Sunday, January 9, 2011

Weekend Rerun: More on Epistemic Closure

Here, as promised, is another post on epistemic closure from April 19:

Last week I asked how people like Julian Sanchez, Matthew Yglesias and Noah Millman could be so certain that the conservative movement is more closed-minded than its liberal counterpart. That strikes me as an unlikely proposition on its face: first, because it’s not obviously intelligible; and second because, insofar as it is intelligible, it seems unlikely to be true.

What could it mean to say that conservatives are less open-minded than liberals? Each of those ideological communities contains people who are variously intelligent and intellectually scrupulous. So it’s always going to be easy to find a conservative who’s more open-minded and rational than most liberals, and a liberal who’s more open-minded and rational than most conservatives. It only makes sense to compare the open-mindedness of conservatives and liberals if we’re talking about the way they deliberate as a group. It’s not immediately clear how to make such a comparison fairly. In any event, that’s a task that the people deploring conservative closed-mindedness give no indication of having undertaken.

This much, however, is clear: in a society like ours, where people consult a plurality of reputable traditions having inconsistent political implications, you can’t infer that your opponents are irrational just because you think they’re wrong about pressing issues of political morality and public policy. On the face of things, it seems unlikely that open-mindedness would be concentrated on one side of any durable ideological divide. That’s why I speculated in the earlier post that the most probable explanation of the currency of beliefs about conservative closed-mindedness has less to do with people making warranted judgments to that effect than their having surrendered to psychological and social pressures encouraging them to jump from the fact of disagreement on big issues to the unwarranted conclusion that the other side is being irrational.

Let’s try to put a toe in these deep waters by putting the contest between liberalism and conservatism in a little historical perspective. The ideological war between them has continued in substantially its present form for at least thirty years, since conservatives took firm control of the Republican Party in 1980 when Reagan became the party’s presidential nominee. So it’s reasonable to ask: relative to the baseline year of 1980, which, if either, side has been winning? That’s a pertinent question for present purposes because, if any ideological victories have occurred, it’s hard to say that the side that has won most of them has been deliberating less rationally than the other side.

As you might expect, however, ideological victories are slippery things that aren’t easily identified in terms that don’t merely confirm the ideological presuppositions of the person doing the identifying. We have a perfectly straightforward idea about what counts as “winning” an argument between persons: one wins when the other either concedes defeat or betrays a pertinent change of heart through his conduct. Yet a victory/defeat is hard to spot even in these relatively simple circumstances because the parties are apt to spin the facts out of pride and wishful thinking, the winner so that she can claim victory prematurely, the loser so that he can avoid having to concede defeat.

Victories/defeats among ideological communities are even harder to detect because, encompassing many minds, they never speak with a single voice. In general, one side can credibly claim an ideological victory only when its reasoning arguably becomes the other side’s conventional wisdom. Victories/defeats are evidenced mostly by what members of the losing community don’t say, by their reluctance out of conviction or ideological etiquette to voice an opinion that was once treated by their comrades as a badge of ideological rectitude, but is now embarrassingly passé. When we've spotted a genuine ideological victory, we've found one issue as to which the winning side’s superior rationality is no mirage because it’s just as visible from the loser’s standpoint as it is from the winner’s.

There’s no point trying to be any more precise. Ideological victories aren’t the kind of events with a beginning, middle and end demarcated by bright lines. That doesn’t make them any less real than a “heap” of corn. If we started piling kernels of corn atop each other one at a time, we’d eventually reach a point where everyone would agree that we had a heap. But that doesn’t mean that reasonable people could ever agree on which additional kernel turned the mere pile into a genuine heap, and thus on whether many actual piles qualify as heaps.

Ideological victories/defeats exhibit the same indeterminacy, compounded by the further complication that the people identifying them need to rely on the evidence presented by their own variable, and often self-serving, thoughts. Occasionally an ideological victory/defeat is indisputable, like the defeat suffered by Marxist-Leninism in the 1990s. Usually, however, their occurrence is inherently contestable. So identifying victories unequivocally enough to satisfy both liberals and conservatives isn’t going to be easy.

