When, in 2004, conservative Bruce Bartlett was quoted, accurately and selectively, in the New York Times, his views on President Bush, as they were presented, were devastating.
This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can't be persuaded, that they're extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he's just like them...
This is why he dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts. He truly believes he's on a mission from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence.
That wasn't bad enough. The article continued: "Bartlett paused, then said, 'But you can't run the world on faith.'"
Every word had been accurately reported. In fact, a staffer at the Times had called him to verify the entire interview. He had been rushed and, I suppose, had not paused to consider the implications. The interview had focused on other things and the criticism of the President had seemed a minor aside.
When he saw the article, he was surprised at how bad his criticisms were in print. They had become a full fledged, cannons roaring, broadside. Not long after that, he attended a big conservative event. Every major conservative office holder and opinion maker in the Washington, DC, area was there. He knew he would get a lot of hostile reaction to his attack on the President. He braced himself. But he was unprepared for the amount of abuse he actually got.
There wasn't any, "and not in that embarrassed/averting-one's-eyes sort of way," Bartlett later wrote. "They appeared to know nothing about it." After a time, he began asking folks if they had seen the article. The only hostility he got was to the insult of the very thought that they would read anything in the Times or that they would read anything written by anyone who would read the Times. "Even if they felt they had no need for the information content of the nation's best newspaper," wrote Bartlett, "one would have thought they would at least need to know what their enemies were thinking."
The phrase "epistemic closure" was first invented by Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute as a criticism of fellow conservatives. He described a tendency to cut themselves off from any news source, opinion source, or relationship that would introduce them to facts that might contradict their conservative views.
As I understand epistemic closure, it goes beyond an unwillingness to consider other views. It goes past what most of us would consider a closed mind. It is, rather, a complete isolation from anything that might provide even a secondary contact with such views. Conservatives, as Sanchez critiques his comrades-in-arms, do not simply decline to consider the views of others, they take their entire reading of reality, of the world itself, totally from each other. I have accepted his analysis to a point. I do not accept it as a universal characteristic of conservatism.
Over the past several days, I have been in debate with my friend John Myste who, for reasons that remain murky to me, is on a rampage of sorts against the use of graphic charts in debate. In one exchange, he defined epistemic closure as "where you assert that Republicans disagree with you in spite of real world data because they are simply closed minded and will not examine your data."
I do not recall advancing the obligation of every conservative of honest intellect to read what I write. It would be fortunate if they did. Readership has gone up exponentially in the past year, but the craving for new readers is endless. But John's apparent definition of epistemic closure contracts it to any attitude of closed mindedness. It is not something he alone takes as the meaning and significance of the phenomenon. Conservative columnist Jame Wigderson wrote to us last year with his take on epistemic closure. He also seems to view it as a simple closed minded view, combining it with an intolerance of differences. "...my experience with closure of that kind is more on the Left with the enforcement of orthodoxy and Political Correctness. I believe I responded to Sanchez at length on my website."
Indeed he has, but still with variations on the same limited definition. Liberals are closed minded, so they are more guilty of epistemic closure. For example, the firing of Juan Williams was a case of epistemic closer because it is a "display of the close-mindedness of the liberal worldview."
A New York Times (there we go again) exploration of the term itself, unintentionally reveals a sort of flattening of meaning over time. Almost every conservative or liberal in the piece seems to accept the less useful definition advanced by my friend John Myste.
I think they miss the point. Maybe it is understandable. Many ideas tend to degrade after their introduction into the popular culture. Increasing use dilutes meaning back to the familiar.
Still, epistemic closure as originally proposed is a useful idea. Julian Sanchez was onto something, something distinctly modern.
I have speculated on the cause as technological.
The new tendency of at least some conservatives to go into a cocoon type of environment, shutting off the rest of reality, was not easily done in decades prior to the Bush administration. It was technology that began the process. The luxury of closing out any contact with uncomfortable views came with cable television and the internet. It quickly extended to the easy avoidance of any contact with uncomfortable reality.
Intuitively, we would expect the sociological results to extend to every segment of the political spectrum. It is a mystery to me why liberalism, in general, has not succumbed. Maybe that lies in the future.
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The fact that you don’t see that liberalism, in general, is particularly guilty of this strikes me as your own personal iteration of epistemic closure, my friend!
As someone who spends time in discussions on both, I really see no difference whatsoever.
To preempt your challenge to this, this observation, or absence of it, is not a desire to be balanced. The attitudes of political pundits are identical at the non professional level. The attitudes of a conservative blogger vs. a liberal blogger are the same so far as I can tell.
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