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Frum & Greenwald on Epistemic Closure

May 6th, 2010 · 10 Comments

They’re both a little sick of the term—and believe me, at this point, I empathize—but this is as good a summary of what I was trying to talk about as I’ve seen. The whole discussion is pretty interesting and on point. Greenwald is right, incidentally, that technology hasn’t cloistered partisans—research shows online news consumers are exposed to plenty of views from the other side—the mechanism is a little more complicated than that. The interconnected ideological mediasphere has a mutually reinforcing relationship with a narrative about the dishonesty of the “lamestream media”: You’ve seen a false claim echoed in four or five movement sources, giving it an air of credibility and multiple confirmation, so that by the time it gets enough currency to be debunked, the debunking itself actually serves as further evidence of the perfidy of the biased, liberal debunkers. Anyway, the video:

Tags: Journalism & the Media · Sociology



10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 sam // May 7, 2010 at 10:25 am

    Wittgenstein spoke so showing the fly the way out of the fly bottle. I think you’ve shown that some folks are stuck in some in some kind of Klein bottle. No way out of that.

  • 2 Jesse Walker // May 7, 2010 at 2:33 pm

    I’m with Greenwald. If I’d ever posted something on this subject, I guess my points would have been:

    1. Ideological in-groups have always been able to construct cocoons in which their own sources take precedence over the “lamestream media” (or whatever term they prefer). The Internet may have made these cocoons more visible to outsiders, but it did not create them.

    2. While the cocoon-builders have taken advantage of the new media, the chief effect of the new media has not been to reinforce the cocoons but to increase the likelihood that a stray signal will cross from one ideological tribe’s territory to another, budging people from previous certainties and creating new cross-breeds.

    3. No measure of epistemic closure is useful unless it looks at Americans’ levels of closure *over time*. It isn’t enough to see a group of people standing in one ideological territory with their hands over the ears shouting “I can’t hear you!” at any given moment; you need to know where they were standing three years ago and where they’ll be standing in three years’ time.

    4. All that said, if more people are indeed in ideological transit, one possible reaction among the people who *aren’t* moving is to dig in their heels and yell louder. So it’s possible that we’ll see less epistemic closure among most Americans but more epistemic closure among the hardcore partisans who remain.

  • 3 RickRussellTX // May 9, 2010 at 2:19 pm

    I think Mr. Frum touches a key point. Back in the 80s, you couldn’t have a meaningful intellectual life and ignore mainstream news sources. Unless, perhaps, you were buried in academia, with like-minded people who scoffed at mainstream news.

    I think you have to go back to the televangelism revolution in the 80s. There was a realization at that time that (1) the price of narrowcasting was getting cheaper, and no longer confined to the high UHF channels at 3AM and (2) there was a substantial market for “sanitized” media where TV, radio, newspapers, colleges, conferences, museums, theme parks, summer camps, etc. were presented in an ideologically sanitized form.

    Of course, fundamentalist Xtian universities and summer camps pre-date the 80s. But it seems to me that mass marketing of those institutions, along with Xtian-themed continuous television, etc., really took off in the 80s.

    As Frum correctly put it, for the 5 million intellectuals who were sensitive to academic and political trends, there were 25 or 50 million more ripe for inclusion in a sanitized media environment where they wouldn’t have to listen to both sides of discussions about welfare, Wicca or homosexuality. They were, and are, comfortable with one side. And they were willing to put their eyes in places that advertisers would pay for.

    As the opportunity to serve a larger audience presents itself, many news and intellectual institutions have realized they can make a good living by enclosing that core Xtian audience, but by backing off the relentlessly Xtian agenda just a little bit, they can present a sufficiently sanitized product to capture that core audience and more. Rush Limbaugh built his business on that audience (certainly in the mid-90s the overlap between professed Xtian and Dittoheads was extremely high).

    And by backing off the Xtian components of the agenda just a little bit, they can keep a strong hold on that core audience and enclose a few more points of view to build a more acceptable product with a gloss of objectivity. Look at how Fox won over the Church of Stossel. Hey, I’m a practicing Reformed Stosselite, so I’m not really criticizing the move, just pointing out that it’s part of the epistemic evolution of conservative media.

    Left-leaning epistemology didn’t really need an equivalent evolution, because they’ve been the primary voice in mainstream academia for a very long time. But the astonishing success of ideologically sanitized conservative media took them by surprise, and the response (e.g. Air America) has the same closed atmosphere as the conservative equivalent.

    And closed atmosphere starts to smell.

  • 4 RickRussellTX // May 9, 2010 at 3:57 pm

    As I got to thinking about this more, I began to wonder — why isn’t there greater adoption of conservative intellectuals in the “mainstream” conservative media? Irving Kristol, Buckley Jr., the Austrian economists, even the intellectually sound British arm of conservatism that resulted in Margaret Thatcher?

