How big a threat does misinformation pose to democracy?




“Epistemic” is a good five-dollar word. It means, roughly, “of or relating to knowledge or knowing.” Or “relating to knowledge or the study of knowledge.” (Think epistemology, fellow liberal-arts graduates.)

The first time I remember encountering it in mainstream usage was during the early days of the Obama administration, when some of the internal intellectual bonds within the Republican Party were beginning to fracture. For those conservatives skeptical of the growing Tea Party/talk radio/Fox News wing of the party, a key phrase was “epistemic closure” — the idea that some of their fellow partisans had shut themselves off from the reality-based world. From The New York Times in 2010:

The phrase is being used as shorthand by some prominent conservatives for a kind of closed-mindedness in the movement, a development they see as debasing modern conservatism’s proud intellectual history. First used in this context by Julian Sanchez of the libertarian Cato Institute, the phrase “epistemic closure” has been ricocheting among conservative publications and blogs as a high-toned abbreviation for ideological intolerance and misinformation.

Conservative media, Mr. Sanchez wrote at — referring to outlets like Fox News and National Review and to talk-show stars like Rush Limbaugh, Mark R. Levin and Glenn Beck — have “become worryingly untethered from reality as the impetus to satisfy the demand for red meat overtakes any motivation to report accurately.” (Mr. Sanchez said he probably fished “epistemic closure” out of his subconscious from an undergraduate course in philosophy, where it has a technical meaning in the realm of logic.)

As a result, he complained, many conservatives have developed a distorted sense of priorities and a tendency to engage in fantasy, like the belief that President Obama was not born in the United States or that the health care bill proposed establishing “death panels.”

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.”

Liberals, of course, were then happy to wield the phrase in turn — a rhetorical update on “reality-based community.” Thankfully, soon after that, everyone agreed that fantastical beliefs based on misinformation were bad and politics got normal again. (Wait, what’s that? You’re telling me that then Donald Trump became president?)

Anyway, the last decade or so has been a boom time for all things epistemic, as the narratives both journalists and citizens told themselves about the role of knowledge in political decision-making got…complicated. The internet is, it turns out, a powerful engine for the creation of mistrust and a rich source of raw materials for false beliefs.

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Imagen de Angela Yuriko Smith en Pixabay