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Epistemic Closure, Technology, and the End of Distance

April 7th, 2010 · 138 Comments

I’ve written a bit lately about what I see as a systematic trend toward “epistemic closure” in the modern conservative movement. As commenters have been quick to point out, of course, groupthink and confirmation bias are cognitive failings that we’re all susceptible to as human beings, and scarcely the exclusive province of the right. I try to acknowledge as much, and I’m often tempted to pluck some instances from the left just to show how very fair-minded and above the fray I am. (For instance, I find myself increasingly sympathetic to complaints about the coverage of the Tea Parties: Obviously there are both subtle and not-so-subtle bigots in the pack, but I doubt they’re representative, and it’s a huge leap to the dismissive suggestion that the phenomenon is nothing but a manifestation of racial anxiety.) Yet I can’t pretend that, on net, I really see an equivalence at present: As of 2010, the right really does seem to be substantially further down the rabbit hole.

Perhaps some of that perception can be put down to the fact that I mostly write about the issues where I’m prone to agree with progressives—so I’m more conscious of it when Fox spins fantasies about the Patriot Act than when MSNBC spins on economics or health care—but I don’t think that’s the whole of it, since I feel like I see the same tendencies even on issues where I’m closer to the conservative position. So suppose it’s true that there’s a real asymmetry here—the obvious question, if we’re going to sideline the cheap partisan explanation that conservatism intrinsically appeals to the stupid or closed minded, is why this should be true now. I have a couple ideas, and (perhaps another bit of personal bias) they mostly focus on the effects of technological change.

The big obvious change is the democratization of media, where the idea that there’s a liberal bias in the journalistic profession has long been part of the conservative narrative. The effect of this is, I think, usually exaggerated, and the forms bias takes more complicated than the popular caricature. But it’s clearly empirically true that reporters are disproportionately liberals and Democrats, and I expect it’s even more the case at the networks and major national dailies. Cable and the Internet have, of course, opened things up dramatically.

But as Tucker Carlson won boos for pointing out at CPAC last year, the fact is also that publications like The New York Times fundamentally practice solid journalism. Inevitably, reporters’ and editors’ own views are at least subconsciously going to shape how stories are presented and which are seen as newsworthy in the first place however hard they might strive for objectivity. It’s still more likely when those views are shared by the large majority of the professional community.

Still, there’s a lot of institutional and cultural capital built up in those hoary outlets, which at least produces a set of norms and practices that create pressure toward more fair and accurate reporting—and some of that bleeds over into even the explicitly ideological ones. The output may have varying degrees of liberal slant, but The New York Times is not fundamentally trying to be liberal; they’re trying to get it right. Their conservative counterparts—your Fox News and your Washington Times—always seem to be trying, first and foremost, to be the conservative alternative. And that has implications for how each of them connects to the whole ecosystem of media: Getting an accurate portrait is institutionally secondary to promoting the accounts and interpretations that support the worldview and undermine the liberal media narrative. Perhaps ironically, the trouble is that the novel conservative institutions that have emerged as an effect of technological innovation lack that Burkean reservoir of evolved, time-tested local traditions.

There’s another explanation that’s related to the rise of what I’ve called the politics of ressentiment, maybe best illustrated with the help of an example in the news lately. Constance McMillen, as you may have read, is a teenage lesbian in Fulton, Mississippi who (with the help of the ACLU) sued for the right to bring her girlfriend to her high school prom, and to attend wearing a tux.  At first, the school planned to simply cancel the prom rather than afford Constance the basic equality a court agreed they should. But ultimately, there was an official “prom” attended by Constance and a handful of others, including a couple of the class’ learning disabled kids, and a real (but unofficial) prom sponsored by parents, to which she wasn’t invited.

Here’s what’s interesting for present purposes. A bunch of her classmates started a Facebook group called “Constance quit yer cryin” to ridicule her. The attitude of the students and parents who spoke up there was characterized less by overt homophobia than by a resentment of the effort, characterized as attention-grubbing and selfish, to upset local traditions and “force” the school to cancel the dance by demanding equal treatment. But then gay-friendly sites—including traffic behemoth Perez Hilton—began linking the group, bringing a tsunami of comments from people all over the world, in numbers vastly dwarfing the original membership. Almost all condemned the actions of the school and parents, and supported Constance.  Not a few doled out their own hateful stereotypes, heaping scorn not just on the school, but on southerners or Christians on the whole, as inbred rednecks. Photos were posted, and much speculation ensued about which rack at Walmart various prom dresses had come off.

