Thursday, April 15, 2010

More on that Closed Loop

I think we can add "epistemic closure" to the things that Jonah Goldberg either doesn't understand, or pretends not to understand. 

In his second post on the subject (here's the first one, and Conor Friedersdorf's reaction; see also Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Chait), Goldberg fights back against the accusation that conservatives are subject to "political correctness and intellectual taboos."  Moreover, he believes that "the larger 'evidence' that seems to be driving the idea that conservatives are brain dead is the fact that the GOP has become the 'Party of No.'"  But that's not what Julian Sanchez was actually talking about in his post that set everyone talking.  Here's Sanchez:
One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!).
The accusation isn't that conservatives all reach the same conclusions about everything, nor is it that conservatives are excessively politically correct, nor is it that conservatives demand strict adherence to a set of ideas if one is to remain a conservative in good standing.  It's rather about information, and what counts as evidence about the real world.  Sanchez's point is that if one only gets information from a narrow set of sources that feed back into each other but do not engage beyond themselves, that one will have a closed mind (not his phrase, by the way) regardless of what one does with that information.

Evidence to contradict Sanchez can't be found by comparing how many people your side has exiled with the number of people the other side has exiled (and, you know, I can't help but point out that if your prime example of someone who has been banned for violations of political correctness is the president's current director of the National Economic Council, you might want to look for a better example.  Or does Goldberg think that David Frum is likely to get a prominent position in the next Republican White House?  How about Bruce Bartlett?  Lawrence Wilkerson?  Richard Clarke?).  No, evidence to contradict Sanchez would involve...well, to start with, Jonah Goldberg could report where he gets his information?  Does he always watch Fox News, or does he also turn to CNN?  Does he read the New York Times?  If so, does he consider news reports in the Times reasonably reliable (subject, of course, to critical thinking and additional evidence) or does he think news reports in the Times can be "dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted" (as Sanchez asserts).  Does he seek out information from academic sources; does he read, for example, blogging political scientists such as those at the Monkey Cage, or Brendan Nyhan, and Plain Blog (wait, that's me!). 

And then Goldberg could self-report other things (and by the way, I don't know the answer to these questions; I read him only occasionally).  For example: was he one of the conservatives who was certain, in late January and in February, that health care reform was dead?  How often (and I don't know the answer to this) does he find himself repeating things that have long been debunked by neutral fact-check sites such as  Ah, there's a good one -- does he believe that all such sites that claim to be neutral are really just liberals in disguise?

Of course, there are hints that Goldberg would stand as an example of the thing he denies.  He critiques Noah Mellman's essay, and concludes that perhaps Mellman is just upset with those who are more "consistently conservative" than Mellman.  That is: there is conservatism, and if you don't agree with its official positions on the issues, then you're not a consistent conservative.  Or, as Goldberg explains,  "A lot of this closed-mind talk sounds like tendentious code for why conservatives should change their convictions" (his emphasis). To an outsider, this sounds suspiciously like exactly what Sanchez and others are saying, no?  Conservatism, to Goldberg, is constantly under assault from people -- non-conservatives -- who want real conservatives to give up their deepest principles, their capital-C convictions. It appears difficult for him to imagine a situation in which two people are equally conservative, even though they disagree on a number of issues. 

I saved the best for last.  Goldberg:
And I just don't know what these people are talking about when it comes to the notion that the conservative mind is closed. In a way it smacks of the tendency of losers in foreign policy fights to insist they're the "realists" unlike the winners who are really ensorcelled by ideology or idealism.  Just because your preferred position didn't win, doesn't mean the winners have some major intellectual defect or shortcoming.
Look, "realist" and "idealist" are not terms invented post-hoc by people upset that they didn't get their way in Iraq (or any other contemporary policy fight); they are long-settled ideas about international relations.  Nothing about the terms implies "major intellectual defect or shortcoming."  That's Goldberg's view from the apparently very narrow place he lives.  The idea that these types of schools of thought, realists or idealists, could "win," after which conservatives, having settled their convictions in foreign policy, are done with that debate and can safely ridicule the losers (can safely think of them as losers)  -- well, that's what we're talking about.  That is what one who is closed-minded does. 

