An epidemic of ‘epistemic closure’
by Kevin Foley
June 06, 2013 10:59 PM | 2187 views | 12 12 comments | 54 54 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Epistemic: Of or relating to knowledge or knowing. Life is an adventure in learning if you’re attuned to things new and different. You discover, for example, that sushi is more than bait; that Bach can transport you; that Ronald Reagan was a moderate Republican, not a far right firebrand.

With minds open, we never tire of acquiring knowledge or questioning conventional wisdom. It’s invigorating to learn; it keeps us young and vibrant.

I came across the phrase “epistemic closure” the other day. It describes the condition of shutting down one’s intellect. It sounds like a disease and, in a way, it is.

Those stricken with epistemic closure tend to gravitate only to those sources of information that affirm what they think they know. Sufferers have little interest in learning or discovery. They have no appetite for challenging their beliefs and they represent all walks of life: teachers, attorneys, housewives, doctors, clergymen, even a former president, as we will see.

Epistemic closure symptoms can present as a lack of intellectual curiosity; chronic Sean Hannity watching; becoming angry or shutting down when listening to political points of view with which you disagree; believing Sarah Palin is a colossus of conservative thought; agreeing with Glenn Beck or Wayne LaPierre.

Other than robust intellectual stimulation, there is no known cure for E.C.

Epistemic closure was popularized not by a political progressive but by Julian Sanchez of the libertarian Cato Institute.

Sanchez wrote that conservative media have “become worryingly untethered from reality as the impetus to satisfy the demand for red meat overtakes any motivation to report accurately.”

Evidence abounds: Obama wasn’t born in America. Global warming is a hoax. The president let Americans die in Benghazi. The government will take your guns. Mitt Romney wins in a romp.

None of these are remotely true, of course, but all are or were actively promoted by right wing media types and, sadly, accepted without question as fact by too many conservatives.

It is possible to cure epistemic closure. Bruce Bartlett did. A celebrated conservative economist, Bartlett was an aide to Ron Paul and Jack Kemp before writing “Reaganomics: Supply-Side Economics in Action” in 1981. Bartlett later worked at the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation, in George H.W. Bush’s Treasury Department, and he supported George W. Bush in 2000.

Bartlett was the consummate conservative insider until, disillusioned with Bush’s failing policies, he criticized the president in a 2004 New York Times article.

“(Bush) dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts,” Bartlett noted in the piece.

Shortly after his remarks appeared, Bartlett attended a reception put on by a right wing organization. Curiously, none of his conservative colleagues mentioned the article to him.

“I started asking people about it,” Bartlett wrote in The American Conservative. “Not one person … cared in the slightest what the New York Times had to say about anything. They all viewed it as having as much credibility as Pravda … assuming (their) view of the Times’ philosophy was correct … why would they not want to know what their enemy was thinking?”

Bartlett was stunned.

“This was my first exposure to what has been called ‘epistemic closure’ among conservatives — living in their own bubble where nonsensical ideas circulate with no contradiction,” concludes Bartlett. “The final line for me to cross … was my recognition that Obama is not a leftist. In fact, he’s barely a liberal.”

Bartlett discovered that many conservatives are supremely confident in most everything they know, no matter how transparently false or easily refuted, and they have no desire to examine or rethink what they believe.

Most progressives, on the other hand, never stop questioning everything they think they know. They never stop searching for the truth.

Kevin Foley is a public relations executive, author and writer who lives in Kennesaw.
Comments-icon Post a Comment
Geprge Middleton
June 10, 2013
Kevin, here is a prime example of "epistemic closure."

"The poor of this country have been voting Democratic for over 50 years. Guess what. They are still poor."
June 08, 2013
It's easy to see that the MDJ cannot find a local liberal columnist to balance out it's other columnists of various bents.

As a committed libertarian-conservative, I would welcome a logical argument from a real liberal, but I do not think their logic holds up on paper or we'd have seen that by now. Even when they hold the presidency, they cannot defend their policies or their wider agenda.
Nettie Helen Stemm
June 09, 2013
@anonymous. what the MDJ has done is give this guy a bully pulpit, from which he can throw out whatever garbage he manages to concoct and they wil print out. Further, they do not have a regularly scheduled, local columnist who will present the other view. So, pretty much, they are presenting a one sided view.

