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The Semipermeable Liberal Bubble

April 19, 2010

Would somebody please put the “conservative epistemic closure” debate out of its misery? My Google Reader inbox keeps filling up with this stuff and I’m tired of deleting it (and, in occasional moments of weakness, reading it). I would end the debate myself, but — alas — no one involved reads this blog.

For those of you fortunate enough not to know what I am referring to, here is the gist. A few weeks back, former Bush speechwriter David Frum wrote a piece criticizing the Republican party for its obstructionist tactics on health care reform. Frum’s employer, right-wing think tank American Enterprise Institute, subsequently fired him, prompting Julian Sanchez to opine that conservatism has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality, Sanchez wrote

is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted.

Liberal bloggers soon busied themselves with explaining why conservatism is so close-minded. Yglesias made the case that the left is more ideologically diverse — susceptible to groupthink, but fragmented by the identity politics of greens, labor types, feminists, and other groups. Sanchez butted back in, contrasting the liberal media (“The New York Times is not fundamentally trying to be liberal; they’re trying to get it right) with conservative media (Fox News and Washington Times “always seem to be trying, first and foremost, to be the conservative alternative”). At the New Republic, Jonathan Chait then characterized liberalism as a “loose coalition,” and contrasted it with the “coherent ideological movement” of conservatism.

Conservatives have, for their part, rebutted each of these claims. Jonah Golberg sought to turn the tables on Sanchez by claiming that liberalism is “far more shot through with political correctness and intellectual taboos than the right.”
Meanwhile, Douthat partially conceded Sanchez’ point while countering Yglesias and Chait:

If you drill down to the level of first principles, American conservatism is at least as diverse as liberalism, and probably more so . . . And it’s precisely this motley, inconsistent quality, too, that encourages activists and pundits alike to stick to their single issue or issues and defer to the movement consensus on everything else. So pro-lifers handle abortion, Grover Norquist handles taxes, the neoconservatives handle foreign policy and the Competitive Enterprise Institute handles environmental regulations and nobody stops to consider if the whole constellation of policy ideas still makes sense, or matches up the electorate’s concerns, or suits the challenges of the moment

Far from a “coherent ideological movement,” conservatism is, for Douthat, precisely what Chait says liberalism is: a loose coalition.

So why am I so bored with the debate? A while back, in a somewhat different context, I wrote that, “ideology succeeds by covering its tracks; by making itself seem natural and inevitable.” What the epistemic closure debate illustrates, it seems to me, is the logical corollary to that point: if my beliefs are natural and inevitable, my opponent is necessarily captive to some ideology. Hence, Chait looks at conservatism and sees a “coherent ideological movement” and Douthat just the opposite. Hence, Sanchez relies on a firm distinction between the liberal bias of New York Times reporters, and the effort of those reporters to be “objective” — an attribute he finds sadly lacking in conservative media.

It’s just all so predictable!

Here is Megan McArdle deftly turning sociology on its liberal makers:

The point is that when one group has privilege, and the other doesn’t, the response isn’t symmetrical, a fact that the dominant group tends to spend a lot of time remarking upon. The out-group is angrier and prizes its group identity–“conservative”–over weaker affiliations like “journalist” or “sociologist.” The angrier the out-group gets, the more uncomfortable and hostile the dominant group gets … which, of course, makes the out-group even angrier.

The dominant majority further reinforces the effect because membership of “journalist” or “sociologist” comes to be defined by “not having a strong allegiance to groups such as ‘conservative.'” Which further weakens conservative ties to those professional identities.

That’s why you have black newspapers, and Jewish magazines, and Irish arts centers, but no “Bland: The Magazine of the American White Middle Class.” The dominant group doesn’t enforce its group identity the way the out-group does. It doesn’t have to. It gets to decide what constitute the acceptable modes of behavior, sources of authority, and ways of knowing. The privileged group doesn’t need its own institution specifically devoted to advancing its interests. All it needs is a sigh, and a sneer.

As any conservative will tell you, this is a point that liberals absolutely cannot (or will not) grasp. Liberalism prides itself on open-mindedness, neutrality, objectivity, and the like. To claim that liberalism is just as limited, partial, and epistemologically “closed” as conservatism is to hack away at its very foundations.

While I am a liberal myself in the sense that I support financial regulation, universal health care, environmentalism, and all the rest, I am not at all sure that the philosophical case for liberalism holds up. I did not vote for Barack Obama because I am open-minded; I voted for him because I share his ideals and admire his character. I do not accept global warming because I have examined the science carefully; I accept it because the IPCC seems to me a more credible source than Dennis Prager.

To elaborate upon the example of global warming, I don’t read the conservative counterscience on anything approaching a regular basis. It’s not that I am unwilling consider conservative claims (I have and I do). Rather, I open my mind for the same reason I open my mouth: to shut it on something solid (to quote GK Chesterton) — not just with respect to specific issues (“is or is not the planet warming?”), but also with respect to sources of information (“is or is not Fox News reliable?”).

