Jonathan Chait

Obama On Epistemic Closure

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Did anybody notice that President Obama, during his Saturday commencement speech at the University of Michigan, waded into the great epistemic closure debate?

Today’s 24/7 echo-chamber amplifies the most inflammatory soundbites louder and faster than ever before.  And it’s also, however, given us unprecedented choice.  Whereas most Americans used to get their news from the same three networks over dinner, or a few influential papers on Sunday morning, we now have the option to get our information from any number of blogs or websites or cable news shows.  And this can have both a good and bad development for democracy.  For if we choose only to expose ourselves to opinions and viewpoints that are in line with our own, studies suggest that we become more polarized, more set in our ways.  That will only reinforce and even deepen the political divides in this country. 

But if we choose to actively seek out information that challenges our assumptions and our beliefs, perhaps we can begin to understand where the people who disagree with us are coming from. 

Now, this requires us to agree on a certain set of facts to debate from.  That’s why we need a vibrant and thriving news business that is separate from opinion makers and talking heads. (Applause.)  That’s why we need an educated citizenry that values hard evidence and not just assertion.  (Applause.)  As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously once said, “Everybody is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”  (Laughter.)
 
Still, if you’re somebody who only reads the editorial page of The New York Times, try glancing at the page of The Wall Street Journal once in a while.  If you’re a fan of Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh, try reading a few columns on the Huffington Post website.  It may make your blood boil; your mind may not be changed.  But the practice of listening to opposing views is essential for effective citizenship.  (Applause.)  It is essential for our democracy.  (Applause.)  

Obama, naturally, has an ideologically-ecumenical spin on this. It's certainly true that plenty of liberals could benefit from paying closer attention to conservative argument. But of course the "liberal media" certainly makes an effort to expose its readers to conservative argument -- a liberal who's reading the New York Times or Washington Post, or watching a Sunday morning news show, or listening to NPR, is going to come across conservative arguments. It's the creation of the alternate right-wing media of Fox News, talk radio and the like where it's all hard-right opinion all the time.

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