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How do you measure 'epistemic closure'?

"Epistemic closure," Julian Sanchez writes, is the toxic result of "confirmation bias plus a sufficiently large array of multimedia conservative outlets to constitute a complete media counterculture, plus an overbroad ideological justification for treating mainstream output as intrinsically suspect." It is, in other words, the conditions necessary for a political movement to fool itself into believing whatever's convenient. And, Sanchez says, it's one of the serious problems facing the conservative movement right now.

Plenty of conservatives, of course, do not agree that their movement is epistemically closed. "Maybe my experience is far, far more of an exception to the rule than I can imagine, but it still seems to me that liberalism is far more shot through with political correctness and intellectual taboos than the right," writes Jonah Goldberg, author of "Liberal Fascism."

Maybe! But we'd all agree that it's certainly theoretically possible for partisans of one party to embed themselves inside an echo chamber and become systematically more hostile to outside evidence than partisans of the other party. And given that this country has only two serious political parties, that would clearly be a troubling state of affairs. So the relevance of this discussion and the potential need to have it are not, I imagine, in doubt. The question is how do you measure epistemic closure?

The easy answer is you test for its product: Misinformation. What you'd want to do, I guess, is continuously poll a standard set of questions based on empirical facts. "Has GDP grown since President X's inauguration?" "Have global temperatures been rising or falling in recent decades?" "Does the United States have longer life expectancy than other developed nations?" "Do a majority of Americans approve of the president's job performance?" That sort of thing. Have representatives of both parties decide the questions and then see whether respondents from one party or the other get more questions right.

But you'd need some time. In the absence of that, you need to look at the conditions for epistemic closure. And here I'd direct you towards this list of the top radio programs in the United States. They are, in order, The Rush Limbaugh Show, The Sean Hannity Show, Savage Nation, and Glenn Beck. No self-consciously liberal media program is of comparable size to these behemoths.

The size of these programs (and Hannity and Beck are of course popular television hosts as well) gives them and their worldview a unique political power in the conservative movement. No liberal media figure holds as much sway with Democratic politicians as Limbaugh does with Republican politicians. The guy was named an honorary Republican congressman by the class of 1994, in fact.

Pretty much the same goes for Fox News. It's unquestionably larger than any similarly movement-oriented liberal news network, and it has more power amongst Republican politicians than any liberal news network does.

At least insofar as the conservative movement has a larger and more powerful media ecosystem dedicated to advancing a vision of the world that's aligned with the movement's priorities, it would seem that the conditions for epistemic closure are more prevalent in the conservative movement than in the liberal movement. I think that the counterargument some conservatives might offer would be that the New York Times and CBS News are liberal, but anyone arguing that those outlets are partisan or politicized in the way that Limbaugh is partisan and politicized is, well, sort of a walking example of epistemic closure.

The question, I guess, is whether you think that Fox News and rightwing talk radio hosts are likely to misinform their viewerships. It certainly seems that way to me, but I haven't conducted a rigorous study on the question. These guys, however, gave it a shot, and they found that Fox News had a remarkably uninformed audience, while Limbaugh's audience was actually pretty well informed. The questions here were pretty basic "who holds the House" kind of things, though. If you were trying to test for closure, you'd want questions where reality might have a tilt towards one party or the other.

But this is the sort of thing you probably want to look at: Where the party's opinion leaders and base get their news, and whether those news sources seem likely to warp their audience in a particular way. It seems to me that if you're a conservative, dismissing the question of epistemic closure either requires believing that rightwing media isn't very powerful or is very concerned with portraying the world accurately.

By Ezra Klein  |  April 26, 2010; 8:17 AM ET
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This definition needs to be pushed a little further however to encase the kinds of misinformation people believe and how it affects their decisions. When I read a poll saying that some huge part of the american population believes in extra-terrestrial alien visitors, I'm not really worried because that doesn't affect our political process. But when people think that obama is a muslim jihadist or bush planned 9/11... then we've got a problem.

This room for ambiguity leads me to believe that any bi-partisan study on the issue would be anything but scientific.

