What the Hell is Epistemic Closure?

Epistemic closure is a fancy term for the practice of defining–or redefining– reality in ways that support your pre-existing ideological preferences. Most of us think of it as “creating and living in a bubble.”

A recent report from Political Animal illustrates the concept perfectly. Consider this result from a recent PPP poll:

There continues to be a lot of misinformation about what has happened during Obama’s time in office. 43% of voters think the unemployment rate has increased while Obama has been President, to only 49% who correctly recognize that it has decreased. And 32% of voters think the stock market has gone down during the Obama administration, to only 52% who correctly recognize that it has gone up.

In both cases Democrats and independents are correct in their understanding of how things have changed since Obama became President, but Republicans claim by a 64/27 spread that unemployment has increased and by a 57/27 spread that the stock market has gone down.

Another poll–also referenced in the linked post–is even more illuminating: approximately 60% of Republican respondents said that the economy had declined since 2008; but that number jumped to 80% when the question was phrased differently– not in terms of how the economy had performed since 2008, but “since Obama was first elected.”

In 2010, the New York Times book review section had an extended essay devoted to the phenomenon, and in the Age of Trump, it is reasonable to assert that matters have only gotten worse.

The phrase is being used as shorthand by some prominent conservatives for a kind of closed-mindedness in the movement, a development they see as debasing modern conservatism’s proud intellectual history. First used in this context by Julian Sanchez of the libertarian Cato Institute, the phrase “epistemic closure” has been ricocheting among conservative publications and blogs as a high-toned abbreviation for ideological intolerance and misinformation.

Conservative media, Mr. Sanchez wrote at juliansanchez.com — referring to outlets like Fox News and National Review and to talk-show stars like Rush Limbaugh, Mark R. Levin and Glenn Beck — have “become worryingly untethered from reality as the impetus to satisfy the demand for red meat overtakes any motivation to report accurately.” (Mr. Sanchez said he probably fished “epistemic closure” out of his subconscious from an undergraduate course in philosophy, where it has a technical meaning in the realm of logic.)

As a result, he complained, many conservatives have developed a distorted sense of priorities and a tendency to engage in fantasy, like the belief that President Obama was not born in the United States or that the health care bill proposed establishing “death panels.”

In his recent speech to Rutgers’ graduates, President Obama included an eloquent rejoinder to those who wish to construct their own realities:

… when our leaders express a disdain for facts, when they’re not held accountable for repeating falsehoods and just making stuff up, while actual experts are dismissed as elitists, then we’ve got a problem.

You know, it’s interesting that if we get sick, we actually want to make sure the doctors have gone to medical school, they know what they’re talking about. If we get on a plane, we say we really want a pilot to be able to pilot the plane.

And yet, in our public lives, we certainly think, “I don’t want somebody who’s done it before.” The rejection of facts, the rejection of reason and science — that is the path to decline. It calls to mind the words of Carl Sagan, who graduated high school here in New Jersey, he said: “We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions and the depths of our answers, our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good.”

“Epistemic closure” is a more elegant phrase than the ones that come more readily to mind: “The big lie.” “Propaganda.” “Bullshit.”

Or–perhaps most accurate of all–“bat-shit crazy.”

21 thoughts on “What the Hell is Epistemic Closure?

  1. Professor, did you see the article in the Harper’s about those Trump supporters? It was enlightening to say the least.

    Another great one today!

  2. Sheila,
    Sheila,

    Thanks.

    How about “Bat-shit Crazy: Understanding the Roots of the Tea Party Movement.”

    For many months, I’ve tried to impress on everyone, however, unsuccessfully, that the man responsible for the creation of the Religious Right/Far Right Movement which has been branded in succession: Moral Majority, Christian Coalition, and finally Tea Party was mentally ill with many hospital stays and who finally committed suicide.

    For God’s sake, I was in-house General Counsel of his corporation. Don’t you think that experience might be of more than a little help in figuring out how to stop this “POLITICAL NIGHTMARE” that is now upon us.

  3. I really hope those Rutgers graduates listened to President Obama and heard what he said.

    Rutgers was infested by the Koch brothers and other wealthy liberals years ago via funding classes that would brainwash students into believing that no government at all is the best and only way for them and our country to prosper.

  4. Marv, how may one access your address at the Sun Tzu Art of War Nashville conference, as well as the other presentations?

  5. Epistemic: of or pertaining to knowledge or knowing, cognitive

    Closure: archaic: 1. means of enclosing, 2. an act of closing, the condition of being closed

    Those definitions came from my Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary which Gopper believes people stopped using after 8th grade. Using those definitions I reached the conclusion that “What the Hell is Epistemic Closure?” simply translates to “staunch Republicans”.

    “Epistemic closure” is a more elegant phrase than the ones that come more readily to mind: “The big lie.” “Propaganda.” “Bullshit.”

    Or–perhaps most accurate of all–“bat-shit crazy.”

    Using Sheila’s translation we can see why Gopper HOPED people stopped using their dictionaries after 8th grade.

  6. The question is, “What will it take to crack the bubble that the right wing lives in?” Facts are a nuisance to these people. They cite their “sources” as if they have infallibility. I heard one woman telling another, that she had heard something from a “reputable source.” Then she said, “Fox News doesn’t make stuff up.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

  7. Wayne,

    “Marv, how may one access your address at the Sun Tzu Art of War Nashville conference, as well as the other presentations?”

    All you can find now from the Inaugural Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” Conference is my being listed as the first speaker at the conference. All the lectures were recorded however the organizer is using self-censorship and not releasing what was said because of the positive reception that was given to the content of my lecture.

    You might notice that I am listed as the first speaker. Originally, I was going to speak second. The first speaker who was nationally known and had lectured at West Point canceled at the last moment. My address was meant to compliment his. That was a major change. Consequently, I made a major change in the emphasis of my lecture. Having been a very experienced trial attorney helped me get out of that jam.

