It is hard to believe that a phrase as dry as “epistemic closure” could get anyone excited, but the term has sparked a heated argument among conservatives in recent weeks about their movement’s intellectual health.
First used in this context by Julian Sanchez of the libertarian Cato Institute, 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…have “become worryingly untethered from reality as the impetus to satisfy the demand for red meat overtakes any motivation to report accurately.”
As a result, he complained, 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.”
Mainstream American conservatism has long been largely intellectually bankrupt – there haven’t been any public intellectuals on the right since William Buckley; and the everyday conservative is likelier to derive his positions from empty platitudes (e.g. ‘family values’, ‘protect our borders!’, ‘small government’) than from any reasoned analysis of facts.
..which isn’t to say that there isn’t any silliness on the political left, as well. There’s obviously plenty of it. But there’s a specific brand of bug-eyed, conspiracy theorist lunacy that’s commonest amongst conservatives.
From Julian Sanchez:
[The epistemic closure trend] does not mean conservatives are completely cut off from outside information—as David Brooks notes today, research suggests that frequent visitors to partisan sites are actually more likely to also visit “the enemy”—but it tends to be approached in roughly the same spirit we might read the Korean Central News Agency. The press are no longer seen as even biased refs in the public debate, but as members of one team or another in a conflict whose only referee is victory.
..and more about the conservative argument for a ‘liberal media bias’1:
The big obvious change is the democratization of media, where the idea that there’s a liberal bias in the journalistic profession has long been part of the conservative narrative. ..it’s clearly empirically true that reporters are disproportionately liberals and Democrats, and I expect it’s even more the case at the networks and major national dailies. Cable and the Internet have, of course, opened things up dramatically.
The internet contributes to this problem, I think. Obviously, the internet has an enormously positive impact on information-sharing; but unlike other forms of media, the ‘net gives users more options to filter out any information they’d rather not hear – people who read the Drudge Report can easily ignore left-leaning sites; but when they do read them, it’s more in the spirit of ‘Let’s see what these lefty propagandists are peddling’ instead of ‘Let’s check out a different point of view’. So, people just sit in an echo chamber and have their opinions confirmed online all the time, nudging them over into extremism.
1. I actually don’t take issue with the claim that most mainstream media outlets in the U.S. are slightly left-of-center, but that isn’t saying much when ‘the center’ is already skewed rightward in the first place; and the additional authoritarian/statist bias goes without mentioning.