Obviously, everyone has sources they trust more, sources they are somewhat suspicious of, and sources they dismiss.  What Sanchez is talking about is a group of people who all agree on which sources are to be trusted -- and who have narrowed it down to a fraction of all the information out there, a fraction which is both closed and small and suspicious of any outside sources.  He's actually not talking at all about ideology or issue positions; he's talking about staying in touch with reality, which as Andrew Sullivan reminds us (quoting Orwell) "needs a constant struggle." 

Sanchez, Millman, and Friedersdorf are struggling.  Jonah Goldberg doesn't seem to see the point of it.


  1. Speaking of epistemic closure, how did the liberal blogosphere miss this one?

    It's a prescient critique of the way we think.

  2. @samsamericablog
    That video is what now?

  3. That is quite some video Sam...

    ...No wonder there are no successful conservative comedians.

  4. So, if I want to avoid "epistemic closure" who should I read? I browse the NYTimes, the WaPo, watch MSNBC and surf Washington, Kevin Drum, and Matt Ygglesias. Who would be some smart conservatives who aren't ignoring reality?

  5. Amorphous,

    Lots of conservatives that I recommend on my blogroll, and then go from there.

  6. Goldberg is hardly illustrating anything very new. His is simply the epistemically closed world of the ideologue. Sure of his prejudices--indeed, defending prejudices as such goes back to Burke--Goldberg sees no need to give credit to any viewpoint that is not conservative. This is very old, and what's surprising is that many liberals seem to be surprised at recognizing it. I expect nothing less than closure.

  7. Defending ignorance goes back to Burke as well. So much of modern American conservatism is based in unreality, prejudice and ignorance - one need only look at the willful delusion leading into the Iraq invasion, birthers, 12ers, teabaggers to see it all in action. Kirk claims conservatism to be a state of mind. But epistemic closure seems to be a required element of its maintenence.


  8. I look forward to hearing about the liberal "blogosphere"'s epistemic openness on such questions as race and intelligence, sexual behavior and social stability, ethnic competition, and the dangers inherent in the cognitive elite's pursuit of novelty and complexity. Hmm...maybe not so open! I don't see many liberals talking about these things in a productive, open fashion, and those who do frequently find themselves in embarrassing career stalls. Oh well!

  9. RE: "What Sanchez is talking about is a group of people who all agree on which sources are to be trusted -- and who have narrowed it down to a fraction of all the information out there, a fraction which is both closed and small and suspicious of any outside sources."

    Isn't this what cults do?

  10. Jazzbumpa,

    I strongly disagree that conservatism, either in Burke's time or ours, requires any such thing. I wouldn't categorize Douthat, Friedersdorf, Larison, Dreher, Bartlett, or (and yes, as far as I can see he's a conservative) Sullivan that way, and that's just from looking at my blogroll.


    I think that's nonsense. I think (most of) the liberal blogosphere is open to evidence on all of those questions. Notice that "open to evidence" isn't the same think as having internal disagreements; sometimes, the evidence does all fall on one side of a question. And obviously it's also true that sometimes groups of people can wind up overlooking evidence on one question or another. That's not what this discussion is about, however. (And as far as your examples, the only one that I think would find unanimity or close to it among liberals would be the first one, for what it's worth).

  11. Liberals will stop believing in global warming as soon as there is evidence which merits a change of beliefs.

    Conservatives will start believing in global warming...?

  12. Udolpho,

    Bring the science. (By which I mean peer-reviewed journal articles.) Obviously I can't speak for the entire liberal blogosphere, but if someone brings me a solid, statistically valid study on any of your topics, I'm willing to rethink my beliefs.

    Strike quickly and you can even form my opinions on "the dangers inherent in the cognitive elite's pursuit of novelty and complexity" as I haven't really considered that issue beyond giving new ideas a look and thinking that the universe is too complex to be explained on the back of a postage stamp.


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