In an election year when Republicans are mounting a comeback, the last thing they need is in-fighting among conservatives. But that’s precisely what is happening thanks to a series of exchanges kicked off by a blog post from Cato research fellow Julian Sanchez, who is warning of a closing of the conservative mind. The firestorm that has ensued has become something of a spectator sport, with, among others, Andrew Sullivan writing regular posts called “Epistemic Closure Watch” at the Daily Dish.
Although Sanchez admits he didn’t intend to coin a phrase with “epistemic closure,” he meant to point out the ways in which conservative media had “stopped engaging in a useful, corrective way with the larger public conversation and congealed into this interconnected and self-contained alternate universe, itself insulated from factual correction by a narrative that says, essentially all non-movement information sources are not just slanted a bit to the left, but barely distinguishable from the old Soviet Pravda.”
Epistemic closure has another meaning in philosophy that Sanchez says he’s forgotten about and was “probably jangling around in the back of my head.” Possibly also the philosopher Colin McGinn’s phrase “cognitive closure,” which has a meaning much closer to what I was talking about – although McGinn’s talking about domains of knowledge where our brains are just wired in a way that makes it impossible for us to acquire certain kinds of knowledge.
And even if it does have these other uses, it’s not something Sanchez would change now. “I mean, I doubt any logicians dipping into the debate are getting confused and imagining that we’re talking about the technical sense of ‘closure under entailment’ or whatever,” says Sanchez. “I’ve seen folks using zingier phrases like “information loop” or “bubble world” – but part of me suspects that a clinical sounding phrase like “epistemic closure” made it easier for conservatives to start engaging the problem.”
As for the root causes of epistemic closure, Sanchez says the proliferation of media has lots to do with it. “In principle, it would be nice to have all these conservative media acting as a corrective to a press corps that overwhelmingly self-identifies as liberal,” a hotly contested assertion, but Sanchez insists nonetheless that “they’ve been so focused on being ‘the conservative alternative’ that the fundamental journalistic mission to report fairly and accurately ends up taking a distant second place.”
It’s a problem that is exacerbated by the connections that are made when individual outlets are integrated into the larger conservative media sphere, says Sanchez, leading to a point where “the lines between serious think tanks or journals of ideas and the talk radio entertainers and wacky fringe sites get blurred, because there’s a sense that they’re all on the ‘same team’ in a self-conscious way,” a feature that Sanchez says is unparalleled on the liberal side.
Some on the right are pleased with Sanchez’s assessment, but more are not and are even less pleased about him going public with it, making the counterattacks wide-ranging.
Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, is treating the matter like it is business as usual and the fact that there is even a heated discussion by others over epistemic closure proves conservative intellectual health, writing at National Review’s blog The Corner, “This is called having a blog where people are free to disagree.”
Jonah Goldberg, contributing editor at National Review and author of “Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning,” somewhat unsurprisingly turned it back toward liberals. On the American Enterprise Institute blog he wrote, “For more than a generation, liberalism craved and ruthlessly enforced epistemic closure.”
Further, Goldberg posited, “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 popular – and so would he. Neither is the case.”
And yet others have made the counterattack personal, making some of the controversy healthy and aspects not.
“I am not sure that the term ‘epistemic closure’ serves anyone very well in this controversy,” says intellectual historian David Hollinger, the Preston Hotchkis professor of history at UC Berkeley and president of the Organization of Historians. “The flap over ‘epistemic closure’ is not so different from earlier controversies in which this or that party to a dispute will accuse the other of being narrow-minded, of failing to take a sufficiently wide expanse of experience into account.”
But Hollinger is also quick to point out that these things are not all the same and that sometimes a seemingly small argument has a lasting consequence. “Quarrels happen all the time,” he said, “but a small number of willful people can create the agenda and make it last for a while.”
The duration and the intensity have as much to do with ideology as anything else, according to Hollinger. “Ideologically-defined disputes are more likely to entail the tone we see in the current quarrel among conservatives, reflecting the more impassioned styles characteristic of political as opposed to academic disputation.”
What happens now remains to be seen, but according to Sanchez, “If there’s a way out, I think it starts with what we’re seeing now, which is folks on the right starting to acknowledge the problem and talk about it, and realizing that in the long term an informed base that’s in touch with reality is more important than a maximally riled up base.”