Jonathan Chait

The Day In Epistemic Closure

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Conservatives are finally striking back in the great epistemic closure debate! If you have no idea what I'm talking about, let me explain. Libertarian-ish blogger Julian Sanchez has been writing about the conservative movement's descent into epistemic closure, or a hermetically-sealed mental world in which only information provided by organs of the conservative movement is trusted. Matthew Continetti of the Weekly Standard replies that, ha ha, Republicans are winning, so there:

As liberals engage in one of their periodic celebrations of how open-minded and intelligent they are, it’s worth taking a moment to assess just how bad a political situation they’ve created for the Democrats. Consider:

Gallup says the Democrats are at their lowest level of approval in 18 years.

The new Fox poll has Obama at 43 percent job approval. The Pollster.com poll of polls has Obama’s disapproval at 48 percent. Democratic congressmen continue to flee the sinking ship. Nate Silver says there’s a better than one-in-ten chance that Democrats lose more than 55 House seats on Election Day. Obamacare is no more popular than it was before passage (indeed, opposition is on an upward trajectory), and the idea of repeal is relatively popular.

Liberals tend to blame the economy for this horrible situation. But the macroeconomy is slowly recovering (GDP, stocks, and jobs are up), while Democratic fortunes continue to fall. Another tactic is to blame an “anti-incumbent” environment. But, as John Podhoretz points out, those incumbents are all Democrats.

That's the entire rebuttal. Jonah Goldberg makes the same ha-ha-we're-winning point, but wraps it in another rebuttal:

I would suggest that one of the main reasons so many liberals are in a flop-sweating, bowel-stewing panic over Fox News and the Tea Parties is that they understand such developments are a real threat to epistemic hegemony of liberalism that has been unraveling for the last decade and half. The Obama surge in 2008 looks more like a last gasp for progressivism than a rebirth. If the Obama Era was actually similar to the New Deal, his healthcare plan would be popularand so would he. Neither is the case.

So Goldberg concedes that maybe there's a wee bit of epistemic closure on the right, but it's really just the same thing as on the left. Conservatives have Fox News, but liberals have the New York Times. I suppose there's nothing to say in response to this -- if you believe the mainstream media is an organ of the progressive movement and the functional liberal equivalent of Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, then yes, liberals do have epistemic closure. I think that,whatever you think about the liberal bias charge, the mainstream media is far more receptive to news and viewpoints that challenge liberalism than conservative outlets are to news and viewpoints that challenge conservatism. (Uniformly liberal programs, like Rachel Maddow's, do exist, but they occupy a small portion of the MSNBC schedule, and function as supplements to the news rather than substitutes for it.)

Goldberg segues into the tired debate over which side has "new ideas," which I think is a pointless question and one that has no bearing on the question of epistemic closure. But in so doing he demonstrates how difficult it is to convince somebody who lives in a world of epistemic closure that they have a problem:

The one obvious area where liberals claim to have a passel of “new ideas” is in the realm of public policy best described as the push for a “green economy.” Personally, I do not believe these ideas are new so much as they are new wrappings on old fashioned statism. But reasonable people can argue about that. Still, it’s worth noting that the reason these new ideas are being pushed so hard (again, aside from the Trojan Horse for socialism dynamic) is that liberalism is almost completely bound up in a very narrow, very alarmist, interpretation of global warming. And, if I were hunting for epistemic closure, it’s hard for me to imagine a better place to look for it than that staggering bubble of groupthink.

In Goldberg's view, liberals and the overwhelming majority of climate scientists, with their peer-reviewed studies, who live in a sealed information bubble. And it's the conservatives -- backed by a handful of scientific renegades, a lot of oil company-sponsored propaganda, and a stream of observations about how Winter in North America remains cold -- who are really open to all sorts of data and interpretation here. I suppose if you take it as a given that climate change skepticism is correct, then a huge majority of the scientific world and intellectual elite is living in a bubble, and the tiny band of Fox News-watching, Limbaugh-listening conservatives are the ones outside the bubble.

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