Seth Masket calls out Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry for his article, Vox, Derp, and the Intellectual Stagnation of the Left. Masket is making a broader point about what the people at Vox (or even Frankly Curious) are doing. So he argues that Vox is not some kind of insular liberal love-fest, but rather a public effort to define what liberalism is. If you are interested in that, go read Masket’s article. I am interested in Gobry’s article, but really only its subtitle, “Talk about an epistemic closure problem.”
This had to happen, of course. One of the primary rhetorical weapons of conservatives is, “I’m rubber and you’re glue; whatever you say bounces of me and sticks to you!” Over the past several years, liberals have talked a lot about epistemic closure in the conservative movement. Now, in the study of philosophy, “epistemic closure” means something quite different than what it means in political discourse. But the closest you can come to it is the idea that people tend to take on the beliefs of other people they know and trust. This is why argumentation generally doesn’t work. If I’m arguing with a conservative and I mention some fact that is important in proving my case, the conservative will start asking for sources—like my argument is a scientific paper. But two conservatives talking will accept highly questionable “facts” from each other without a thought. This isn’t necessarily a conservative problem any more than it is a liberal problem.
But recently, “epistemic closure” has come to mean: “political belief systems can be closed systems of deduction, unaffected by empirical evidence.” I think even this is not quite right for the way the term is used. Generally, it is a reference to the fact that conservatives have created their own separate information system: the right wing media echo chamber. The issue with “epistemic closure” is not that people just normally trust information from sources they consider reliable. Everyone does that. There is nothing special about that in this context. What is special here is that most people in the conservative movement don’t even hear information except filtered through their separate information system.
Looking at the liberal and conservatives bases, I think an argument can be made that both suffer from this kind of epistemic closure. But the degree of the problem is very different. Conservatives generally get their political information only from conservative sources. The only mention of what other media sources are reporting is when Fox News, for example, complains that no one else is covering Benghazi! or Solynda. And even these reports just reinforce the epistemic closure because it is telling the viewer that he can’t trust anything anyone says other than explicitly conservative media sources.
On the liberal side, it isn’t like that. First, MSNBC doesn’t claim to be “fair and balanced”—providing just the facts. Special Report with Bret Baier—a supposed straight news show of Fox News—ends with, “Fair, balanced and unafraid.” The implication is that the show is not afraid to tell you the real truth—unlike those useful fools on the networks. Second, MSNBC viewers are quite aware that they are getting biased news coverage. And third, let’s face it: as bad as MSNBC is at times, it doesn’t actively deceive.
The real problem with epistemic closure is among the elites. There is no better example of this than the polling leading up to the 2012 presidential election. The conservative elites tuned out not just what the other side was saying, but what actual pollsters were saying. They just talked among themselves and convinced themselves that the polls were wrong. And this led to Mitt Romney coming into election day actually thinking that he was going to win. These is no more pure example of the catastrophic effects of epistemic closure. Yet it hasn’t changed the behavior of the conservative movement.
We see nothing like this on the liberal side. If we did, the history of the Obama presidency would have been very different. For example, there would be no Obamacare. Actual liberals did hate the idea of Obamacare. They saw it is a really complicated way to improve the healthcare system that wouldn’t work nearly as well as their preferred policy. But they did not convince themselves that because Obamacare was a conservative idea, it couldn’t work or that it wouldn’t make things better. Meanwhile, the conservatives themselves turned on a dime, and complain to this very day that Obamacare can’t work. In fact, supposed reasonable Republican Avik Roy continues to provide the right with every possible excuse to continue to say Obamacare is a disaster. And the stuff gets pushed all over conservative media. It doesn’t matter that his work is generally sloppy and doesn’t show what he claims. When it turns out to be wrong, it just disappears without any mention of it being wrong. Meanwhile, good news about Obamacare never makes it into the closed conservative information system.
That is epistemic closure. But Gobry wants to claim that a lack of “new” ideas means that liberals are experiencing epistemic closure because they are only talking to themselves. Well, as I said, the embrace of Obamacare shows the lie in that. But the truth is that there are very few “new” ideas under the sun. Gobry specifically mentions the minimum wage. Well, actually we liberals are not advocating the minimum wage. We’ve had the minimum wage for a long time and it actually worked quite well. But over the last 45 years, it has been allowed to slip to such a low level that we might as well not have a minimum wage. So we are arguing to make the minimum wage an actual, useful policy. But yes, it is an old policy idea. But it isn’t nearly as old as the conservative alternative to it: have no minimum wage.
Of course, what Gobry is really arguing is that liberals are not deciding that conservative ideas are good. That would be kind of hard. The last 35 years have seen almost nothing but conservative ideas enacted. And these have been mostly just rolling back previous liberal policies and coming up with justifications for taking from the poor and giving to the rich. As I wrote about before, Reagan’s Legacy: Tax Cuts for Rich, Tax Hikes for the Rest. Conservatives might want to claim that they are all about lowering everyone’s taxes, but the facts are that their project—their one big idea—is that the rich should be richer. And that is not a new idea.
But the fact that the conservatives have few new ideas is not why we say they suffer from epistemic closure. We say it because they only talk to themselves. Any unpleasant information that pushes against what they believe simply doesn’t get considered. Facts from outside the movement itself are ignored. That is epistemic closure. Their total lack of any new and good ideas is the result of epistemic closure. But it isn’t epistemic closure itself. Of course, because of epistemic closure, that distinction will never make its way to Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry.
H/T: Washington Monthly