I’m coming to this party late, but I wanted to write something about the great “epistemic closure” debate, sparked by Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute.
A couple of weeks ago, Sanchez suggested that US conservatives have sealed themselves in a self-reinforcing bubble of belief. Enabled by conservative media outlets such as Fox News and Rush Limbaugh’s radio talk show, conservatives have locked themselves in an echo chamber, Sanchez says. Opinions, and even facts, from the outside world are discounted or ignored.
The tendency to pay attention to information that confirms your beliefs and to ignore contradictory information is called “confirmation bias.” Everyone has it, to some degree.
(I observed it in myself just yesterday. Faced with a paper that suggested cutting taxes is better for a stalled economy than stimulus spending, I went looking for economists who disagreed. If the paper had confirmed my beliefs by championing stimulus spending I likely would have accepted it at face value. You can probably come up with your own examples).
But even if everyone does it sometimes, psychology suggests that conservatives as a group might be more vulnerable to Sanchez’s “epistemic closure.” A study a few years ago found a number of personality differences between conservatives and liberals. One of the most striking is that conservatives are much less tolerant of ambiguity and complexity than liberals. If so, they might be more tempted to restrict their information sources to those that won’t challenge their beliefs.
But are conservatives in the real world more closed off from other views than liberals?
This recent paper suggests that they’re not — even in the age of the Internet, most conservatives, and most liberals, are still exposed to a range of opinions and news sources.
Inevitably, the debate has generated partisan sniping. How could it not? Accusations of ideological distortion can always be turned back on the accuser: “You only think my thinking suffers from ideological distortion because of your own ideological distortions.” To which there is no satisfactory answer, I’m afraid. Unless you’re talking only to people who share your ideology.
If you want to dig into this subject a little more, here’s a take by Jaime Weinman at Maclean’s. Jonathan Chait at The New Republic weighs in here. And Jonah Goldberg of the American Enterprise Institute has this to say.