Epistemic Closure

An exchange between political commentators leads to insight on views on climate change.

Listening to NPR's All Things Considered three days after the presidential election, I heard something that bears repeating. One of the hosts, Melissa Block, was talking with two political commentators who regularly appear on the show, David Brooks of the New York Times, and E. J. Dionne of the Brookings Institution. The dialogue is below, but first some background to put the comments in context.

This is from CNN:

When Romney was down in the polls, some conservatives complained that media organizations were putting out biased surveys (which led to such sites as unskewedpolls.com).

And when Nate Silver, The New York Times' number-crunching blogger, predicted Obama had a 90% chance of winning, conservatives accused him of bias.

Here's the transcription:

MB: I want to ask you both about the waves of recrimination in Republican circles, especially toward those, including Karl Rove, who fundamentally misread this electorate and continued to see a different outcome even after the results had been called on Fox News.


DB: You know, partisanship barbarizes, and it creates this epistemic closure where people get in information cocoons.

MB: Epistemic closure

DB: That's a very useful phrase these days, believe me.

MB: Translate

DB: Epistemology is the study of what we know, and epistemic closure is being in an information cocoon where you just believe what you want to believe. Confirmation bias is another phrase, and there's a lot of that going around. Not only on Fox News, but apparently with Mitt Romney, who we now know was totally shocked. Well, doesn't he read the newspaper? And so I think people get in their cocoons and they believe what they want to believe, and it's a challenge for all of us.

EJD: I appreciate Professor Brooks' point on epistemic closure. I think something's happened to conservatism that's different – it's different than it was before. Conservatives weren't fact deniers in the past on the whole. And they've really lived in an alternative factual universe, and Nate Silver and the pollsters were only looking at data. Conservatives said “They're just making propaganda here.” Well no, they weren't making propaganda – they were looking at data. And I hope conservatives draw some lessons from this on global warming and other questions where they can give up their epistemic closure.



Dionne's comment is insightful and timely. The vast majority of climate scientists are convinced that human activity is changing the climate. There are those, largely conservative, who claim these scientists are part of a UN plot to take over the world/have been corrupted by a desire for money, fame and glory/pick a conspiracy. No, they are only looking at data. To repeat Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

The whole NPR segment can be heard here. Wikipedia has more on epistemic closure and confirmation bias.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Karl Frank Jr. November 12, 2012 at 02:33 PM
Good stuff...
Larry Lazar November 12, 2012 at 08:29 PM
I was thinking the same thing, except my less technical terminology for "epistemic closure" is "echo chamber". Nicely done Dirk, thanks for posting this.
Talie M. December 05, 2012 at 05:05 AM
I'm just finishing up my semester, and a class on the oceans from a global perspective. The last chapter of my book is dedicated to global climate change. I think the writer of the book (a guy named Paul Pinet) ended the book on that note. This entire book is filled with solid facts on oceans, even though we (that's a global "we") are far from completely understanding all the processes that go on in the oceans - a fact Pinet often goes out of his way to admit in the book. However, he spends an entire chapter describing, qualitatively, how exactly scientists predict global climate change will affect the oceans' processes. Some of it is pretty scary. Food for thought.


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