If Chait were honest with himself, he would admit the same. Instead, he makes the following distinction:

In Goldberg’s view, [it is] liberals and the overwhelming majority of climate scientists, with their peer-reviewed studies, who live in a sealed information bubble. And it’s the conservatives — backed by a handful of scientific renegades, a lot of oil company-sponsored propaganda, and a stream of observations about how Winter in North America remains cold — who are really open to all sorts of data and interpretation here. I suppose if you take it as a given that climate change skepticism is correct, then a huge majority of the scientific world and intellectual elite is living in a bubble, and the tiny band of Fox News-watching, Limbaugh-listening conservatives are the ones outside the bubble.

Since it is self-evident to Chait that he is right, Goldberg’s sources need not be refuted, so much as derided as a stream of dubious observations backed by scientific renegades. To simply dismiss the counterscience is, moreover, not an act of epistemic closure on Chait’s part, but a sign of his liberal objectivity. Open-mindedness, on this account, means not watching Fox News or listening to Rush Limbaugh.

Buried beneath the rhetoric, however, is a tacit admission that “inside” and “outside” are relative terms. In the view of Goldberg and other climate change skeptics, Chait tells us, it is climate scientists and their “peer reviewed studies,” that are inside the bubble. It is even possible that a numerically larger group – the “huge majority” of the elite — is on the inside of the bubble, whereas the “tiny band” of conservatives are on the outside. (Incidentally, a huge majority of the elite is still a minority.) Goldberg lives in Chait’s bubble, Chait in Goldberg’s bubble; that is the point Chait can’t quite bring himself to admit.

I have a confession to make. I am living in a liberal bubble — a semipermeable liberal bubble, subject to intellectual osmosis, to be sure — but a bubble nonetheless. I hope that someday Chait and other liberals will admit that they are too.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. May 2, 2010 1:47 am

    I don’t have anything to add to that other than: Fantastic post. I learned a great deal reading it, and I had a lot of my own ideologies validated at the same time.

    You are a fantastic writer!

  2. June 28, 2010 2:14 pm

    “To simply dismiss the counterscience is, moreover, not an act of epistemic closure on Chait’s part, but a sign of his liberal objectivity.”

    That act of dismissal is not a sign of objectivity but really just a variation of the ad hominem fallacy. He is going after the messenger not the message. It’s what most, not all, liberals do anytime they mention Fox or “funded by big oil.” They are not analyzing the content of the message, debating the validity of the points, instead they are saying, I don’t have to listen to anything X says because X is funded/worked for/in collusion with “Big Y(Put your own “evil” group here, most likely Oil).

    It happens all the time when I recommend to a liberal friend that they read Thomas Sowell. They usually say, that Sowell is too conservative, implying, although never admiting it unless I press them, that they won’t read it for the sole reason that he is conservative. Which is false because Sowell is more Libertarian (yet liberals make the same kind of ad hominem about libertarians as well, so they don’t have to listen to their arguments)

    So you can see how this all plays in to “epistemic closure” or just plain old Ad Hominem fallacy.

    Of course I say this about liberals, but conservatives do it as well. But as I said in my other comments, at least they brought this up first and are willing to acknowledge the problem. That doesn’t get them off the hook but at least it’s a start.

    If you ever want to step out of the bubble, I recommend you read Sowell and some Hayek. You have to read it with an open mind, which is a lot harder to do than liberals want to admit.

  3. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    June 28, 2010 9:17 pm

    I think that it is helpful to distinguish between evaluating the credibility of sources and making ad hominem attacks.

    The former is an intellectual shortcut that all of us make. If you take an issue like global warming, for example, very few people have a solid grasp of the science. And yet simply ignoring the issue could potentially have very dire consequences — An MIT study last fall predicted a nine degree rise of temperatures by the end of the century. So the question becomes, who do I trust: Christopher Horner of the Competitive Enterprise Institute or the IPCC? A handful of dissenters or the mainstream scientific consensus?

    Even supposing that I decide to research global warming for myself, I am never in a position to simply apprehend the evidence objectively. Rather, the conclusions I reach will depend in large part on which sources I deem reliable — or, more commonly, which sources are deemed reliable by others.

    The problem with ad hominem attacks is that they render reasoned debate about the issues impossible. If you point out that warming is cyclical, and I in turn accuse you of taking bribes from Chevron, our conversation can go no further. Sure, you could make a counterargument explaining why you are not the sort of person who would take bribes, but, at that point, we would be having an entirely different type of debate. (This is, I think, what has happened in the US. Many of our debates are not about policies, but about people: are the tea-partiers racist? Is Obama a closet socialist? Has big pharma and the drug industry bought off Republican lawmakers? And so on.)