Recognizing that ideological victories often exist only in the myopic eyes of liberal and conservative beholders, I propose this expedient. Let’s compile two lists of issues, entitled “Advantage Conservatives” and “Advantage Liberals” respectively. To qualify for either list, the issue must enable one side or the other to lodge a prima facie claim to an ideological victory since the beginning of the Reagan presidency by identifying intellectual concessions from prominent figures on the other side. I submit that the Advantage Conservative list includes at least four items:

(1) Welfare Reform: it was bitterly opposed by liberals in the 1990s but is now widely regarded as a successful policy by liberals and conservatives alike;

(2) Marginal Tax Rates: Before Ronald Reagan made tax reductions the cornerstone of conservative domestic policy in 1981, marginal income tax rates for the highest earners stood at 70 percent (down from 90 percent during the Eisenhower administration) and stout-hearted liberals still insisted we were an under-taxed society. Try finding a reputable liberal who favors marginal tax rates above, say, 50 percent now.

(3) The Cold War: By the time Reagan died in 2004, Ted Kennedy, once among Reagan’s most dedicated foreign policy opponents, honored him as “the president who won the cold war.” It’s hard to interpret Kennedy’s resoundingly counterfactual claim made at the Reagan Library in 2007, that “the cold war had been waged as a bipartisan enterprise by Republican and Democratic Congresses and administrations from the first moment to the last,” as anything other than a backhanded concession that Reagan conservatives had been right about how to wage the cold war, and liberals wrong, between 1980 and the fall of the Soviet Union.

(4) Constitutional Interpretation: When liberals spoke of a liberal Supreme Court Justice, we used to mean someone like William Brennan or Thurgood Marshall. Now we mean a champion of judicial modesty like John Paul Stevens.

I’m happy to concede that there’s plenty of room for reasonable disagreement over whether each of these items represents a genuine ideological victory. You can always find diehard liberals who’ve never reconciled themselves to the conservative policies I’ve identified. And it’s possible to argue that some of the ideas I’ve characterized as winners lack a genuinely conservative provenance. But we needn’t be detained by such objections.

That’s clear when you take a look at the Advantage Liberals list. . . . . I can’t think of anything to put on it either. The last liberal ideological victories I can think of occurred sometime before the end of the Ford administration when the Republican presidents embraced part of the liberal policy agenda by supporting environmental policies like the Clean Air Act and labor policies like the Occupational Health and Safety Act and when once-controversial liberal constitutional principles like “one person, one vote,” or the “exclusionary rule” became a settled part of constitutional law. Liberals have won the odd political victory in the ensuing years, like the passage of ObamaCare, but those haven't been anything like ideological victories given the continued opposition of movement conservatives. It’s a sad fact of my whole political life that, if liberals have been out-deliberating conservatives, they’ve done it with the stealth of an accomplished cat burglar who walks off with the loot without leaving behind any probative evidence.

Does liberalism’s thirty-year history of ideological retreat before movement conservatism show that today’s conservatives are more rational than today’s liberals? No. The psychological and social forces undermining objective deliberation in any ideological community are always formidable and conservatives enjoy no special immunity from their rationality-inhibiting effects. So we should never underestimate the capacity of conservatives to go off the deep end.

But the pertinent history does suggest that liberals’ exorbitant investment in the idea of their superior rationality is fool’s gold that glitters to no one else. It might be a good idea, if only for the sake of appearances, for them to dial down the talk about conservative "loopiness" until they've chalked up an ideological victory of their own.


Aging liberal said...

Two points:

1. "Epistemic closure" is not a multi-syllabic way of saying close-minded. It refers to a self-contained intellectual ecology, in which countervailing argument is not encountered (except in a caricatured, "straw-man" form). And the signs that epistemic closure is more a problem on the right than on the left is the fact that vast swaths of the conservative community believes in such verifibly untrue propsitions as:

a. Global warming is a hoax, put forth by liberals to increase the size and power of government.

b. Lowering taxes raises tax revenues (as a universal proposition).

c. America is a Christian country, intended by its founders to promote the glory of Jesus Christ.

d. Government fails at any enterprise it undertakes.

e. Rates of taxation are historically high.

f. The 2009 stimulus was an utter failure.