    Why doesn’t Fox News sound like a dumbed-down version of the New Republic or the Economist or the Financial Times? Instead, it sounds like a secular version of the Christian Broadcasting Network or the 700 Club, or something akin to a slight-less-combative Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter, with all the sloppy fact-finding that the accusation implies. So it’s becoming a laughingstock among those outside the bubble.

    I think a key component of this putative “closure” has been rejection of thought leaders with strong ties to traditional academic and intellectual communities. These leaders engaged both sides of every argument, building their conservative case and taking down the liberal case. But taking down the liberal case means, that in at least a basic way, you acknowledge its existence and some measure of legitimacy. You can only knock down that which is built on some foundation; Buckley, Hayek, Friedman and Thatcher didn’t waste their time chasing phantoms.

    Fox News has taken the fundamental conservative message that it’s a mistake to invest authority in anyone who claims to be the “best and brightest”, and dumbed it down to a point where they don’t even present an intellectually rich conservative case *when one exists*. Some conservatives have achieved a level of authority by their participation in academics, journalism and the public discourse, those seals of approval must be rejected if the Rush Limbaughs, Ann Coulters, Dr. Lauras and Sean Hannitys are to have any traction, and the closed market for conservative TV, radio, books, newspapers, etc is to succeed.

    When somebody like David Frum, who has Real Journalism Credentials, claims that the GOP’s muckraking tactics on health care are hurting the case for Republican leadership, he must be excised from the bubble of discourse. He makes other conservatives look bad.

  • 5 MBA // May 11, 2010 at 2:58 pm

    I think it’s ridiculous to argue (as Julian Sanchez did on Cato’s daily podcast) that this problem is specific to one political group. I agree that the right has a lot of sacred cows that are ridiculous, and I don’t disagree with any that have been mentioned thus far. But you see just as many kooky ideas on the left. What about the “truthers?” What about the “anti-vaccination group?” Which group is more likely to be taken in by medical fraud such as homeopathy and other quack medical ideas from the likes of Chopra and Weil? And there is a laundry list of insulated lefty blogs; move-on, huffpo, daily kos, which are as “out there” as anything on the right. The left is also more likely to cling to a command economy political philosophy that depends on the “right man fallacy.” And they believe wholeheartedly that they have found their “right man.” This will undoubtedly not prove to be the case, just as Bush was not the conservative that many on the right believed he was. (The left also has a mythology that Bush was a “deregulator” which is patently false).

    This problem is not unique to either political mindset. It is up to the individual to be aware of his own ideas, and know where they come from, because there are no “new” ideas. You are getting it from somewhere. If you know the root source, you can better protect yourself from this “closure.”

  • 6 Julian Sanchez // May 11, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    Nobody would claim the problem is *exclusive* to one group—that’s ridiculous and I said as much repeatedly in previous posts. But it would be awfully tidy if it were perfectly symmetrical at every single moment in history. I think it’s worse on the right at present, and if you scroll back to the older posts, I try to account for why that might be.

  • 7 MBA // May 11, 2010 at 6:30 pm

    Glad to hear it. Just anecdotally, I find that most of the people I find myself around are lefties. I trend libertarian. It seems to me that it is very easy to just socially isolate oneself when one is of the dominant political persuasion. They move in packs, they all agree with the same ideas, and their arguments to each other don’t have to be very good, because they’re just telling them to a bunch of head nodders, anyway. It’s actually harder to hold contrarian views. You need good arguments and they have to actually be convincing. And if you say something patently stupid, no one will let it slide, ever, like they would their lefty friends, so you have to be better informed. You also have to consider how to explain a different view point without alienating yourself from most everyone around you (that is, if you’re not into the whole curmudgeon thing).

    So, at least in my social/professional experience, I find myself in a sea of lefties who are reading from the same blogs/books/news outlets. When I mention a libertarian viewpoint, they tend to look shocked, like I’m from Mars. They just don’t experience disagreement very often, because they have isolated themselves socially, perhaps by accident, since just about everyone is a lefty.

    I’m sure it also happens on the right, but these are not the people I typically run into. So we are having the same experience of the “closure” phenomenon, but from different sides.

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  • 9 RickRussellTX // May 14, 2010 at 5:43 pm

    I think the relevant question, regarding closure of intellectual channels, is whether someone chooses to obtain news content *only* from sources that share and support a particular agenda, to the exclusion of all other points of view.

    The existence of closed sources is necessary is but not sufficient to claim true closure. You also need closed consumers. The point that Frum tries to make, with statement about TV news back in the 70s and 80s, is that few consumers were willing to take the time and effort required to get all their news content from closed sources. There weren’t really any major media running a closed agenda.

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