Contemplate how vertigo-inducing this must be. You’ve got a local community where a certain set of cultural norms is so dominant that it’s just seen as obvious and natural that a lesbian wouldn’t have an equal right to participate in prom—to the point where the overt hostility isn’t really directed at Constance’s sexuality so much as her bewildering insistence on messing with the way everyone knows things are supposed to be. They’re not attuned to the injustice because it seems like almost a fact of nature. Except they’re now flooded with undeniable evidence that a hell of a lot of people don’t see things that way, and even hold their community in contempt for seeing things that way. There have been thousands of “outside” posts in a handful of days, with more every minute. (Think of the small-town high school quarterback getting to college and realizing, to his astonishment, that everyone thinks the “art fags” he used to slag on are the cool ones. Except without even leaving the small town.)

Fulton is an extreme case, but I think there are probably a lot of conservative communities that feel a lower-grade version of this all the time. So here’s a hypothesis: Epistemic closure is (in part) an attempt to compensate for the collapse of geographic closure. A function no longer effectively served by geographic segregation—because the digital equivalents of your local hangout are open to invasion by the hordes from New York and London—is being passed to media segregation, bolstered by the sudden demand that what was once tacit and given be explicitly defended.

On both explanations—and I think they’re complementary rather than competing—the shift toward epistemic closure is linked to changes in communications technology. Then the obvious question is whether it’s a short-term symptom of adjustment to that technology, or the start of a new equilibrium.

Tags: Journalism & the Media · Sociology



138 responses so far ↓

  • 1 フィンペシア // Jan 19, 2012 at 11:46 am

    but seems to make his rent attacking conservatives posited

  • 2 Lauvaux // Jan 24, 2012 at 12:10 am

    I want to BBQ me some ribeye at the next Hindu wedding I attend. What? Not allowed? To heck with that … call the ACLU! Are they so blind, the Hindus, so epistemically closed off to my rights? Oh, the injustice!

  • 3 Overreach | The Angriest Liberal // Feb 17, 2012 at 1:49 pm

    […] is part and parcel of what Julian Sanchez , David Frum, Jon Chait were discussing all last year, the Epistemic Closure of the Republican […]

  • 4 Mr. anti conformist-left // May 18, 2012 at 3:36 am

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  • 5 The Technology-Culture Gap in Online Activism « shouting loudly // Jul 24, 2012 at 11:42 am

    […] read blog posts on the issues at the top of the media agenda.  It’s great for establishing epistemic closure.  But “click here to read more” is an awful means of growing your member list. […]

  • 6 On "epistemic closure" and other maladies of the Right // Aug 7, 2012 at 8:08 am

    […] blogger Julian Sánchez recently posted a very interesting comment on the “systematic trend toward “epistemic closure” in the modern conservative […]

  • 7 Newsweek’s Admission Illustrates Exploitable Vulnerability In The Media | flexosaurus // Aug 24, 2012 at 6:56 am

    […] Meanwhile, Newsweek's avoidance of fact-checking is just one example of a larger erosion of journalism, led by shrinking newsrooms, layoffs, and more. The erosion of the structures of journalism in turn fuels a growing lack of credibility for the media in general, and offers an opportunity for the conservative echo chamber to fill the gap. This trend is incredibly hard to reverse, largely because of what Julian Sanchez has labeled epistemic closure. […]

  • 8 Mike // Aug 24, 2012 at 8:37 pm

    You know I don’t think it’s the choice of journalists to be Democrats. It’s the other way around. There’s very little offered to educated people by the modern GOP, which at every turn disavows the lessons of history, scientific fact and economic wisdom and plays to the fears of the poor and uneducated to keep their votes against their best interest and further the goals of the rich business elite.

  • 9 Romney’s birther joke and the closed information loop – PostPartisan – The Washington Post « Ye Olde Soapbox // Aug 28, 2012 at 12:22 am

    […] causes that feedback loop, it doesn’t currently exist equally for both parties; Republicans have built their epistemic closure by systematically demonizing and discrediting the neutral press and encouraging their supporters […]

  • 10 The right’s climate denialism is part of something much larger | Grist // Sep 4, 2012 at 12:40 am

    […] the right’s climate denialism hasn’t been properly linked to the larger phenomenon of epistemic closure on the right. When Jim Manzi, everyone’s favorite sensible conservative, criticized fellow conservative […]

  • 11 lostto // Sep 29, 2012 at 12:54 am

    Hmm…very interesting point there, epistemic closure being related to collapse of geographic closure…being a many-years res of NorCal, but raised in Indiana, this rings true to me, and helps reframe some conservative ideology for me….still drives me nuts, but the insight lessens my exasperation.

