Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Right's "Epistemic Closure"

I first heard the term "epistemic closure" just a few days ago.  Maybe it's new to you too.   Some call it a phenomenon, others a trend that appears to be sweeping the Right.   One explanation of it is a process whereby one simply rejects all facts that don't correspond to a chosen narrative.

Julian Sanchez explored its application to the American media - the mainstream, slightly left, and the full bore, hard right:

"...The output may have varying degrees of liberal slant, but The New York Times is not fundamentally trying to be liberal; they’re trying to get it right. Their conservative counterparts—your Fox News and your Washington Times—always seem to be trying, first and foremost, to be the conservative alternative. And that has implications for how each of them connects to the whole ecosystem of media: Getting an accurate portrait is institutionally secondary to promoting the accounts and interpretations that support the worldview and undermine the liberal media narrative."

Grist's David Roberts looked at the Right's epistemic closure on climate science, using a typical Rush Limbaugh rant:

"We really live, folks, in two worlds. There are two worlds. We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that's where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes ever overlap. ...

The Four Corners of Deceit: Government, academia, science, and media. Those institutions are now corrupt and exist by virtue of deceit. That's how they promulgate themselves; it is how they prosper."

The "four corners of deceit" incorporate basically everyone who knows something and all their institutions.   Roberts points out that the Right's quest, "over the last 30 years has been to dismantle the post-war liberal consensus by undermining trust in society's leading institutions."  He points to recent studies showing the American people have indeed lost much of their trust in most of their institutions save for just two - the police and the military.
"The decline in trust in institutions has generated fear and uncertainty, to which people generally respond by placing their trust in protective authorities. And some subset of people respond with tribalism, nationalism, and xenophobia. The right stokes and exploits modern anxiety relentlessly, but that's not all they do. They also offer a space to huddle in safety among the like-minded. The conservative movement in America has created a self-contained, hermetically sealed epistemological reality -- a closed-loop system of cable news, talk radio, and email forwards -- designed not just as a source of alternative facts but as an identity. That's why when you question climate skepticism you catch hell. You're messing with who people are.

Consider what the Limbaugh/Morano crowd is saying about climate: not only that that the world's scientists and scientific institutions are systematically wrong, but that they are purposefully perpetrating a deception. Virtually all the world's governments, scientific academies, and media are either in on it or duped by it. The only ones who have pierced the veil and seen the truth are American movement conservatives, the ones who found death panels in the healthcare bill."

Surely no one in his right mind could fall for that.   Surely just thinking it through logically would quickly reveal the hoax in these claims.   How could all those tens of thousands of scientists keep their conspiracy secret?  You would have to be insane to believe that but only if you asked yourself the question first.    If you reject the possibility that you're even possibly wrong you can accept illogic.  If you indulge in epistemic closure and simply reject any facts that don't fit your narrative you can believe almost anything you're told.

I don't think there's anyone who grasps the reality of global warming and AGW-driven climate change who doesn't wish it wasn't true, that it wasn't happening.   I'd love to jet around the world just like the old days.   I'd love to get behind the wheel of a real muscle car and blast down the nation's highways.  I'd be delighted not to have to feel some responsibility for the plight of the vulnerable afflicted by our excesses.   But, unlike FOX News, I can't contrive the facts to fit that narrative.  I simply cannot close off facts that I'd rather not hear.   And if you've read this far, neither can you.

But we have to be aware that this devious sleight of hand does work and it has practitioners at the highest levels of the Right.   It was never just Dick Cheney.   It was never just Stephen Harper.  It was all the Dick Cheneys, all the Steve Harpers, all the FOX News media, all the CanWests.

Even the Right isn't entirely immune to this scourge.   David Frum challenged the Right's epistemic closure and was bounced from that supposed "think" tank, the American Enterprise Institute, for his troubles.   The irony is beautiful.   Dumped from a think tank for having the gall to think.

As Roberts urges, we cannot simply take this as a "species of theater."   It's far too sinister for that and it can cause far too much damage if it's not confronted and exposed at every turn.

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