Tag Archives: reality

An Epistemic Crisis

Epistemology is the study of knowledge, justification, and the rationality of belief. Epistemic may not be a word we commonly use, but I think it was entirely appropriate in this Vox headline: “With Impeachment, America’s Epistemic Crisis has Arrived.”

The Vox article focuses on what it calls a “stress test,” and considers whether the right can shield itself from “plain facts in plain sight.”

Unlike Mueller’s report, the story behind the impeachment case is relatively simple: Congress approved military aid for Ukraine, but Trump withheld it as part of a sustained campaign to pressure Ukraine into launching an investigation of his political rival Joe Biden’s family. There’s a record of him doing it. There are multiple credible witnesses to the phone call and larger campaign. Several Trump allies and administration officials have admitted to it on camera. Trump himself admitted to it on the White House lawn.

It’s just very, very obvious that he did it. It’s very obvious he and his associates don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. And it’s very obvious there is something wrong with it. Holding US foreign policy hostage to personal political favors is straightforward abuse of power, precisely the sort of thing the Founders had in mind when they wrote impeachment into the Constitution.

It’s a clearly impeachable pattern of action, documented and attested to by multiple witnesses, confessed to multiple times, in violation of longstanding political precedent and a moral consensus that was, until 2016, universal. Compared to Mueller, that is a much more difficult test of the right’s ability to obscure, distract, and polarize.

The article asks the question that all sane, “reality-based” Americans have been asking ourselves: Can the right-wing propaganda machine successfully keep the right-wing base believing an alternate reality–at least long enough to get through the next election?

Earlier in 2017, I told the story of Donald Trump and the rise of tribal epistemology. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that has to do with knowing and coming to know things — what counts as true, what counts as evidence, how we accumulate knowledge, and the like. It’s where you find schools of thought like skepticism (we can’t truly know anything) and realism (the universe contains observer-independent facts we can come to know).

Tribal epistemology, as I see it, is when tribalism comes to systematically subordinate epistemological principles.

When tribal interests overwhelm standards of evidence and internal coherence,  what is seen as “good for our tribe” becomes the primary determinant of what is true. Who is “part of our tribe” becomes the test of who to trust.

A decades-long effort on the right has resulted in a parallel set of institutions meant to encourage tribal epistemology. They mimic the form of mainstream media, think tanks, and the academy, but without the restraint of transpartisan principles. They are designed to advance the interests of the right, to tell stories and produce facts that support the tribe. That is the ultimate goal; the rhetoric and formalisms of critical thinking are retrofit around it.

It began with talk radio and Fox, but grew into an entire ecosystem that is constantly working to shape the worldview of its white suburban/rural audiences, who are being primed for what the author calls “a forever war with The Libs, who are always just on the verge of destroying America.”

The article is lengthy and well worth reading in its entirety, but the following paragraphs graphically describe what that “epistemic crisis” will look like over the next year:

This is the story of American politics: a narrowly divided nation, with raw numbers on the side of the rising demographics in the left coalition but intensity and outsized political power on the side of the right coalition. Put in more practical terms, the right still has the votes and the cohesion to prevent a Senate impeachment conviction.

On the downslope of a fading, unpopular coalition is not a great place for Republicans to be. It doesn’t augur well for their post-2020 health as a party. But it is enough to get them through the next election, which is about as far ahead as they look these days.

All they need to do is to keep that close partisan split frozen in place. Above all, they need to ensure that nothing breaks through to the masses in the mushy middle, who are mostly disengaged from politics. They need to make sure no clear consensus forms, nothing that might find its way into pop culture, the way the entire nation eventually focused its attention on Nixon’s impeachment.

It’s a kind of magic trick they’re going to try to pull off in full view.

If it succeeds, reality and America both lose.

 

 

 

Denial Isn’t a River in Egypt

I recently read a sobering report on climate change; apparently, the pace of the predicted rise in sea levels is accelerating. The effects will not be uniform–some areas will see a more rapid rise than others. As the introductory paragraphs noted,

polar ice is melting and the seas are rising faster than at any time in at least 2,800 years. The sea level has climbed by up to nine inches since 1880 and by three inches since 1993, according to research published in Nature.

For Americans living near the coasts and wondering how long before their homes are inundated, a new NOAA report — released on the last day of Barack Obama’s administration — offers region-specific predictions to help them prepare.

I was struck by the matter-of-fact tone of the article. The authors were scientists who obviously believed that they were communicating with readers who would respect settled science based upon verifiable fact and evidence.

Fact and evidence are critically important to human survival.

Because distinguishing fantasy from fiction is so important, we cannot afford to ignore Donald Trump’s constant assaults on reality. That point was made–cogently and emphatically–by Bret Stephens, a Wall Street Journal reporter, in a recent essay for Time Magazine.

You really need to read the entire essay, which is a defense of the importance of objective fact by a conservative journalist.

We honor the central idea of journalism — the conviction, as my old boss Peter Kann once said, “that facts are facts; that they are ascertainable through honest, open-minded and diligent reporting; that truth is attainable by laying fact upon fact, much like the construction of a cathedral; and that truth is not merely in the eye of the beholder.”

And we honor the responsibility to separate truth from falsehood, which is never more important than when powerful people insist that falsehoods are truths, or that there is no such thing as truth to begin with.

Stephens is defending not just reporting, but the importance of credible sources of information in a world where misinformation is a weapon wielded by the unscrupulous.

