Epistemic closure

I gave up my subscription to the New York Times, primarily out of financial necessity.  I am fortunate to be a full-time MBA student, which allows me time each morning to enjoy some damn fine coffee and pore over the news of the day.  When I decided to give up the Times print edition, I realized I would save about $600 a year.  What I didn’t realize is that by forsaking the print Times and instead getting my news from the web, I could gain more clarity in the process.

I read blogs before, of course.  Simon Johnson and James Kwak became indispensable in the fall of 2008.  My professor John Ehrenfeld approaches sustainability from a unique, necessary perspective.  Nate Silver is an astute political observer.  Here in Rhode Island, Ian Donnis and Scott MacKay, veteran journalists, cover the local political scene for WRNI better than anyone else.

However, by spending an hour surveying blogs and sites like the Atlantic, I am able to gain a more complete perspective on the news of the day.  I discovered new conservative voices like Andrew Sulivan and Megan McArdle at The Atlantic.com, that provided the intellectual critique I have always longed for from the right.  In short, the time I spend at my laptop is much more fruitful that the time I spent with ink-stained hands poring over the Times.  I still read the Times online of course, especially David Brooks and Paul Krugman.

This morning, I happened upon an ideological debate on the right that would have completely passed me by in the old ink-stained days.  Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at the Cato Institute, writes about the idea of epistemic closure on the right, or what he calls the “universal tendency toward confirmation bias plus a sufficiently large array of multimedia conservative outlets to constitute a complete media counterculture, plus an overbroad ideological justification for treating mainstream output as intrinsically suspect.”

After the passage of health care, David Frum, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was fired for saying that conservatives “followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat.”  Conservatives, he said, missed their chance to work serious with Democrats to craft a bill together.   Of course, he pointed out there “the harm that our overheated talk is doing to us. Yes it mobilizes supporters – but by mobilizing them with hysterical accusations and pseudo-information, overheated talk has made it impossible for representatives to represent and elected leaders to lead.”

Of course, I saw the Jon Stewart-FOX back and forth this week and thought Stewart provided excellent media criticism as he often does, but when I jumped in the blogosphere I discovered that Stewart’s critique was just the latest salvo in a battle touched off by Sanchez’s post.  Ross Douthat, the young conservative for the Times, wrote that:

“Conservative domestic policy would be in better shape if conservative magazines and conservative columnists were more willing to call out Republican politicians (and, to a lesser extent, conservative entertainers) for offering bromides instead of substance, and for pandering instead of grappling with real policy questions.”

That led Jim Manzi at the National Review to offer a scathing critique of Liberty & Tyranny, the best-selling pop-conservative book, which attacks the idea of human-caused global warming, among other arguments.  Manzi calls the critique of global warming “awful. It was so bad that it was like the proverbial clock that chimes 13 times — not only is it obviously wrong, but it is so wrong that it leads you to question every other piece of information it has ever provided.” Reading the response at Red State is priceless:

“What I am concerned about, however, is the extent to which those who fancy themselves conservative intellectuals – folks like Manzi, Frum, Douthat, Brooks, Sullivan and others – believe they are the second coming of Bill Buckley (hardly), but dismiss talk radio show hosts (and forums like RedState) as nothing more than blowhard hacks who pour out their own koolaid for the slobbering masses, too stupid to know the difference.”

The voices at Red State, at FOX, at the American Enterprise Institute, and obviously on the radio seem to embody this idea of epistemic closure.  The firing of David Frum simply shows that AEI is unwilling to have voices that dissent from the party line.

Epistemic closure means that you only want to have your own views reinforced, that you will favor information that confirms your own beliefs over information that may unsettle those beliefs.  Today, when the Republican Party has become the ‘Party of No,’ it seems that only the left is seriously critiquing the issues of the day.  Scott Brown, the newly elected Senator of Massachusetts, recently replied, when asked about how he would change the Financial Reform Bill before Congress, said “well, what areas do you think should be fixed? I mean, you know, tell me. And then I’ll get a team and go fix it.”  Simon Johnson offers a real critique here.  Unfortunately, the orthodox Republican view against regulation cannot be questioned, even in the face of the recent financial crisis.  Until the intellectual right is given room to grow, the conservative base is doomed to minority status.

Personally, when I can see the many perspectives across the political spectrum, it helps to inspire critique of my own assumptions.  I still miss the ink-stains sometimes, and value the unmatched reporting of the Times, but am optimistic of all that the internet has to offer.


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