Epistemic closure is a human condition

nixonby tonynetone

‘Epistemic Closure?’ Those Are Fighting Words for Conservatives 
[Via – NYTimes.com ]

It is hard to believe that a phrase as dry as “epistemic closure” could get anyone excited, but the term has sparked a heated argument among conservatives in recent weeks about their movement’s intellectual health.


Epistemic closure is a human problem. As Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool.” Forty years ago it was the liberals who suffered most from epistemic closure. 

Just one example. Ted Kennedy wanted to have a single payer healthcare system using taxes to pay for it. Essentially Medicare for everyone. NIxon actually proposed a different solution – a market-based insurance plan requiring employers to buy health insurance for all their employees and provide subsidies for those who needed it. (Sound familiar? Obama actually hired NIxon’s health advisor to help him craft his plan).

Kennedy walked away from Nixon’s deal, living in a Cargo Cult World sure that he could get a better one after the next election. The same one that allowed him to think he could primary a sitting President. He was brutally wrong, watching for almost 40 years and dying before Nixon’s own ideas became a reality.

Conservatives have been discussing epistemic closure for two years  along with its impact on the GOP. Some were worried about the hermetically-sealed bubble that was forming around the Republican party. 

That bubble resulted in their canddidate for President being ‘shellshocked” that he lost. His own numbers guys were feeding him the information everyone wanted to see, not the information that matched reality. They listened to each other’s anecdotes rather than gathering accurate data. They developed software that they were so sure would be wonderful that they never actually stress-tested it until election day, when it failed spectacularly. He had supporters wo wrote that the data ‘nerds’ were wrong because lots of people had Romney yard signs. 

They had completely fooled themselves.

Efforts from two years ago to prevent such a bubble failed. This is not surprising. One of the hallmarks of epistemic closure is an almost impenetrable barrier  with true believers held inside and any apostates thrown outside. It becomes filled with all those who refuse all efforts to pierce the bubble.

It happens all the time with human beings and their social communities. People feel more comfortable around others who think like they do. Without positive support for alternative views, almost any community eventually becomes filled with monotonic views, supporting a Cargo Cult World which repels any conflicting information.

Since these Cargo Cult Worlds are only distorted reflections of reality, eventually they come crashing down, like some sort of funhouse mirror.

As I wrote around the same time this article came out, when the narrative is more important than facts, we get a Cargo Cult World.

The initial response of the liberals to the failure of  their ideas in the 70s was to retreat further into their own Cargo Cult Worlds. They failed to recognize the changing circumstances around them until the election of Reagan  hit them between the eyes like a two-by-four.,rendering their world view mostly irrelevant for over a generation, reducing them to a minority party. Even though Clinton was elected to two terms, in neither of them did he get a majority of Americans to vote for him.

Most of America did not like or endorse the ‘reality’ the Democrats inhabited.

It took a long time for most of the liberals to break out of the Cargo Cult Worlds they had created, to alter their views and listen more closely to the views of others. It was not perfect. Nothing human ever is. But something very unusual has just happened.

We all know that the Democrats – the original party of the Dixiecrats and Southern Segregation – put up an African-American as their candidate and that the US elected him twice.

Amazingly only 2 of the last 10 Presidents of either party have been elected to a second term after receiving the majority of the popular votes both times. One was Reagan and the other is Obama. The other 8 either failed to get re-elected or failed to win over 50% of the popular vote twice. This suggests something important has happened with the ability of the Democrats to connect with most Americans.

They finally accomplished something quite rare for them – getting most of America to vote for their Presidential candidate.

But even more amazing is that Obama becomes only the second Democrat since Andrew Jackson – the first President from the Democratic party – to get the majority of the votes in two elections. FDR was the other one.

Only two times in 180 years have Democrats succeeded in getting a majority of America to support their Presidential candidate twice. It is usually Republicans who accomplish this. 

For the first time in almost anybody’s memory, the Democrats have gotten most of America to elect their President candidate twice. That is, in my opinion, actually more amazing than the fact he is a minority. It suggests that for the first time iin a very long time they have moved outside their Cargo Cult Worlds  enough to embrace most of America, to actually listen to others.

To actually take the health insurance plan first proposed by a Republican, modify it with other ideas from other conservatives, and get it passed. Forty years after their Cargo Cult Worlds prevented them from doing it the first time.

Epistemic closure is a failing of the recent GOP and, just as the liberals did 40 years ago, they have two choices. Retreat further into their Cargo Cult Worlds, pulling epistemic closure tighter around them or create new paths that break up the lure of epistemic closure, reconnecting again with a majority of America.

I’m really hoping it does not take 40 years, that they break through the walls surrounding them. Because we have too many really hard problems to solve and we need their best ideas right now. It will take all our efforts, not just the ones represented by one party.

And because, it they retreat more, it simply allows the liberals to start creating new Cargo Cult Worlds – it is what humans do – allowing them to eventually ignore facts, one that will eventually fail to connect with reality and we begin the cycle again.

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