If you’ve been tooling around the blogosphere, particularly amongst the writings of the so-called conservative intelligentsia, you may have run into the words “epistemic closure.” The phrase seems to have originated with conservative blogger Julian Sanchez, who admits on his blog that he’s giving an old undergraduate philosophy term a new spin; in this case, “closed off to new information.”
Sanchez is concerned that conservative media has become “worryingly untethered from reality…”, a phrase seized upon with delight by both the New York Times and Salon; both also covered, in gleeful detail, some of the nastier rifts between the “true” conservatives, who see the David Brooks of the world as sell-outs, and those of Brooks’ and Sanchez’s ilk, who think the propaganda pushers as, well, loony-tunes.
Sanchez’s concerns are chiefly with the conservative media, which positions itself as a purveyor of truth among of sea of liberal media liars, even though it seems to promulgate misinformation and “fact-based” information with equal fervor. This scarcely seems like news to critics of the Fox juggernaut and the soaring careers of Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, and now, Palin. But I suspect “epistemic closure,” despite its high-falutin’ phrasing and amusing provenance (Hey, want a laugh? Check this out; the conservatives are fighting!), might go a long way in describing where we find ourselves today: angry, disaffected, partisan, opinionated; unwilling, unable, and unconvinced that any information could ever change our minds or make us move a millimeter off whatever position we’ve staked out. It’s close-mindedness writ large and applied to whole sets of beliefs or groups of people down to one person or a single memory.
Though I tend to be firmly in the liberal camp, let me remind my fellow progressives that allowing one’s mind to slam shut isn’t limited to conservative thinkers. We all are guilty at times of absorbing misinformation, regurgitating old assumptions, resorting to ancient biases, or falling back on preconceived notions. Even if we could ever get back to arguing ideologies (the role of government, the pace of change) instead of assigning stereotypes (immoral liberal; cold-hearted conservative), we’d have to learn to see various shades of grey along with our black/white (or red/blue) mindset. For a smart and supposedly tolerant group of people, we’ve become dangerously inept at seeing another’s point of view.
Of course, the current contretemps over the craziness at the fringes of either party (or either ideology) is magnified by the ubiquity of media, professional and amateur, mainstream and new, informed and less so. It’s so easy these days to whip up a group of anxious, confused people on information overload – and it’s clearly more profitable. It’s also irresponsible, especially when dealing with a group of people so clearly afflicted with epistemic closure.