By so doing, intentionally or unintentionally, they are endorsing his views.

June 07, 2013
You continue to rearrange deck chairs on the Titanic. We can only surmise that you have no defense whatsoever of the Obama administration's current troubles.

I'm not cheered by this. The failures we're witnessing of big government should trouble ALL of us.
Mike Woodliff
June 07, 2013
Kevin, get it straight or quite writing. In one column you say "My job at the MDJ is...". In the next column you say you're not paid. Well which is it? Are you paid or not? Do you have a job at the MDJ or not? You swivel around so much from bombast to arrogance. You should have a bobble head doll made in your likeness. I suspect you simply enjoy being a small center of attention, if only for a few brief moments a week. Since you claim that you're not paid, then the MDJ is commended for getting exactly what they paid for...nothing.
Nettie Helen Stemm
June 07, 2013
Kev, how is our "progressive, open questioning mind" handling the news that New York Times says "OBAMA HAS LOST ALL CREDIBILITY?"

Or will your "epistemic closure" not allow you to try and get your arms around that?

Probably this quote from a news source, reagrding that disclosure is correct in the case of you and many others. PITY!!

"Many mindless Obama supporters won’t have their mind changed, but people who are actually progressive are slowly realizing they’ve been scammed."
Kevin Foley
June 07, 2013
Nettie - I try not to respond to comments on my column, but you and Middleton bring forward questions that need answers.

The New York Times - the same paper I note D.C. conservative elites equate with Pravada - attacked Obama for abusing power. In other words, a progressive media organ called a progressive president into account, it didn't provide Obama cover as often charged by the far right. It's not the first time either.

I can recall no conservative media outlet attacking Bush for anything until his term was almost up. In fact, Fox and the other right wing media are trying (unsuccessfully) to rehabilitate Bush's ruined reputation.

It comes as no surprise to me that many progressives are extremely disappointed in Obama for a lot of reasons. As Bruce Bartlett notes, "he's barely a liberal" and Bartlett has the chops to know a liberal when he sees one.

Thanks for your comments.
Samuel Adams
June 07, 2013
That's Pravda, not Pravada, and baloney you don't reply to your columns! My god man, you're ubiquitous on these blogs and comment on everyone's columns, not only yours.
June 07, 2013
This column is coming from a person who apparently believes that the Obama administration is not capable of corruption or dishonesty. I credit many democrats for being open enough to question during these scandals and for realizing that the abuse of power and lack of transparency goes deeper than political sides. Not Foley though. This article should be a giant mirror to Foley. Pot meet kettle. What a laughable column.
George Middleton
June 07, 2013
Goody, goody. Kevin has learned a new term. Of course the fact the he has no concept of its meaning, or the fact that it is mostly a subjective concept, does not stop him from trying to use it to demean and insult those who do not fall on their knees in worship of his fantasized intellectual superiority.

But, of course, as he has told us, that is his job at this newspaper. He is to insult and demean conservatives and all who disagree with him.

Hard to believe he gets paid for this kind of faux journalism.

Kevin Foley
June 07, 2013
@ Middleton - 1. I am not paid. I do this as a service to the public.

2. I have not insulted or demeaned anyone. I use the words of a far right wing insider to support my argument. Google Bruce Bartlett for more information about him.

3. I am a progressive opinion writer, not a "journalist" do know there's a difference, right?"

4. Thank you for making my point about epistemic closure.
George Middleton
June 07, 2013

1. Most of the public could not care less what you thnk.

2. You insult and demean conservatives in very thing you write.

3. I am glad you realize there is a difference. However, liberal hack is a better description of you as a "writer", tha progressive opinion writer.

4. You continually make your own point. You have never and will never admit that there is more than one way to look at anything. And that makes you the worst kind of hypocrite when you write a column such as this.
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