Posted by: theamazingjex | April 26, 2010 8:44 AM | Report abuse

American conservatism also lends itself to this closure through the narrowness of its agenda. You don't have to be informed about any issue to say that government is the problem and that taxes are too high, or that traditional values are under attack. There may or may not be merit to these positions in some cases, but no particular knowledge base is required to back these positions.

Posted by: jduptonma | April 26, 2010 8:58 AM | Report abuse

THANK GOD there is a title for the derangment syndrome presented by the GOP. They are completely crazy.

Posted by: dematheart | April 26, 2010 9:02 AM | Report abuse

"I think that the counterargument some conservatives might offer would be that the New York Times and CBS News are liberal, but anyone arguing that those outlets are partisan or politicized in the way that Limbaugh is partisan and politicized is, well, sort of a walking example of epistemic closure."

I stopped listening to Rush 20 years ago because he is too predictable, egotistical and bombastic. I read the NYT online edition every day (in addition to Huffington Post, WaPo, and a broad cross section of liberal and conservative web sites). Sorry Ezra, but anyone who does NOT recognize the NYT and CBS are partisan or politicized in the way that Limbaugh is partisan and politicized is, well, sort of a walking example of epistemic closure. They may be slighlyly less bombastic but they are no less biased.

Posted by: WoodbridgeVa1 | April 26, 2010 9:04 AM | Report abuse

Reminds me of this report during the Iraq War:

Posted by: Chris_ | April 26, 2010 9:13 AM | Report abuse

i'm just thinking out loud here but are/were conservatives as afraid of progressives as liberals seem to be of the tea party people? Certainly progressives never got the MSM exposure on a consistent basis that the tea partiers did.

Posted by: visionbrkr | April 26, 2010 9:18 AM | Report abuse

I think a telling question (one that probably can't be easily polled) is: "What have you discovered over the years that you were wrong about?" As a liberal, there are a number of things I can say I discovered I was wrong about over the years -- for example, markets are good at doing more stuff than I imagined when I was younger, and I also learned that I had to respect unintended consequences more than I had thought. Learning this stuff hasn't changed my principles and values, but hopefully it's made me more thoughtful and more effective about putting them into practice.

When I talk to conservatives, though, the only thing they ever tell me they were wrong about is: "Liberals are even stupider, more evil, and more dangerous than I had realized." To me, THAT kind of thinking is a clear symptom of epistemic closure.

Posted by: bcamarda2 | April 26, 2010 9:30 AM | Report abuse

first....godspeed to bill moyers.
thank you, bill moyers, for what you have given to the american people....

and reading this post,
makes me miss the non-hysterical days of walter conkite and black and white evening news.
walter cronkite = sanity, integrity, composure, objectivity, dignity, decency.
he was a serious man.
he took the news seriously.
he treated his audience with respect,
and you felt that his word was his bond.
years ago, news was not a source of entertainment.
the news, was the news.
there werent flourescent, pulsating screens....
we werent flooded with opinions and experts.

it was a quieter time.
you could listen to walter cronkite,
and still hear yourself think.

Posted by: jkaren | April 26, 2010 9:33 AM | Report abuse

"Have representatives of both parties decide the questions"

The process has just failed.

Posted by: AaronSVeenstra | April 26, 2010 9:51 AM | Report abuse

I don't know about that, jkaren. Sure, Walter Cronkite had composure, objectivity, etc. But, what voices were left out in that sort of media environment? When you have "the voice of reason" coming from a top-down media, that *can* become nearly as scary as the current conservative echo chamber.

I mean, if you looked at the history of journalism in America or Europe, things have always been pretty partisan. It's why we still got newspapers with the words Republican and Democrat in them -- only recently have we done this he said/she said "objectivity."

I think the separate issue is whether people actually believe the stuff. When I watch Rachel Maddow, I'm approaching it with the knowledge she's slanted. I take what she says w/ a grain of salt. And I think that's what many of the folks did when our newspapers were still partisan.

