The fancy phrase “epistemic closure” may be a bad one, and not just because it may be too fancy by half, but when Julian Sanchez applied it to the great body of American conservatism, he touched a nerve. The claim that conservatives are caught in a kind of feedback loop of ideological closed-mindedness was discussed and debated in several high profile blogs – giving every blogger and many a commenter a chance to show off his or her own epistemological infirmities.
Karl at HotAir did a fine job establishing the lack of any empirical basis for judging conservatives unaware of alternative viewpoints and information, but there is and was something else going on here, something not directly susceptible to survey data and a mapping of linking habits and reading lists. It was the scientifically oriented Jim Manzi at NRO/The Corner who drove the discussion furthest, not by either attacking or supporting Sanchez, but by conducting a demonstration, almost in the manner of an experiment. After analyzing a chapter from Mark Levin’s Liberty & Tyranny on global warming, Manzi summed up his verdict with a word that’s easier to process than “epistemically closed,” but that one suspects he wishes he hadn’t used: “wingnuttery.”
You can see why Levin would feel sand-bagged. But he might just as well have felt complimented that someone still takes his 2009 bestseller seriously enough to analyze and respond to it, while anyone who’s listened to more than a few minutes of his radio show would need a heart of stone not to laugh at anyone’s hurt feelings on his behalf. Predictably, Levin’s response post is saturated with derision, just like his radio show, whose motto seems to be “That’s right! I said it!” Rather than further escalate, Manzi wisely stepped back without giving in, inviting readers to compare the two posts (Manzi’s, Levin’s) and reach their own conclusions.
Now, this all might seem like a pointless exercise – if fun in a kind of inside conservative baseball way – but such exchanges sometimes lead to unexpected places. Eventually involving an expanded cast of regular Corner-ites, the proceedings finally inspired Manzi to lay out the basis for a truly conservative response to global warming – one that begins with the intellectual humility that those committed to denial or alarm conspicuously lack. He eventually linked to an easy to miss post from earlier in the week that he self-deprecatingly referred to as “excruciating” in its detail. Its conclusion happens to offer a succinct formulation of a potential “grand strategy” on ecological crisis:
We can be confident that humanity will face many difficulties in the upcoming century, as it has in every century. We just don’t know which ones they will be. This implies that the correct grand strategy for meeting them is to maximize total technical capabilities in the context of a market-oriented economy that can integrate highly unstructured information, and, most importantly, to maintain a democratic political culture that can face facts and respond to threats as they develop.
In addition to being constructive and refreshingly “open,” this “grand strategy” offers the key benefit of resilience in the face of tomorrow’s headlines, next year’s hurricane season, the scientific measurements and re-measurements of the next decade, and the considered opinions of eminent men and women who are relatively invulnerable to charges of self-dealing and self-interest. It might even withstand the eventual resurgence of a global ecology movement that may appear today on the political defensive, but that still commands broad support, and may be revived much sooner and more powerfully than post-Climategate triumphalists on the far right want to believe.
A side-benefit of such a strategy might bear on some disturbing polling numbers that at least deserve a place in the great epistemological ruction of 2010. For instance:
That’s from a Pew Poll of last July. Or how about this less widely remarked synthesis of polling results, compiled by Charles Murray (a sometime contributor to the Corner), on ideological affinities among American population groups over time:
These numbers may also help explain the perceived vulnerability of the right to the charge of closed-mindedness. The only positive thing about the situation for conservatives is that it suggests a growth opportunity: Corrective movement back to near equality would be a tremendous accomplishment, and a major blow to the liberal coalition. Otherwise, a choice before the public that comes down to “the highly intelligent, well-educated, and well-informed” vs. “conservatives” might at best work for an election or two, but you can’t like the looks of it over the longer term.
There may be explanations for such results that go beyond the obvious. Many scientists and intellectuals may be reacting self-interestedly to their own dependency on state support, for instance, and, especially in the wake of Climategate, they face an urgent need to to confront this issue squarely. Yet it’s still sad to think that this sector of society, representing people whose commitments and ethos are in many ways as “conservative” as “liberal,” have been moving to the left for 40 years. Is it too much to wonder whether continual and habitual assaults on the honesty, intentions, patriotism, and professionalism of scientists and intellectuals, a reflexive readiness to dispute the validity and usefulness of scientific and intellectual inquiry, in short the open adoption of anti-scientific and anti-intellectual attitudes and practices by some conservatives may also have played a role in such dramatic and long-standing trends?
Conservative efforts to alter this situation – American society with its head twisted ever further around at its neck – might begin with the understanding that belief or disbelief in the greenhouse effect, global warming, and other properly scientific matters cannot be a political issue in a free society: Only how we go about addressing scientific questions can ever be. There may also be times when no decision is more important to any society than one requiring scientific input. At that point – at any moment, really – we may need skeptical but non-denialist scientists like Richard Lindzen, and people who can take them at their actual word like Jim Manzi, much more than many conservatives seem to believe – or, under conditions of ideological and emotional closed-mindedness, are capable of admitting or possibly even of conceiving.
And we’ll probably need excitable and entertaining, fiercely dedicated polemicists, too. That’s right. I said it.