” Madison famously wrote (in Federalist No. 51), “must be made to counteract ambition.” Forcing political actors into managed conflict — checks and balances, as we often call them — channels their hunger for influence into the search for compromise.
Ditto with the Constitution of Knowledge. Humans are fundamentally biased and prone to misguided certainty, yet we are blind to our biases and stubborn in our views. Only one force is strong enough to counteract bias: other people’s biases. So put people to work checking others’ work; create a global network of persons and institutions seeking each other’s errors. Academics must endure peer review and replication, journalists must endure fact-checking and competition, lawyers must file competing briefs, government agencies’ rulings must stand up in court, and so on. In Madisonian epistemology, we seek not to eliminate biases but to pit them against one another. Even seemingly offensive and misguided views have a part to play. They can be criticized or ignored, but they should not be policed or repressed.
Fourth: How can we prevent any one faction from seizing control and upending the system, another democratic downfall? Madison again proposed another counterintuitive answer: “extend the sphere” (Federalist No. 10), what today we call pluralism. Make the republic large enough to encompass multiple competing factions, so many that no one faction or coalition can enduringly take control. In that way, the republic’s diversity makes it more stable instead of less so. Unlike previous democratic orders, Madison’s constitution scales, today governing a population 100 times larger than when it was written.
Ditto with the Constitution of Knowledge. Smart people, including academics, are just as prone to bias, fashion, conformity, and intolerance as all other humans (maybe more so). How to ensure that they are not captured by some prevalent viewpoint that is widespread, popular, and seemingly morally incontestable — but also wrong? Extend the sphere. Encourage viewpoint diversity and ensure there is plenty of it. Draw in new voices and perspectives, especially challenging ones. If you see, say, a social science department where everyone shares the same left-of-center worldview, you can be sure that errors are going undiscovered and questions are going unasked.
Madison’s constitutional innovations enable the establishment of a democratic republic of unprecedented scale, capacity, and durability. Their epistemic equivalents likewise permit the establishment of a truth-seeking community of unprecedented scale, capacity, and durability. Of course, both constitutional systems are imperfect, and even the most well intentioned among us argue and err in their implementation. But the ultimate products of both constitutional orders are the same: more freedom, knowledge, and peace than our species has ever previously known.
Heterodox Academy is in the business of defending viewpoint diversity, free inquiry, and academic freedom. In doing so, it can claim the mantle not just of Mill but of Madison. And the work of HxA takes to heart the cautionary words of Benjamin Franklin, who, when asked what kind of political order the U.S. Constitution had bequeathed, said: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
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