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Saturday, January 13, 2018

Epistemic Closure: A Moderne Faerie Taile

The latest casualty in the political war on language

F irst they came for ‘phobias,’ and I didn't speak up because I didn't have any phobias. Then they came for ‘gender.’ Now they've come for ‘epistemic closure’ and there are no words left to defend myself with.

The political class steals words from science and philosophy and weaponizes them. David Brooks, a commentator at the New York Times, says a “smug, fairy tale version of reality,“ aka “epistemic closure,” is now starting to affect progressives.

You might be asking: What the heck is epistemic closure? It's a term used in philosophy. It means simply that S knows P; S knows that P implies Q; therefore S knows Q. That's what it has always meant. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a good discussion of it. It means acquiring knowledge by deducing it from what you already know.

Well, that was before the New York Times and certain bloggers got ahold of it. Now it means whatever's going on in the geological outcropping between the ears of one's political opponents. It's a form of name-calling, a popular pastime among our more herd-oriented brethren, scarcely different from doing a psychiatric diagnosis on somebody you've never met.

There are more colorful definitions: ‘drinking one's own kool-aid’ or being in an ‘echo chamber’ or ‘ideological bubble.’ These are, one might imagine, things that people do in order to achieve epistemic closure—a sort of cognitive nirvana where people who just want all those annoying empirical facts that repudiate their opinion to go away.

Sigh. What they actually mean is cognitive closure, as in a recent article in Frontiers in Psychology where they conclude that when need for cognitive closure was reduced, belief in conspiracy theories also decreased . . . which is good, I suppose, if the conspiracy theory happens to be false, maybe not so good otherwise.

Cognitive closure, not epistemic closure, is when you've made up your mind about the facts and are no longer willing to consider the alternative. Its purpose, it is said, is to preserve the brain's narrative and permit decisive action, but it's harmful to do it too quickly, because commonly accepted facts often turn out to be wrong.

Premature cognitive closure is a good way create a safe space for one's delusions, which means it's also a good way to keep the “political dialogue” going—which is when two groups stake out immovable, irrational positions and start launching insults at each other. That's probably what David Brooks was getting at.

Years ago some psychologists claimed that conservatives have a higher need for cognitive closure (NFCC), but the term has been defined using inadequately orthogonalized variables—an occupational hazard in social psychology—and the association with conservatism is now regarded, even by sociologists, as an artifact.

That hasn't stopped C.C. and E.C. from coming to mean the same thing as every other term in the lefty lexicon: closed-minded, “fascist,” “nazi,” and “homophobe,” but what all these terms boil down to is that certain folks just aren't listening to the political class anymore.

When every expression you use comes to mean exactly the same thing, it's a sign your ideology is flawed. When every idea falls into a black hole in which the only criterion for truth is whether it furthers your political goal, it's also a sign that you're losing your sense of humor.

At least when right-wingers weaponize words, they're original and even sometimes amusing, like Trump Derangement Syndrome. So in the interest of raising the level of dialogue, here are some new terms taken (more or less) from the DSM that people on both sides can use.

Disorder Definition
Citation deficit attention disorder (CDAD) When the writer is so obsessed with bashing their opponent that they forget that the quote they're using was only concocted from thin air
Taxation withdrawal (TW, aka taxation tremens or TT) When the patient is convinced the world is about to end because some Republican cut taxes; also the condition taxpayers get in early April
Trump derealization disorder (TDD) Believing that Trump's existence means the world cannot be real; first seen in the classic case of patient MF, documented here
Disinhibited clothing engagement disorder (DCED) Believing that wearing a pink hat is an effective way of protesting against the Patriarchy, but then realizing that the color pink is sexist and hats are racist (using liberal logic)
Histrionic personality disorder (HPD) This is actually a real one, according to the DSM-5. Symptoms are: self-dramatization and theatricality; rapidly shifting and shallow expression of emotions; must be center of attention. (See Twitter, Facebook)
Adult-onset fluency disorder (AOFD) A pundit runs out of ways to insult his or her opponents and is forced to turn to the DSM-5 to find new ones (sort of like what I'm doing here); or the pundit gets confused and uses the wrong term, as David Brooks did

There are a million others: ethnofactitious disorder, where the patient fabricates symptoms of discrimination to prove they've been victimized; verbal pyromania, where they take some ordinary statement and use it to start a virtual fire; and post-election stress disorder (PESD).

The DSM-5 also has a chapter on folk psychiatric concepts in other societies. Kufungisia, for example, which means “thinking too much,” is regarded among the Shona of Zimbabwe as a cause of anxiety and panic attacks. No one in America ever gets this one.

Hey, this diagnosing people without interviewing them is easy! But if you're going to steal terms from science and philosophy, at least get them right. Hope this helps.

jan 13 2018, 6:03 am; last edited jan 14 2018, 4:49 am

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