Saturday, January 8, 2011

Weekend Rerun: Epistemic Closure and Ideological Mirages

Political bloggers spent a lot time last year opining about "epistemic closure."  That was the term that Julian Sanchez appropriated from academic philosophy to describe the intellectual insularity he perceived in the conservative movement.  Pretty soon a lot of bloggers, and not only liberals, jumped into the debate over the explanation of conservative closed-mindedness without ever bothering to explain why their perception of the conservative community's extraordinary closed-mindedness counted as a fact standing in need of an explanation in the first place.  I couldn't help noticing that some of the people who jumped gleefully into the debate about the causes of conservative closed-mindedness didn't look all that open-minded themselves.

That got me thinking about what an objective inquiry into the comparative rationality of the opposing ideological communities on the part of a member of one of those communities would look like.  This (slightly edited) April 15 post is the first of two on this topic that I'll be rerunning this weekend:

I don’t have anything substantive to add to the discussion about “epistemic closure” in the conservative movement initiated by Julian Sanchez here and carried on by, among others, Matthew Yglesias here and Noah Millman here. I’m more interested in understanding how people outside the conservative movement can presume so confidently that the reality of conservative close-mindedness (compared, presumably, to movement liberals) isn’t a matter of a contestable judgment on their part standing in need of a defense, but an incontestable fact crying out for an explanation. Yglesias captures the self-congratulatory tone of the discussion when he characterizes it “as trying to think through why the right is so loopy.” Maybe I'm missing something but this looks to me less like a serious intellectual discussion than a bunch of people stroking themselves.

Generally speaking, seeing is believing. The way things look is usually pretty reliable evidence of the way they really are. Yet we’re all familiar enough with optical illusions to resist the testimony of our lying eyes occasionally. We don’t believe in disappearing lakes, for instance, just because we see bodies of water off in the distance on a stretch of desert highway that vanish as we approach them. We know a mirage when we see one.

Yet, even as we acknowledge their unreality, we still see mirages. We’re not taken in by the sight of them for at least two reasons. First, we know in advance that desert vistas present optical conditions under which our eyes are likely to lead us astray. Second, we usually don’t care enough about the water we see off in the distance to be susceptible to wishful thinking about its reality. Someone dying of thirst, or anxious to make a scientific reputation with a cutting-edge theory about disappearing lakes, might be more gullible.

Ideology generates illusions of its own. Every ideologue has to contend with political opponents whom she thinks are systematically wrong about pressing issues of political morality and public policy. She can’t help but notice that they’re unaware of, or unmoved by, “facts” staring her in the face. Moreover, she sees that, most of the time, her opponents disregard evidence against their positions not because they’ve rendered a considered judgment about its unreality or insignificance, but simply because it’s politically incorrect in their circle to pay it any mind. From her vantage point, this looks a lot like irrationality. Yet, on the occasions when she engages opponents on ideologically neutral ground, the specter of irrationality often vanishes without a trace.

It’s not surprising that we “see” ideological mirages. Rationality is, among other things, the disposition to deliberate in a manner that maximizes one’s chances of being right under a given set of deliberative circumstances. So it’s perfectly natural to think that someone we see having a propensity for being wrong is irrational. We conclude, for example, that a student we see getting 100 per cent of the answers right on math tests is more mathematically rational than someone getting 60 per cent of them right. That’s what math tests are for. Ideologues apply their own litmus tests for sound political thinking to opponents in roughly the same way.

The puzzling thing about ideological mirages isn’t that we see them, then, but that we’re so bad at seeing through them. It doesn’t take very much self-consciousness to appreciate that the appearance of political opponents’ irrationality is as likely to mislead us as the sight of a distant lake in the desert. We’re entitled to infer that other people are irrational from our perception of their being wrong only when we and they acknowledge roughly the same standards of rightness. That’s why math exams test mathematical rationality. Bad students are trying, less successfully, to live up to the same mathematical standards as good ones.

When people disagree not just about their political conclusions, but about the normative standards properly invoked in reaching them, one’s perception of another’s mistakes says next to nothing about their comparative rationality. That happens routinely in any society like ours with a culture rich enough to present its members with a plurality of traditions having inconsistent political implications. In that context, the application of ideological litmus tests to political opponents usually says more about the rationality of the people applying them than the rationality of those to whom they’re applied.

These truisms don’t keep ideologues from falling, and falling hard, for ideological mirages. Take a look at the political blogosphere. The main occupation of its virtual warriors is “fisking” political enemies. That’s typically a matter not just of rebutting what their enemies say, but of insinuating that they say such things because they reside in an ideological echo chamber in which politically correct reverberations drown out anything resembling objective deliberation. Conservatives wouldn’t have converged on “moonbats” as a term for liberals, or liberals on “wingnuts” as a term for conservatives, if either side doubted its superior rationality. Both sides like to think that they must be right because their opponents are so good at being wrong.

Take a step back from the partisan fray and ask yourself: how likely is it that mental acuity and intellectual seriousness in a pluralistic society is concentrated on one side of any ideological divide?  Upon reflection, of course, most bloggers must know perfectly well that they look as irrational to their opponents as their opponents look to them. What keeps them from reassessing themselves, their comrades and their opponents in that light?

Wishful thinking is the largest part of the answer. No one can acknowledge the rationality of political opponents without contemplating the possibility that some of one’s deepest convictions are just the expression of parochialism, prejudice or simple error. That’s not a pleasant realization for anyone, especially for someone whose self-conception is bound up with a political project.

An ideologue could take the appearance of reasonable opponents as an objectivity-enhancing challenge to find better reasons for his political convictions that resonate among a wider circle of people. Becoming more objective, however, is usually hard work. Wishful thinking is always easy. When the perception of reasonable political opposition threatens an ideologue’s equanimity, the least taxing response is simply to ignore evidence of its rationality.

Every ideologue’s psychological inclination to repress dissonant perceptions is reinforced by social pressures exerted by his peer-group. The appearance of his opponents’ irrationality invites him to bask with comrades in mutually gratifying solidarity. Declining the invitation deprives him not only of that gratification, but of the comradeship he needs to situate himself intellectually in the political arena. Why should anybody strive for a point of view general enough to accommodate people with different values when he and his comrades persuade themselves that other people reject their values out of stupidity and bad faith?

Here are my questions: how do the people scratching their heads about “epistemic closure” among conservatives know that they’re not just flattering themselves by latching onto an ideological mirage? And if they do know that, why don't they tell  the rest of us how they know it?

[to be continued tomorrow]

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