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Epistemic Closure and the GOP

Big words mean big things.

…well, not always.  For those of us staring into our Cheerios the last few days wondering when America suddenly caught stupid, I can give you a bit of an idea: April 27th, 2010.

Or at least, that’s when the New York Times [1] diagnosed the problem:

The phrase is being used as shorthand by some prominent conservatives for a kind of closed-mindedness in the movement, a development they see as debasing modern conservatism’s proud intellectual history. First used in this context by Julian Sanchez of the libertarian Cato Institute [2], the phrase “epistemic closure” has been ricocheting among conservative publications and blogs as a high-toned abbreviation for ideological intolerance and misinformation.

Conservative media, Mr. Sanchez wrote at juliansanchez.com [3] — referring to outlets like Fox News and National Review and to talk-show stars like Rush Limbaugh, Mark R. Levin and Glenn Beck — have “become worryingly untethered from reality as the impetus to satisfy the demand for red meat overtakes any motivation to report accurately.” (Mr. Sanchez said he probably fished “epistemic closure” out of his subconscious from an undergraduate course in philosophy, where it has a technical meaning in the realm of logic.)

As a result, he complained, [4] many conservatives have developed a distorted sense of priorities and a tendency to engage in fantasy, like the belief that President Obama was not born in the United States or that the health care bill proposed establishing “death panels.”

Short version?  Epistemic closure is the idea that you only know what you know.

You can see how this plays out in politics.  If you wake up in the morning and read the Wall Street Journal, drive to work listening to Sean Hannity, drive home listening to Glenn Beck, get home and turn on Fox News, then curl up with your favorite Bill O’Reilly (or hopefully, some Milton Friedman) then you are going to find it very difficult to exchange thoughts, ideas, and opinions with someone who wakes up and reads the Washington Post, drives to work listening to NPR, comes home listening to Air America, gets home and turns on MSNBC, then curls up with some Noam Chomsky (or God forbid, Zizek).  You and your friend simply digest different information, with different worldviews, and different ideas on how to fix it (hence the “closure” portion of the episteme — i.e. knowledge).

Of course, that’s not bad in and of itself.  If these small constellations were telling their viewers that we should be actively exchanging ideas and values with people who disagree with us, then the public discourse would probably be amazing.  It wouldn’t be the high-stakes poker we see today, but it certainly would be more personally rewarding.  Such a perspective would break through the “closure” part of the equation, and that would be desirable thing from a certain perspective.

…but that doesn’t sell newspapers.

Sure as hell doesn’t generate donations.

And it most certainly doesn’t generate the most prized emotion of all: outrage.

So from other perspectives who want things, moral outrage is the most powerful force in politics.  Such forces (lobbyists, special interest groups, PTAs, churches, you name it) reward epistemic closure by limiting exposure to other ideas, narratives, or themes.

Now take this same closed feedback loop and introduce stupid.  Vaccines cause autism.  JFK was killed by the CIA.  Bildebergers run the world.  The world owes you a living.  Obamacare is good.  Obamacare is bad.  Hope and change.  Make America Great Again.

Inside that feedback loop, if there is a resistance to outsiders, it is incredibly difficult to pierce that other than through brute-force reality.

Two examples?

Nazi Germany.  Best of luck resisting the National Socialist ethic in the 1930s and early 1940s.  The epistemic closure of the Nazi regime was in full force all the way up to the very last days of the Second World War.  What reality did it take to pierce that cloud?  A few million Soviet soldiers and a few thousand T-34s is what…

Soviet Russia.  After the Second World War, the communist ideal was on the rise.  Nothing could stop it.  Khrushchev would bury us.  Marxist critical theory doomed the West to oblivion.  Kissingerian detente was the order of the day… until Solidarnsc, Reagan, Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II brought the Soviet Empire to its knees economically.

This is how epistemic closure collapses violently on a social scale.  It need not be this way on a personal scale, and the only real way to break that closure is to read things with which you disagree and mentally fold it into your own worldview.

Of course, this is not something society rewards.  Unity is prized over harmony [5], political leaders demand conformity, tribalism — that old ghost of our human DNA — tends to stomp out our intellect.

…but only when we allow it to.

Call it original sin vs. the Holy Spirit.  Call it ignorance vs. education.  However one intends to cage it, the question of epistemic closure is perhaps one of the most relevant questions that face Western intellectuals in the 21st century.  Overcoming it is our task… and more frightening for those who love freedom, it is ultimately a question of personal assent.

The forces that oppose free thought?  They are numerous… and they make a lot of money turning thinking people into automatons.