Behind the Great Firewall of Denial: the conservative debate on “epistemic closure” and climate change

Behind the Great Wall of climate change denial

Following my post on the left/right divide, I can’t help but mention the current debate taking place within the US conservative movement. A few weeks ago Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute kicked off a fire storm of debate about how conservatism in the US is being increasingly dominated by “fantasy”:

“…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…”

Sanchez’s observations apply to a broad range of conservative movements that find themselves at odds with science. Creationists are desperate to ban the teaching of evolution in schools; climate change denialists are desperate to filter out or distort information that contradicts the safe, warm bubble of denial; conservative Christians feel under assault by far more secular culture and retreat into the bubble of “Christian media”.

Each, in turn rely on their own specially crafted and personalised media. Whether through outlets such as Fox News or restricting ones understanding of climate change to the writings of Andrew Bolt, each is an example of epistemic closure.

The New York Times picks up additional comments made by conservative “heavy weights” and intellectuals also joining in on the debate:

“…Soon conservatives across the board jumped into the debate. Jim Manzi, a contributing editor at National Review, wrote that Mr. Levin’s best seller, “Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto” (Threshold Editions) was “awful,” and called the section on global warming a case for “willful ignorance,” and “an almost perfect example of epistemic closure.” Megan McArdle, an editor at The Atlantic, conceded that “conservatives are often voluntarily putting themselves in the same cocoon.”

Bruce Bartlett, a veteran of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush’s administrations, wrote that in the last few years, “epistemic closure” had become much worse among “the intelligentsia of the conservative movement.” He later added that the cream of the conservative research institutes, including the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, had gone from presenting informed policy analyses to pumping out propaganda.”

The last point in particular is salient.

Many of think tanks have become guns for hire, mercenary agents for corporate interests that fund them. That the American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation are singled out is no surprise. They are in the vanguard of climate change denial.

A recent review by another conservative attacks what he calls the “wingnuttery” of climate change denial. Jim Manzi, at the conservative National Review, tears apart the book Liberty and Tyranny by Mark Levin, calling it a perfect example of “epistemic closure”:

“Levin argues that human-caused global warming is nothing to worry about, and merely an excuse for the Enviro-Statists (capitalization in the original) to seize more power. It reads like a bunch of pasted-together quotes and stories based on some quick Google searches by somebody who knows very little about the topic, and can’t be bothered to learn…

…But what evidence does Levin present for any of this amazing incompetence or conspiracy beyond that already cited? None. He simply moves on to criticisms of proposed solutions. This is wingnuttery.”

One is reminded strongly reminded not to dismiss “conservatives” as fools, ill-informed or incapable of rational debate. It is the extreme fringe that seeks to drown out the voices of moderation. Both sides of the political divide have something to offer to the debate: the pragmatic tradition of Edmund Burke in understanding society as an organic entity and valuing institutions does not need to conflict with an intelligent response to climate change. Indeed, this is what rational conservatism is about.

Science is a four hundred year old tradition worth preserving. Currently it is under “attack” by ideologues. Our democratic institutions and traditions are worth conserving. Conservatism has traditionally been wary of  stoking of the “passions of the mob” via  ideology. The denial movement is ideologically based. It circumnavigates the scientific process and engages the worst aspects of peoples psychology: fear, uncertainty and doubt.

The denial movement tears down societies trust in science; it provokes individuals to send scientists death threats; it questions Enlightenment values such as the use of evidence and reason in debate.

Climate change represents a major disruptive force in both political and economic terms. That elements of the conservative movement would ignore these threats is a tragedy.

Perhaps the best way to advance the debate is to reach out to those self proclaimed “liberals” and “conservatives” who understand and accept the science of global warming, and are prepared to debate the appropriate policy responses.

E pluribus unum: out of the many different voices and perspectives, we can formulate an appropriate response to mitigating and adapting to climate change.

On climate change we are a house divided: such houses must fall.

What needs to happen is a serious, mature debate about climate change and our response to the challenges it poses:

  • What is the role of government and business/industry in formulating policy responses?
  • What are the strategic, economic and political consequences of climate change and how do we address those challenges?
  • How to we balance economic “growth” and need to reduce CO2 emissions, manage population growth and resource usage?
  • What are the rights and responsibilities of the individuals in a world impacted by climate change?

These are serious conversations that need to happen: both challenging and intellectually engaging. Instead, we are still having to combat a vocal fringe whose influence in the debate is greatly disproportionate to their actual numbers. It is heartening to see both “liberals” and “conservatives” recognise a common foe.

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5 thoughts on “Behind the Great Firewall of Denial: the conservative debate on “epistemic closure” and climate change

  1. jenny says:

    I love your blog lots of useful information. I’ve added it to my favorite bookmarks and subscribed in a reader.

    All these issues are important, and that’s why I just started blogging a while ago and it feels great.

  2. Ian P says:

    The teabaggers are the latest outgrowth of this sort of extremist conservatism. To me they seem like the last desperate gasps of neo-conservatism, reduced to libertarians, disaffected unemployed white people and some cynical opportunists pulling strings no doubt. Hopefully the criticisms above are a sign of a resurgence in paleo-conservatism in the US GOP, which is at least sane and slightly more palatable.

  3. manuelg says:

    I read somewhere that the more informed an average conservative is, the more news they consume, the more questions about facts of policy that they get wrong. The opposite is true for non-conservatives.

    Did I just imagine this? I cannot find in Chrome browser cache? ;-)

    If anyone has a link, I would much appreciate.

  4. Jim Prall says:

    Excellent post – I’m delighted to learn that some rational conservative voices are speaking up about this crisis of “epistemic closure.”

    I like to sum up the problem this way:
    a) everything is political
    b) politics is all about perception;
    therefore:
    c) everything is just perception, i.e., what I don’t listen to can’t be true.

  5. Anarchist606 says:

    Great article; I’m going to flag this up on my blog. A perfect example of the anti-science in action – the science policy of UKIP – can be seen here;
    http://anarchist606.blogspot.com/2010/04/election-uk-ukips-science-policy-fail.html

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