Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Effects of Epistemic Closure

Back in 2010, Julian Sanchez did us all a favor by defining something he called "epistemic closure."
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!) This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile...It’s not just that any particular criticism might have to be taken seriously coming from a fellow conservative. Rather, it’s that anything that breaks down the tacit equivalence between “critic of conservatives" and “wicked liberal smear artist” undermines the effectiveness of the entire information filter.
The only information allowed inside this bubble of epistemic closure conservatives have built is that which confirms what they already believe to be true. Anything that contradicts their beliefs is written off as coming from "wicked liberal smear artists" and so, not only will it be rejected, it must be destroyed for the threat it represents.

As Sanchez points out - that creates a certain vulnerability for conservatives. What happens is that every now and then, the reality outside the bubble is simply too difficult to ignore and/or reject. We all watched as that happened to one conservative commentator after another on election night 2012. Even the Republican candidate himself was finally shaken out of his epistemic closure. Reality stepped in a provided a bitter pill for all to swallow.

But when your whole identity has been built underneath the protection of that bubble of epistemic closure, even moments like that are followed by rationalizations that breech the fabric that was torn by the intrusion of reality.

What we're witnessing right now is that Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana is experiencing just such a breach in the bubble of his own epistemic closure. He actually believed that the people of Indiana (and the country) would hail his state's adoption of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act because that's what everyone inside his bubble believes.
I spoke with Pence on the same day that thousands of people rallied at the Statehouse in opposition to the law. And the same day that Angie’s List CEO Bill Oesterle announced that his company will abandon a deal with the state and city to expand the company’s headquarters in Indianapolis because of RFRA’s passage.

Oesterle’s statement is a telling sign that the outrage over RFRA isn’t limited only to the political left. Oesterle directed Republican Mitch Daniels’ 2004 campaign for governor. And it’s a signal that the damage from the RFRA debacle could be extensive...

I asked the governor if he had anticipated the strongly negative reaction set off by the bill’s passage. His response made it clear that he and his team didn’t see it coming.

“I just can’t account for the hostility that’s been directed at our state,” he said.
Of course Gov. Pence is now backtracking on this bill and promising to clear up the "confusion" about its intent. But, just as legislators in Georgia learned this week, it is the intention of supporters of RFRA to discriminate against LGBT people. He's about to learn precisely what it means to be between a rock and a hard place.

Democrats should take note of this moment. We often give the pronouncements of those who live inside a bubble of epistemic closure too much power. As Stephen Colbert said so many years ago, "Reality has a well-known liberal bias."

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