The difference nowadays is that *some* conservative activists don't do that, which is reflected in the radical-ness of the coverage (Glenn Beck and his frequent Nazi imagery, etc). Personally, I think it's that as the former "others" have become either less stigmatized (minorities, gays, etc), the dreaded liberal has started taking its place. It's much more malleable to conservative firebrands anyway, and is still useful at whipping up the crazies. (For example, I knew a guy in college who would call things "liberal" like some people call things "gay" ... this stuff can get weird). In the past, there were firebrands demonizing the less politically powerful; now all that negative energy is directed at a specific *political* classification -- impairing how one thinks of themselves as a "conservative" in relation to the "other side."

Posted by: Chris_ | April 26, 2010 9:57 AM | Report abuse

What a reality-based post.

Posted by: paul314 | April 26, 2010 9:59 AM | Report abuse

" Sure, Walter Cronkite had composure, objectivity, etc. But, what voices were left out in that sort of media environment? When you have "the voice of reason" coming from a top-down media, that *can* become nearly as scary as the current conservative echo chamber."

you are absolutely right about that.
there were many voices left out.
i think i was just lamenting a time in broadcasting that seemed so much less shrill. and without cacophony.
in some way, with all of the voices and supposed freedom now, there is so much visual stimulation, "noise," partisan thinking,entertainment, glamour and meanness, that it is hard to hear anything.

i think that was what i meant. but your point is, of course, very well-taken.

Posted by: jkaren | April 26, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

I was going to link to the same study that Chris_ did.

If you watch Fox News, you are likely to have false beliefs that just so happen to favor the GOP side in policy debates.

Posted by: eelvisberg | April 26, 2010 10:16 AM | Report abuse

A wise man once said "Reality has a known liberal bias..."

I could dig deeper and post a thoughtful analysis of conservative perspectives on the teaching of history, economics and political science and foreign affairs... but I haven't had enough coffee yet this morning. So I'll leave Mr. Colbert's quote to stand for itself.

Posted by: Sayne | April 26, 2010 10:18 AM | Report abuse

In a similar vein as bcamarda2: I know RedState is a partisan blog but it seems every blogpost is some variation on "We all know that all liberals revel in performing abortion-murder anywhere anyplace anytime..." and then go on to make some observation. You recognize this style by the absolutes...all amnesty...complete surrender to our enemies...etc etc. But the record shows those on the Democrat side of the aisle hold a lot of different and often conflicting viewpoints.

Try this:

"The democrats in congress are completely focused and vote as a bloc. Their leadership doesn't tolerate any dissent and whips them like rented mules to toe the party line."

The right says this all the time but can anyone who pays attention say this is true? If we substitute republican for democrat, does the statement make more sense?

Posted by: luko | April 26, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

@EK: "The easy answer is you test for its product: Misinformation. "

Um... no. A system, or process, can be closed while still arriving at a 'correct', or formally proper, answer. So the absence of misinformation doesn't imply the absence of an epistemic closure. Conversely, an 'open' system can still arrive at an 'incorrect' answer, otherwise known as 'misinformation', and, therefore, the presence of misinformation doesn't imply closure.

The result, or 'product', of 'epistemic closure', in the the wild, as it were, is not misinformation but cognitive dissonance: incompatibility of information, and an apparent absence of deliberate information gathering. Much harder to measure... since, at the point of forcing someone to make a choice, (e,g. dispel the dissonance) you might send them right back, however temporarily, into the system of epistemic closure.

I'm not at all convinced, however, that we have true epistemic closure as much as unspeakable but countervailing sub-rosa currents. Racists, after all, can't come out and say they are doing things because they are racists... but the knowledge that racism is no longer socially acceptable, nor legally sanctioned, doesn't, it seem to me, prevent actions based upon such beliefs. Perhaps that's the epistemic closure at play here... If somebody who believes that socially unacceptable behavior remains privately acceptable it's not a far swim to that other shore.

That a tightly bounded system of mutually re-enforcing axioms (closure) can lead to unbounded, indeed antagonistic, forces in constant tension (dissonance) might be termed a paradox... But only insofar as either epistemic closure or cognitive dissonance is supportable as a lifestyle: There is evidence that that funny feeling to which Bill Kristol and Jonah Goldberg, et al, have become addicted is the cognitive dissonance that derives from their embrace of epistemic closure... We all, after all is said and done, do end up excelling at that for which we are rewarded.