  • 12 The Ten Worst Christian Media Hacks, #5-1 | Patrol - A review of religion and the modern world // Oct 19, 2012 at 1:27 pm

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  • 13 The Mainstream Hits Hard | Blogging Change // Nov 25, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    […] in April, Julian Sanchez noted the following about the American media: [A]s Tucker Carlson won boos for pointing out at CPAC last […]

  • 14 お気楽なわたし // Jan 27, 2013 at 9:12 pm


  • 15 One Man Book Club: Cognitive Surplus, Chapter 7 | Donefer.com // May 4, 2013 at 12:34 pm

    […] one can only see the other side as pure evil. Julian Sanchez wrote what I believe to be one of the definitive articles on conservative* epistemic closure in 2010. The nut of his […]

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  • 17 Don’t feed the climate trolls | News // Mar 20, 2014 at 3:03 pm

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  • 18 Reports from Venezuela: Two views of the ‘Dialogue’ | Babalú Blog // Apr 12, 2014 at 3:01 pm

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  • 19 Wherein Republicans Believe Their Own Propaganda // May 9, 2014 at 7:53 am

    […] House subcommittee hearing; it matters quite a bit when it extends to governing capacity. A party incapable of seeing outside of its own propaganda bubble is unlikely to be able to govern competently. Republicans Stumble on Flawed Obamacare `Facts' – […]

  • 20 What's the matter with Scotland? It's full of Scottish people. » Spectator Blogs // May 29, 2014 at 5:54 am

    […] It is what, deep down, many Yes voters (nationalists or not!) really think. It reflects a kind of epistemic closure. There are no good or even vaguely plausible reasons for thinking differently; anyone who does so […]

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  • 22 An Epistemology of Media Bias | s-usih.org // Oct 17, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    […] 2010, libertarian writer Julian Sanchez used the term “epistemic closure” to help explain the closed system of logic used by movement conservatives. Arguing that […]

  • 23 Violence and Euphemism - Freedom's Floodgates // Jan 17, 2015 at 4:04 pm

    […] support as horrible, or at least questionable. But if you form a bubble, if you move towards what Julian Sanchez calls “epistemic closure,” it becomes very easy to escalate your support for violence. You talk […]

  • 24 Violenza ed Eufemismi - Freedom's Floodgates // Jan 26, 2015 at 8:06 am

    […] la violenza. È però più probabile che accada se ci si chiude in una bolla, o in quello che Julian Sanchez chiama un “recinto epistemico”, dove è molto più facile trovare sostenitori. Parla con […]

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  • 26 Why Do Good Politicians Do Bad Things? « ellen post // Mar 10, 2015 at 3:03 pm

    […] On the rise of epistemic closure, especially on the right, see, for example, http://www.juliansanchez.com/2010/04/07/epistemic-closure-technology-and-the-end-of-distance/; […]

  • 27 Sea Level Rise in Miami and Politics. Let’s just say no to the “deniers.” « cyndi lenz // Jul 31, 2015 at 8:09 am

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  • 29 The Republican Party May Be Failing – FiveThirtyEightAll Breaking News | All Breaking News // Jan 29, 2016 at 1:42 pm

    […] popularity because they don’t encounter very many Trump supporters. At the same time, they exist within the political echo chamber and are inundated with constant media chatter about Trump’s polls and momentum. The party elites […]

  • 30 The Republican Party May Be Failing | International Reaction // Jan 30, 2016 at 8:02 pm

    […] recognition given they don’t confront unequivocally many Trump supporters. At a same time, they exist within a domestic relate chamber and are flooded with consistent media gibberish about Trump’s polls and momentum. The celebration […]

  • 31 What #GamerGate Should Teach Us (But @JesseSingal Refuses to Learn) : The Other McCain // Apr 27, 2016 at 10:43 am

    […] world does not divide along neat political lines, but the temptation toward what Julian Sanchez dubbed epistemic closure is one that too many journalists are unable to resist. To approach the news from a perspective of […]

  • 32 The Perils of Faceberg | American-Rattlesnake // May 27, 2016 at 9:06 am

    […] Facebook’s tendency to delete outspoken, non-leftist accounts. It’s interesting how liberals lament epistemic closure while simultaneously overlooking the stranglehold not only old but new […]

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    […] writer Julian Sanchez, on the epistemic closure within the conservative movement, from all the way back in […]