“Epistemic closure”: Julian Sanchez on American Conservative Insularity

At his blog today, Julian Sanchez uses the phrase “epistemic closure” to describe contemporary American “conservatism” (which I would call, in fact, a neo-authoritarian cultural movement):

One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality 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. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!)  This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile. Think of the complete panic China’s rulers feel about any breaks in their Internet firewall: The more successfully external sources of information have been excluded to date, the more unpredictable the effects of a breach become. Internal criticism is then especially problematic, because it threatens the hermetic seal.

Socrates suggested that the world can be divided between those who think  that they know the truth and those who know that they don’t know  and so are willing to engage in dialogue (dialectic) with others on their way towards the truth. But tellingly, Sanchez sees a breakdown in conservative dialogue even among conservatives (represented most recently by David Frum’s ousting from the American Enterprise Institute):

[T]here is nothing more potentially fatal to the momentum of an insurgency fueled by anger than a conversation.

This is also true of cults, isn’t it?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to “Epistemic closure”: Julian Sanchez on American Conservative Insularity

  1. Andrew Clunn says:

    To say that there are insular subcultures within conservatism would be accurate, to say that all of conservatism is insular is ridiculous. Such a statement is the kind of lie that liberal media outlets promote to decree that the default views are those of the liberals and the self-contained fringe are the conservatives. This entire argument could be easily reversed and it would have the same ring of false modesty to cover a smug condescension either way.

  2. santitafarella says:


    You’re obviously not an epistemically closed person, and you are correct that there are people on the left who close themselves off as well. But there is a curiously closed-loop culture on the right that seems to broach very little intellectual range or nuance. From my vantage, there is a lot more open air in liberal circles.

    Two examples: global warming and evolution. Any sane 21st century movement should be able to come to terms with what scientific experts have come to consensus on, and adjust its politics to that reality. You shouldn’t get to make up your own facts.


    • concerned christian says:

      I really did not want to be sidetracked into another subject, but while I concede that some conservative views on evolution should be challenged, I do not agree with your statement on Global warming. I am a scientist and I am skeptical about Global warming because it is not as a clear cut case as some people, like Al Gore, wanted it to be. When scientific community decided that they are not going to look to any evidence that cast any doubt on Global warming they are creating their own version of truth which may turn out to be just wrong.

  3. Stourley Kracklite says:


    The resort to an ad hominem such as calling the claims of the other a lie is itself an espistemic closure.

    • andrewclunn says:

      So doubting the validity of others claims is now a non-sequitur? People who don’t know what logical fallacies actually are shouldn’t throw around words like “ad hominem.” It only serve so expose that they have no idea what they’re talking about.

      • Stourley Kracklite says:

        How ironic you mention the word ‘non sequitur,’ as one accused you of making one.

        Perhaps you are unsure what an ad hominem is. Here is an example: “they have no idea what they’re talking about.”

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