That these factually verifiable assertions continue to be almost universally believed in the conservative community suggests that conservatives are not exposed to (or do not believe) overwhelming piles of evidence that would make a rational person extremely reluctant to make such categorical assertions.

Can you think of any liberal orthodoxies that are so dependent on factual ignorance?

Secondly, I would dispute some--most, actually--of your "Advantage, Conservative" propositions.

Marginal tax rates. It is true that not many prominent liberals currently propose marginal (Federal Income) tax rates over 50% (although I have read a spate of proposals over the last year for substantially higher rates on the "mega-wealthy," proposing new brackets at, for example $1 million, $5 million and $20 million dollars.

The Cold War In point of fact, Kennedy was not in least bit counterfactual. Reagan did not change cold war policy in kind, merely in degree (and rhetorical intensity). You telling me that Kennedy was a smoosh, or Johnson? There was enormous policy consensus on the cold war from the end of WWII. An it's an arguable case that Reagan "won" the cold war.

Constitutional Interpretation Politics, as you well know, is the art of the possible. Supreme Court nominees are never too far from the current consensus, or they'd be smacked down forthwith. Remember, Reagan's nominees were essentially moderate. except for Bork. And look what happened to him...

And, I think, you underestimate the liberals. Since 1980, I think you could credit "Team Liberal" with the promulgation--and acceptance--of handicapped, women's, and gay civil rights.

That ain't nothing...

Dave said...

Aging Liberal -- You wrote, regarding the meaning of epistemic closure: "It refers to a self-contained intellectual ecology, in which countervailing argument is not encountered (except in a caricatured, 'straw-man' form)."

That's a good clarification on definition. Unfortunately, your subsequent framing of "universal" conservative beliefs is itself a great example of a straw-man argument.

Surely there are Republicans who believe propositions a-f. However, you've provided no evidence that "vast swaths" of conservatives believe every one of them, much less that these propositions are "universally" (!) believed by conservatives. (If you truly believe these are *universal* conservative beliefs -- I'm guessing you don't -- then that suggests you're the one in an insulated community of thought.)

Further, the propositions themselves are straw-man versions of conservative beliefs. For example, "Government fails at any enterprise it undertakes" is a perfect example of the most common straw-man tactic: taking an opponent's nuanced (thoughtful?) position (e.g. something like "In most arenas, I'm biased toward market solutions over government solutions until proven otherwise, although I do note exceptions") and rephrasing it as a hard absolute. The advantage of this tactic is that the nuanced position is difficult if not impossible to refute, whereas the absolute position is patently false. See how easily you can make your opponent look like an idiot?

Finally, at least one of these propositions ("The 2009 stimulus was an utter failure") is not at all "factually verifiable". To be factually verifiable, it would require a counterfactual. You can't have that in real life (unless you have an alternate universe wherein a different course of action was taken, allowing us to compare the two), and macroeconomics is far too complex for any conclusions based on indirect proxy comparisons to ever be considered "overwhelming" -- no matter what the conclusion was! Frankly, that's the big problem with everyone's arguments over the stimulus: there's simply no way to measure (or factually verify) whether it "worked" or "failed" (and even if there were, relative to what? and by whose standards of success?).

I don't mean to sound combative (although I realize I probably do). I expect that you just got carried away with your language (I note, for instance, how your "vast swaths" graduated shortly thereafter to "universal", suggesting that your passion caused you to overstate your actual position as you went along). However, it's worth noting that had you expressed a more nuanced position, the argument wouldn't have held water (e.g. "Some Republicans have some arguably untenable beliefs, to varying degrees" wouldn't exactly seal the deal).

It's also always worth keeping in mind that conservatives, like all of us, have a similar tendency to get carried away with their language and overstate their positions, so even when you do hear one say something ridiculous like "Government fails at everything it undertakes", it's probably safe to assume that they don't actually mean it as an absolute. (Just ask them if that belief also applies to national defense.)

jsanchez said...