Ideologically, the president is trying to depose so-called mainstream media in favor of the media he likes — Breitbart News and the rest. Another way of making this point is to say that he’s trying to substitute news for propaganda, information for boosterism.

His objection to, say, the New York Times, isn’t that there’s a liberal bias in the paper that gets in the way of its objectivity, which I think would be a fair criticism. His objection is to objectivity itself. He’s perfectly happy for the media to be disgusting and corrupt — so long as it’s on his side.

As Stephens notes, Trump has a habit of defending questionable or clearly false assertions by saying that “lots of people” agree with him.

Now many people also say Jim Morrison faked his own death. Many people say Barack Obama was born in Kenya. “Many people say” is what’s known as an argumentum ad populum. If we were a nation of logicians, we would dismiss the argument as dumb.

We are not a nation of logicians.

I think it’s important not to dismiss the president’s reply simply as dumb. We ought to assume that it’s darkly brilliant — if not in intention than certainly in effect. The president is responding to a claim of fact not by denying the fact, but by denying the claim that facts are supposed to have on an argument.

For Trump, truth is what you can sell, what you can get away with. For those of us who are astonished by the obvious fact that Donald Trump has gotten away with lying about virtually everything, Stephens has an explanation:

If a public figure tells a whopping lie once in his life, it’ll haunt him into his grave. If he lies morning, noon and night, it will become almost impossible to remember any one particular lie. Outrage will fall victim to its own ubiquity. It’s the same truth contained in Stalin’s famous remark that the death of one man is a tragedy but the death of a million is a statistic.

We all know people who prefer to live in their own realities, no matter how divorced from demonstrable fact. Donald Trump appears to be one of them, and the danger that poses for the nation is–or should be– obvious.

The seas are going to rise whether the new EPA Secretary believes in climate change or not. Home-grown terrorists will continue to pose a greater danger than imported ones, despite Trump’s insistence on blaming Muslim refugees. A “wall” won’t stop the significant percentage of undocumented immigrants who fly into the country legally but then overstay their visas. Protectionism isn’t going to save American jobs that are overwhelmingly being lost to automation, not trade.

To paraphrase Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the thing about facts is that they’re true whether you believe them or not. Basing policies on fantasies rather than evidence is a recipe for disaster.

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.”

Paradigm Shift

I see where Lindsay Graham–the new Chair of the Senate Committee on Technology–has never used email. And of course, I’ve posted before about James Inhofe, the climate-change denier and evolution skeptic who inexplicably heads up the Senate Committee on the Environment.

Shades of Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, who described the Internet as a “series of tubes.”

Perhaps the most penetrating description of John McCain during his campaign for President was “An analog candidate for a digital age.” It summed up a problem we encounter in times of paradigm shift, when people living in a rapidly vanishing world can no longer communicate with inhabitants of the emerging reality.

We have lawmakers who might just as well occupy different planets, so different are their frames of reference and worldviews. No matter how well intentioned, no matter that they have some abstract understanding that new technologies are creating new cultural norms, it is simply not possible for such people to make rational decisions about realities with which they have no firsthand experience. (Think Ted Cruz’ embarrassing comments about net neutrality–comments that clearly demonstrated his total ignorance of what the issue actually was about. Or Presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who demonstrated his lack of comprehension by saying  “The idea of regulating access to the internet with a 1934 law is one of the craziest ideas I’ve ever heard”–then multiply that cluelessness by the number of elected officials who are similarly rooted in another era.)

As a site called “The Big Blue Gumball” noted in a discussion of paradigms and paradigm shift:

Among the biggest paradigm shifts of the last 10 years have been the transitions from analog to digital, and from wired to wireless. These revolutionary technological changes have led to major sociological and behavioral modifications that impact our everyday lives – from the way we live and work, to the ways we entertain ourselves and engage with others.

But not the way all too many lawmakers understand the world.

We’re in big trouble.

 

 

 

Alternate Realities

There’s an old song lyric that begins “Two different worlds..we live in two different worlds.” At the end of the song, the lovers turn those “two different worlds” into one.

In politics these days, Republicans and Democrats also live in different worlds–but they show little or no interest in merging them, or finding common ground.

Take the issue of personal responsibility, for example. (Invoking the importance of encouraging individual responsibility is the GOP’s standard reason for opposing virtually all government social programs.)

Here’s my question: how do Republicans who want to reduce the size of government until it is “small enough to drown in a bathtub” propose that citizens “take responsibility” for things like the recent West Virginia chemical spill? How, precisely, are individuals supposed to assume responsibility for things like the purity of their drinking water, or for the air they breathe, or the safety of the food they purchase and consume?

Even Republicans who concede that government has a role to play in these matters, however, will insist that individuals are personally responsible for their own economic status.

If you believe that poor people are poor because they don’t work hard (and rich people are rich because they do)– a belief shared by most Republicans, according to a recent poll– do you also blame poor people for failing to take “personal responsibility” for a lack of available jobs? What additional “personal responsibility” should be exhibited by the millions of working poor–the folks working 40 or more hours a week at jobs that don’t pay them enough to get by?

Today’s Republicans and Democrats do live in two different worlds. The Republican world is tantalizingly simple: a place where virtue is rewarded with success in the best Calvinist tradition–a world where those who work hard, attend church and marry someone of the opposite gender will prosper.

Democrats and Independents occupy a messier reality, where luck and privilege explain the gap between the haves and have nots more often than diligence and talent, and where simple explanations–however comforting– rarely tell the whole story.

In the Republican reality, government is unnecessary; in the reality inhabited by everyone else, it’s essential.