So, it occurs to me, that, in light of this re-enforcement that the obvious marker for an epistemic closure, if not it's actual 'product', is inconsistency of information: or, if you prefer Ezra, 'misinformation' on the part of an actor that is deliberately misinformation only in relation to prior information presented and/or acted upon... We're all familiar, for example, with the petty hypocrisies of the GOP and they fit this pattern, but the far grander hypocrisies, like the party of the rich and wealthy being the ones you'd 'like to have a beer with...' are both insidious and invidious.

Posted by: swedock | April 26, 2010 10:38 AM | Report abuse

You write:

And here I'd direct you towards this list of the top radio programs in the United States.

But the list you cite contains the following caveat: "These results only take into English-language account commercial programs. Public, non-commercial, and non-English programming is not included in this list."

Your description of the results is inaccurate and misleading in a way that colors the conclusions you draw from the list: my understanding is that the two NPR news shows are both up there in Limbaugh territory.

I'm not saying you're wrong. I'm saying you're using data badly.

Posted by: commonpuffin | April 26, 2010 10:47 AM | Report abuse

The best evidence I have of epistemic closure is that as soon as the topic comes up on a RW sight, someone will very quickly start calling Hitler and Mussolini leftists, usually for no tangible reason. They are impervious to facts that contradict this factually false assertion, redefining private property and capitalism so that somehow Mussolini was as much a socialist as Lenin was. It's a closed, settled argument, just like the "established fact" that global warming is a hoax perpetrated by a worldwide conspiracy of greedy scientists out to destroy the truth, which of course can only be saved by front men for the oil industry.

Mussolini's a leftist and science is a liberal hoax. You can't get to those conclusions if you're open to facts. Period. Only a closed-circle of denial can sustain that kind of malicious wrong.

Posted by: bullsmith | April 26, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse


Hold on, you stopped listening to Rush 20 years ago but you know for a fact that he's exactly the same as CBS? Way to contribute an admittedly uninformed opinion in the guise of absolute fact. Who is CBS shilling for, in your view? Are they a pure organ of the Democratic Party? Are you really asserting that? Because if so it's a perfect example of epistemic closure. You see anything remotely close to non-partisan as biased the same way Rush is? The simple fact is the MSM shills for corporate power and treats Rush's lies with the same profound silence as Mitch McConnell's.

Rush has no equivalent in the Mainstream Media except for Glenn Beck. Olbermann's a bombastic clown, but he's the embodiment of factual reporting compared to Rushbaugh.

Posted by: bullsmith | April 26, 2010 10:59 AM | Report abuse

I read your blog everyday, sometimes while listening to Rush!

I guess it is probably raiser to imagine your opponents as bafoons.

Posted by: JackIL08 | April 26, 2010 11:16 AM | Report abuse

You think you are onto something, but its just the old textbook engineering problem of an underdamped dynamic system with positive feedback--prone to wide positional gyrations and instability (like a Porsche Speedster).

But, hey, I'm reading YOUR column. So conservatives and liberatarians don't rely wholly on radio rantsters. The problem is that the ordinary working stiffs who vote DO. They know our institutions are untrustworthy, and they intend to, and will, purge the system.

Voters are weary of the Iron Triangle (Big Business, Big Labor, Big Government), plus Big Media and Big Religion. They've worn out their welcome. In this game all incumbents are at a disadvantage.

All the nattering in the world won't change those fundamentals. Time to spruce up your resume.

Posted by: Miner49er | April 26, 2010 11:28 AM | Report abuse

I'm not sure that this is a helpful way of looking at the world, since it's so totally unfalsifiable. There will be people on both sides who are going to think that the other side is closed off, and both sides will reject any suggestion that they themselves are closed off.

Posted by: tomtildrum | April 26, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

For at least 10 years I have been on several "reflector" email lists. The number of "True Believers" who have changed their minds about . . . anything are statistically insignificant.