Because, as the first commenter notes, "epistemic closure" wasn't intended as a pretentious synonym for "closed mindedness", most of the discussion in the post, while interesting, is not really to the point. Here, I think, is the only thing we need to ask: is it more the case on the left or the right that a network of inter-referring and self consciously ideological information sources exist which routinely urge viewers/listeners/readers to regard "mainstream" outlets as systematically biased and unreliable. I can't even imagine how you'd begin to go about resolving the broader question of overall "closed-mindedness", but the answer to THIS question seems pretty self-evident to me. I can't imagine many conservatives would disagree... they'd just say that insofar as there's a conflict, their sources actually provide the more accurate picture of the world.

I also tend to think this has also had the result of giving the modal conservative a more distorted view of reality, but that's a gestalt impression, and presumably where the claim becomes more controversial. But it's also a profoundly uninteresting point to argue. To the extent my impression seems to be widely shared even (if in whispers) among the professional right, I thought it was worth taking as a premise and exploring. If you don't share the impression and think the problem is as bad or worse at other points on the spectrum, well, you're welcome to take that premise and have another set of conversations. Probably you'd come up with something interesting regardless of which premise about the relative severity is true.

jsanchez said...

Also, while,I think policy victory has approximately nothing to do with the "rationality" of the modal member of the winning side's base, I was talking about a media ecosystem that has only really fully emerged over the past decade, so nothing I was saying really applies to the period when these debates were hashed out.

Ron Replogle said...

Julian Sanchez is raising a fair point. I should have been clearer that I wasn't proposing an alternative answer to the question that interests him, which (as far as I can tell) is something like: what's the best explanation of the obliviousness of people on the right to evidence that disconfirms their pet theories?

I'm happy to concede that such obliviousness is a feature of movement conservativism and that there's a lot to be said for Sanchez's hypothesis about the distinctive features of the conservative media as an explanation. But for the reasons I've sketched in my posts with the tag "epistemic closure," a measure of obliviousness to inconvenient facts is a necessary feature of ANY deliberative community, even one firing on all cylinders as a vehicle of reasonable collective deliberation. That raised the question in my mind of why it's so self-evident to the people discussing epistemic closure that the conservative community is an extreme case and whether they're right to assign so much probative weight to their subjective sense of its self-evidentness. And the only way I could think of to address that question was by proposing standards for comparing the rationality of ideological communities that don't presuppose the rightness of the judgments made by people on one side of a pertinent ideological divide.

As far as I can see, my speculations are perfectly consistent with Sanchez's.

jsanchez said...

So, right, we can separate two questions. One is whether "epistemic closure" in the sense I used it — a full blown alternative media ecosystem that explicitly encourages viewers/readers/listeners to treat contrary information from "mainstream" sources as intrinsically suspect — is a more salient phenomenon on the right at present. I take that to be more or less self-evident, and indeed, I don't think most conservatives would disagree, though they might say that their sources are, in fact, more reliable.

Then there's the more controversial question of whether (as I suspect) this means the modal member of the right's "base" ends up with a more distorted picture of reality as a result. My gestalt impression is that this is the case, and plenty of folks on the professional right will cop to having the same impression, off the record, after a drink or two. But having that debate just seems, frankly, tedious and unlikely to be terribly fruitful. I'm basically satisfied to treat it as premise for the sake of argument, and if someone doesn't share my impression as regards the comparative claim, well, nothing very central to the rest of the analysis turns on it, and you could probably have an equally interesting conversation on the premise that it's equally a problem across the board, or that the left is worse. I expect you'd get something useful in each instance independently of which premise turns out to be correct.

Aging Liberal said...

Hey, Sanchez -

Write more blog posts, more often.

I mean it.

Ron Replogle said...

I owe Julian Sanchez an apology because his first comment was caught up in the Google spam filter, which operates according to principles that elude me entirely. I didn't see it until just now. So his comments are now published in their proper order, explaining the hitherto perplexing fact that his second comment, (which until now was the first to appear) started with "Also."

Sorry Julian--a simpleton like me shouldn't be entrusted with anything as dangerous as a spam filter.