    At the Conference, I discussed in a much more organized fashion, the subject matter which I have been conveying on this Blog since last July. And the reception was overwhelmingly positive with the audience agreeing that I was unbeatable politically in the same way as John Boyd was from a military perspective. It was obvious that we both had developed similar systems of attack.

    John Boyd, who was also a Sun Tzu enthusiast, has been described by many as the #1 post-modern military strategist.

    My main site http://www.EthicalFront.net list numerous websites containing previous issues that I have raised. As I mentioned last Sunday, I was going on the attack in Jacksonville. My first encounter was successful— the leadership of the Jewish Community was neutralized. Importantly, they are no longer a shield for the Religious Right/Far Right at least in Jacksonville.

  8. Wayne,

    You can access information on the Conference from the Sonshi website by clicking HOME and then clicking the large link: EXPLORE THE ART OF WAR. That will lead you to the information you were looking for.

  9. All of the Republicans that are mentioned are simply pointing out what the Globalist – Illuminati are doing . Give a listen to everything that Charlotte Iserbyt tells about how Common Core Ed . Came about when she was Bonzo’s Education advisor. THIS is an extension of that system This did start w/ the Reagan adm.
    Another example is in Bagdad , their museums were raided , and ALL items of significant HISTORICAL value – not monetary were ditroyed , or stolen by u.s. and U.N. forces to destroy their memories of their historical heritage , and to insure that their history is rewritten.
    Not unlike the efforts to remove any memories of America’s Civil War history.
    A good source to listen to on this and other subjects is a gentleman named Jon Rappaport.

  10. These folks on the right spend as much time discrediting legitimate news sources as they do misinforming their followers. We are at about 40% of the population feeding on this contant steam of misinformation, in a time of crises like 9/11 its seems pretty easy to dicourage dissent and push those numbers over 50%.

  11. Of course another test for “epistemic closure” would be to ask if Hillary is a basically honest very hard working professional politician (statesman) who has served her country and we the people long and hard and faithfully.

    Virtually all Republicans , certainly all conservatives and many Democrats live in the echo chamber on that one.

  12. The idea that peoples opinions are fact based rests on the premise they have the facts without the spin or in some cases out right lies. The CIA began a program called Operation Mockingbird, back in the early 1950’s. It was in essence a campaign of information and disinformation fed to the Press. The Press and Reporters were wiling accomplices.

    I no longer rely on CNN, MSNBC, or Fox for News. If you listen to Fox, Obama is the worst President since Jimmy Carter, and Hillary is the worst SOS of all time. MSNBC in contrast will tell us how brilliant Obama and Hillary are. These so called News Networks may mention a fact and then their panel of “experts” will spin and/or lie.
    There was a program I watched years ago about how false memories can be planted in people. Several scenarios were used. One in particular was interesting concerning how the police could manipulate a witness to “see” or recall something that was false. Long story short is, planting a false memory is remarkably easy, given the time to do so.
    We know marketing is effective otherwise corporations would not spend billions of dollars on advertising. I suppose we did not think News and “Facts” would be marketed as a product of choice to be selected by viewer. Pet Rocks anyone???

  13. I just read a NYTs article that tried to diagnose why Hillary is as unpopular as Trump (nobody seems to think that Trump’s unpopularity needs diagnoses). Their conclusion? All she does is work. She seems to have no hobbies or independent life; just work.

    That makes some sense to me except it seems to apply to others too like Bernie and Cruz.

    So maybe it’s more related to being a grandma who doesn’t bake cookies. 🤔

  14. Louie; remember that old childhood game “telephone”? You would sit with some friends; whisper a brief story into the ear of the person next to you, they would turn to the person on their other side and whisper what they heard, and so on around the room. The last person would repeat what they heard; usually with hilarious results and rarely even close to what you whispered. But…in the case of playing “telephone” with politics and government officials and the end result of what was their original statement or intent is never funny.

  15. JoAnn, I recall telephone. We had a company seminar once when I was working, same scenario. The controller whispered a message about some company policy to person number one, by the time the last person out of 20 or so people said aloud what he thought he heard, the message was garbled.

    I voted for Obama twice ( I wish he had been farther to Left). I guess if I was his shoes I would have become rather angry at the games the Republicans were playing and would have been very loud about it, not insulting though. I suppose if Obama had been loud, he would have been characterized by Fox, Rush and the rest of the fact free Right Wing, as the angry Black Man Threat, A militant Black Panther without the beret. Instead Obama was characterized as weak on – immigration, Turror, Russia, Cuba or just fill in the blank.

  16. After reading the post and the comments, I’m thinking it’s possible for ‘epistemic closure’ to be a creeping affliction for any group or organization, whether religious or political. When the need for conformity is high and when groupthink becomes desirable, group and organizational leaders will close the canon, will circle the wagons, both in attempts to maintain the safety of the status quo.

    Perhaps Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are serving as social gadflies by provoking the established status quo of our two-party system. Something to consider.

  17. One of the ways that the right has tried to maintain traction despite the evidence of the failure of their ideas in practice is to say that the middle of the road is the average of their historical extremism and the moderate left. Then they call themselves centrists.

    Of course the truth is that their worldview failed in practice and the moderate left has been very successful by almost every measure. We’ve gone from the valley of Bush to one if the most successful countries in the world economically and have been restored to world leadership again.

    So the evidence says that their approach to government should be discarded and the moderate left worldview fully embraced.

    While it’s very tempting to do that looking just at the last few decades we know that the earth and technology and culture never are stationary so what works best today may not tomorrow.

    So openindedness is always a virtue.

    We just need to stay involved and informed and think with the TV off.

Comments are closed.