Posted by: billwald | April 26, 2010 11:36 AM | Report abuse

Conservative Is the necessary right hand of progressive- Our constitution attempts to guarantee this plastic balancing act that reflects our society at any given time. Removing and examining conservatism from that dualism- the context of polarity- is mostly an abstract exercise. Generally speaking conservatism seeks to prolong or conserve what has come before- a tactical rather than a progressive or strategic approach to survival. It predicts based on past experience alone. E.g. "we simply can't afford to cut pollution and waste right now.."- seemingly less risk, but with less initial expense, probably poor returns across a society. This is a incontrovertible feature of our current unsustainable trajectory. Inherent in a dominantly right-wing conservative approach is a well-coordinated means to take on- What Has Come Before. That purposeful and specialized description Rhymes with extinction in the animal world. Integrating those two extremes of progress and conservation is a more effective survival path for us to focus on than this tiresome partisan zeal in which politics trumps civics.

Posted by: alika | April 26, 2010 1:29 PM | Report abuse

"The easy answer is you test for its product: Misinformation. What you'd want to do, I guess, is continuously poll a standard set of questions based on empirical facts."

The problem is that for conservatives facts are an inconvenient truth.

Unlike liberals, they rely on faith more often than not, the acceptance of something without either physical evidence or rational proof, or in spite of such evidence or proof. They believe what they want to believe, not what the facts say they must believe.

This is likely because political conservatives tend to be religious conservatives as well, where faith trumps reason due to higher authority. Conservative commentators rely on this in portraying their misinformation, knowing their "facts" won't be challenged by their audience.

Posted by: tomcammarata | April 26, 2010 2:05 PM | Report abuse

i personally LOVE the hypocrisy of someone that complains about conservatives use of the phraseology of "ALL" or "NEVER" or TOTAL" and then turns around


and does the same exact thing ;-)

Pot meet kettle.

Posted by: visionbrkr | April 26, 2010 2:37 PM | Report abuse

"I think that the counterargument some conservatives might offer"...
Well, Ezra, why speculate on what counterargument "some conservatives" might offer? Why not quote a counterargument by one of the better conservative bloggers (not the usual suspects like poor old Rush) -- or better yet arrange an honest debate on who has the bigger echo chamber? (I think your side does, esp. on the Wash. Post)

Posted by: pjk1 | April 26, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

"...given that this country has only two serious political parties..."

This is rubbish. The United States has only two political parties that Klein, and much of the rest of corporate media, are prepared to RECOGNIZE as "serious"...apparently for their own reasons.

The idiotic and counter-factual assumption that only the Republican and Democrat Parties "matter" certainly serves the interests of those two parties (which NEED this assumption to maintain their mutual hegemony over the American political landscape)... but there is scarcely a dime's worth of difference in how the country is run, regardless of which of these two parties wins an election. That President Obama continued so many of Bush's policies demonstrates this pretty clearly, if one didn't get it already.

Most new ideas and policies arise first, not among Republicans or Democrats, but in third parties, and are co-opted by one or the other (or both) of these two as soon as the new idea starts to get some traction.

Voting for third party candidates therefore moves policy, even if the third party candidates do not win... and it is policy, not personality, that matters most.

Posted by: Observer44 | April 26, 2010 4:53 PM | Report abuse

NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered had the 2nd and 3rd place radio spots in terms of listeners from 2002-2008, and while they don't have numbers for 2009 yet, it seems unlikely they've completely fallen off the radar, especially when you consider their market growth.

Their ratings are not included in lists like you provided because they don't subscribe to Arbitron's rating system (and because they are decentralized), but they have an enormous audience. It's estimated at about 20 million, just behind Rush.

That's not to say conservative media doesn't have an dominant grip on radio, because they do. But it's not as tight as you represented above.

Posted by: roquelaure_79 | April 28, 2010 12:15 PM | Report abuse

I'm surprised no one quoted the classic epistemic closure anecdote:

"In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn't like about Bush's former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House's displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn't fully comprehend -- but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.

"The aide said that guys like me were ''in what we call the reality-based community,'' which he defined as people who ''believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.'' I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ''That's not the way the world really works anymore,'' he continued. ''We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.''

Posted by: amorphous | April 28, 2010 5:43 PM | Report abuse

a 20 something liberal, straight out of
college. Trying to break the ties to his
jewish hertitage, a perfect sheep for
the axelrod gibbs obama socialist

Posted by: simonsays1 | April 30, 2010 4:42 PM | Report abuse

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