    I will check out Sowell. What should I start with?

    • June 28, 2010 11:39 pm

      I agree credibility is an issue, but what makes you think that some academics are more credible than the average Joe on anything that’s political? Specifically, on another post where you mention how academia is tribal where they only want people of a certain belief system. When they purposely try to weed out anyone with views contrary to theirs, how does that make anything they say credible?
      I’m glad you brought up AGW. Besides the e-mail disaster, how does the fact that the IPCC took reports from clearly biased World Wildlife fund do to their credibility? Or the fact that they took reports from 2nd and 3rd hand sources without checking their validity? Of course we can debate this but again the still brings up the issue of if they are really credible.
      That’s the problem with relaying on other peoples data/opinions/conclusion and such, your leaving yourself open to the possibility that one of the people your relaying on lied or misled or worse manipulated the data. If you think that somehow scientists are immune to the vices of men…
      Also you need to think about the appeal to authority fallacy as well. Part of your argument is that we, mere mortals, can never know as much as the experts. I say that’s just the appeal to authority fallacy. You can and I can learn, it will take time though, what the experts know. But of course that might not be feasible. My point is that your basing your idea of credibility on the appeal to authority fallacy. Your in fact assuming a variation of the EMH, the scientists are all knowing and are completely ethical hypothesis.
      Again that MIT study is based of the assumption that everyone else has to be 100% correct but we know they are not. So your MIT study might predict nine degrees by the end of the century, but what if it is only 1 or (gasp) lower by nine degrees? How will that affect MITs credibility? (Yes I know we will be dead but that part of a larger point that I try to make, how do we hold people accountable for their predictions? Did Fama lose his Nobel for what the EMH did to the market? Do you think he will ever be held accountable? What about Samuelson who spread the EMH back in the 60s?

      But I agree with you that the ad hominem renders debate impossible. So why do people use it? Why was I called racist because I wanted Hillary instead of Obama? I never said they were sexist in kind. I think part of the problem now is that the interwebs are anon. It’s so much easier to call someone an idiot or racist or socialist anonymously. There isn’t any cost to ad hominem anymore. No one is held responsible.

      I would say Intellectuals and Society, I wrote a review at my blog.
      But Conflict of Visions is the basis for Intellectuals so probably a better starting point.

  4. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    June 28, 2010 11:58 pm

    Generally speaking, I don’t consider the political opinions of academics more credible than my opinion or yours. But, contrary to the views of some Republicans, global warming is not primarily a political issue: it is a matter of science. I therefore defer to the opinion, however fallible, of mainstream science, and discount the findings of a right-wing think tank devoted to “free markets and limited government.”

    Am I leaving myself “open to the possibility that one of the people your relaying on lied or misled or worse manipulated the data”? Absolutely. That doesn’t, however, mean that I am committing the “appeal to authority” fallacy. I am by no means suggesting that scientists are all-knowing; merely that I deem the IPCC more credible than Christopher Horner.

    The Wikipedia entry on the appeal to authority fallacy explains that, “since we cannot have expert knowledge of many subjects, we often rely on the judgments of those who do. There is no fallacy involved in simply arguing that the assertion made by an authority is true. The fallacy only arises when it is claimed or implied that the authority is infallible in principle and can hence be exempted from criticism.” I am not contending that the IPCC should be exempted from criticism, and therefore do not commit a fallacy.

    • June 29, 2010 9:27 am

      Well I’m glad you don’t think the experts are all knowing. I think that fallacy is what got us into this financial mess, more so than the insane regulatory policy and practices and the insane action on Wall Street. (Contrary to most myths, Libertarians don’t give a pass to market actors. It’s just that we are usually trying to argue that it isn’t completely their fault and government policy is a big reason for why they did what they did. That usually gets misinterpreted as give the market a pass.)
      And at least your open to the possibility that the experts could be wrong. Which I think they are now. Historically the experts have always been wrong. The history of medical science is a great place to see that.
      As for AGW, most people typically commit the appeal to authority fallacy when they debate. They don’t give themselves the wiggle room you just did. And it’s become an almost religious type dogma for the Left. Try going up to some of your liberal friends and say, “You know I was reading and I think Global Warming is bunk.” See they kind of reaction you get!
      I’m in the “there is warming but we don’t know what is due to man and what is due to natural forces” camp. Since I’m constantly arguing against the “its all man’s fault” camp, my position is constantly being misconstrued into the “there is no warming” camp.
      My biggest issue is the causation of CO2 to warming. There have been remarkable little studies done to see how the causation runs. The ones I have seen all suggest that CO2 is a by product of warming (diffusing out of oceans is one mechanism) If that is correct, and there are many ice core samples suggesting so, then everyone of those climate scientists are committing the post hoc ergo prompter hoc fallacy.


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