The Great Epistemic Closure Debate of 2010

There’s been a surprising amount of online commentary in the last few weeks that prominently uses the term “epistemic closure,” a term I’d never actually heard used in casual conversation before this year. It started with some posts by libertarian blogger Julian Sanchez, who was writing about the excommunication of David Frum from the conservative think tank AEI. Sanchez argued that this was part of a conservative move toward “epistemic closure,” meaning being unreceptive to facts that don’t fit into the pre-approved worldview:

One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!)  This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile.

This argument was taken up both by heterodox conservatives and by liberals, who agree with the claim that Frum and Bruce Bartlett and other conservative apostates have been making: that in the era of Fox News, conservatives have effectively created their own reality which cannot be violated by outside facts.

There’s arguably a certain sour grapes quality to this, since some of it comes from conservatives who used to have think tank sinecures and got rewarded when they were willing to push the party line. Frum is the most famous example here, because during the run-up to the Iraq war, he wrote a famous article called “Unpatriotic Conservatives” about conservatives who were against the war — that is, he did exactly what is now being done to him, trying to excommunicate people from the conservative movement for trying to argue things that, in some cases, were true. And no one is immune from epistemic closure. After President Bush launched his “surge” in Iraq, there was resistance to the idea that conditions in Iraq were improving (relative to 2006, anyway), even as the statistics demonstrated that they were.

But I think it is true that the modern conservative movement often depends heavily on creating its own reality, or, maybe more accurately, its own mythology. Much of Fox News and talk radio depends on a litany of myths and legends that are sometimes incomprehensible outside of the conservative movement. For example, it’s accepted within the conservative movement that Saul Alinsky is the key to everything that Obama does. And when Republican Senate candidate Sue Lowden made her infamous comments about how people should barter chickens for health care, she was simply re-stating what was commonly accepted in conservative circles throughout the health care debate: that the health care problem could be solved if more people paid out of pocket (and, by extension, that people can afford to pay out of pocket or make deals with doctors like they did in the olden days). The ex-conservative, now-liberal blogger John Cole has a longish list of tenets of modern conservative mythology.

Now, the conservative riposte to this is that it’s not conservatives who are closed-minded, it’s liberals. That’s the argument with regard to global warming (or “AGW” as conservative mythology now requires it to be termed), that liberals refuse to accept any facts that demonstrate that the science isn’t settled, while conservatives are open-minded about alternative explanations. Though the National Review‘s Jim Manzi — a conservative who frequently argues against government solutions to global warming — looked at the global-warming chapter in a book by talk-radio hero Mark Levin and found plenty of “closure” on his own side. (And Manzi was instantly attacked by his National Review colleagues for daring to criticize Levin, who is on the good side and therefore presumed to be right about everything.)

But in any case, what’s obvious is that the two sides are not disagreeing about the interpretations of known facts. They are disagreeing about what the facts are. That’s a much more problematic thing, and it demonstrates why “bipartisanship” is a pipe dream in today’s politics, particularly U.S. politics. The premise of much of conservative television and talk radio is that certain facts are “liberal” and therefore not to be trusted, and to advance alternative facts in their place. The most famous example is on taxes, the core conservative/Republican issue. The idea that tax cuts always help the economy and tax hikes always hurt the economy is constantly repeated on these outlets, and facts that cast doubt on the idea (Reagan’s tax hikes, which occurred just before the economy recovered, or Clinton’s, ditto) are not discussed.

One of the intellectual fathers of this idea was the intellectual father of so-called neoconservatism, Irving Kristol (William’s father). When he adopted the doctrines of supply-side economics, particularly the idea that you could cut taxes without increasing the deficit he admitted that he didn’t really know whether this was true. (It wasn’t, or at least it hasn’t proven to be true in practice.) The point was that this theory would be appealing and help to build “a new majority, which evidently would mean a conservative majority, which came to mean, in turn, a Republican majority – so political effectiveness was the priority, not the accounting deficiencies of government.”

The blogger known as Anonymous Liberal had a (as the name implies) liberal take on this issue, where he lists several other key facets of conservative mythology: Obama is an ignoramus who can’t talk without a teleprompter; the way to reduce the deficit is to cut taxes; Obama is the most liberal president ever. These are things that can be objectively disproved (which makes them different from matters of opinion or morality: how high taxes should be is a matter of personal opinion, but that tax cuts tend to lower government revenue is not).

We’ve reached a point where the right wing in this country has achieved complete epistemic closure. Aided by their extensive and growing media apparatus and a traditional media that is uninterested in playing umpire, the Right has managed to escape entirely from the gravitational pull of the empirical world, and in fact, has a created a world of its own.

Again, I realize that there’s an easy reply to all of this: when I assume that one person lives in a bubble, that may just be because I am in the bubble and don’t realize it. The entire “liberal media” argument is based on the idea that the “MSM” creates epistemic closure by reporting liberal bromides as facts. What we’re starting to see now is a bit of turnabout, with liberals and disgruntled conservatives arguing that the media (and Fox News certainly has to be considered “mainstream media” at this point) is creating an alternate universe. One thing’s for certain: there is no agreement on what the facts are. It’s not an argument about opinion, or policy. It’s about epistemology: what do we know, and how do we know we know it?

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