Buzzword Alert

April 29, 2010

Those of you who pay attention to the– I’m finding– very insular* American blog world will have run across the “epistemic closure” debate. To summarize: following the passage of the health care law, David Frum– a conservative commentator– was, essentially, drummed out of the establishment conservative intelligentsia because he had the temerity to suggest that the Republicans had adopted the wrong strategy as regarded the law. Frum’s conservative bona fides are not in doubt; this is the guy who wrote the “axis of evil” speech. Additionally we’ve seen Charlie Crist go from being a seeming front runner for the 2012 Republican Presidential nomination to being a Commie-Fascist because he accepted stimulus money as Florida governor and hugged President Obama, and Bob Bennet being on the verge of losing his primary in Utah because he cosponsored an alternative health care bill that didn’t get passed.

This has prompted a bit of introspection on the right, and some thought experiments on the left. The idea that’s currently got the most traction is the “epistemic closure” hypothesis, which essentially says that Conservatives, particularly the intelligentsia, have made it a policy to prohibit dissent and to ignore ideas coming from their left. This has– the theory goes– led to a feedback loop in conservative thought, dragging them inexorably right. To some extent, I do think this is the case; the right in the US has taken a scary (to my eyes) rightward shift in the last decade or so. When Arlen Specter and Charlie Crist leave your party because you’re too Conservative, you’ve got a problem. I think that some of this might be down to the epistemic closure that’s been talked about. But I also think we’re all guilty of it.

To test this, here’s and interesting little exercise from Slate. It describes a little formula that’s been set up to test the variety in people’s information gathering. You can check it to see how diverse your news gathering is. Or, it might show that you’re hopelessly epistemically closed. The test definitely has some shortcomings, though.

For one thing, it doesn’t take into account geography. Example: the BBC is classified as a “liberal” website, since mostly liberals read it in the US. I’m currently in the UK. Why, pray tell, would I go to for UK news? Also, The Guardian isn’t in the list of checked websites at all. I’m on the Guardian every single day, and it is definitely liberal. It doesn’t take in the content of what one reads, either. Example: the New York Times is classified as Liberal. Whatever you think of “liberal media bias”– I think it is BS– I think it is pretty tough to argue that the actual newsgathering of the NYT is liberal. Editorial? Sure. When I read the Times, I read their international coverage– which is excellent– and three of their columnists: Ross Douthat, David Brooks, and Paul Krugman. Krugman is the only liberal of those three. So, it could be argued that when I read the Times, I’m actually getting a conservative point of view. Finally, it doesn’t take into account the amount of time one spends at a site. Example: I have a set of tabs that I launch when I want to check politics news. One of the is The Daily Kos. This is a hopelessly shrill liberal site. (and coming from me…) I never, ever read it; I’m just too lazy to go in and remove it from my bookmarks. Nevertheless, the program on Slate’s site counts those hits when it runs my news diet, pushing me way to the left.

Still, I think it’s an interesting exercise. I’ll admit that my news diet is predominantly liberal; I just don’t think it’s as liberal as the results make it out to be. I also think, really, that the whole epistemic closure thing is a bit overplayed. I’d be surprised if there were many who could honestly claim a truly balanced diet. We’re all probably closed off to one degree or another. But really, I’d encourage you to click the link and give it a try.

*Justification of the “insular” claim: American bloggers seem to be talking to each other, and that’s about it. (In general) Their ideas tend to ping about in the blogosphere– God, I hate that word– until the arguments are sufficiently honed that one of the few with mainstream media cred gets to go on TV or write an op ed and share the accumulated knowledge of the bloggers. I worry about this, actually, because it seems like it’s making the ideas coming out of the sector more partisan.


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