Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Epistemic Closure and Me

In his article, "Revenge of the Reality-Based Community", conservative Bruce Bartlett describes his fall from favour with America's Republican Party.  In it, he uses the term "epistemic closure".  In his context, he uses the term to describe a state of affairs where forms of cognitive dissonance can be comfortably ignored within a bubble of like-minded friends and Fox News.  Basically, he argues that conservatives have created a system where they can ignore not just contradictory viewpoints, but evidence, science and yea, reality itself.  This is not just an issue for Bruce Bartlett and conservatives.  It's everywhere. 

One of the things I try not to take for granted is the stunning rise, during the youth of my generation, of the internet.  As a shy high school student, I called the internet for the first time in a computer lab in my high school.  The computer went shhhhh boing eeeboing-boing.  It was all text-based.  Now the internet is an essential service.  It's the flagship invention of our Information Age.  As a writer I can research any topic without leaving my home.  As a consumer, I could watch movies on Netflix all day and never see them all.  And as a Man I can... do other stuff.

The Truth, as based on evidence and scientific findings, has never been more available.  Yet people seem more confused than ever.  For my lifetime has also seen the rise of something sinister: extremist politics.  Since that day in the early 90's when the school's computer went boing-boing, the world seems to have filled with evangelical Christians, fundamentalist Muslims, radical free-marketeers, paranoid left-wingers and conspiracy theorists.  These groups were around when I was a kid.  However, what makes them more powerful today is that they can pick up a keyboard and find hundreds of people to agree with them.  They can live their lives avoiding cognitive dissonance and differing viewpoints, digging themselves deeper in layer-upon-layer of justifications, gradually believing stranger and more incorrect things.  I know how easy it is to get caught in this world, because ten years ago I was One Of Them.

It all starts with not wanting to be wrong.  In 2001, the world's political landscape changed suddenly when The World Trade Center in New York was destroyed.  Sitting American President George W. Bush experienced a huge upswing in popularity.  I hated that.  His presidency was already infamous for its stupidity and dishonesty, so when he said that a cell of fanatic Muslims was responsible for the attacks, I doubted him.  I wondered if, because he benefited from the attacks, he might be responsible.  I turned to the internet to satisfy my doubt and found thousands of viewpoints that reinforced what I already wanted to believe: "I am not wrong in doubting".

This was my gateway into the world of epistemic closure that is far-left conspiracy theory.  Every conspiracy theory needs three things: an antagonist, followers who feel victimized, and a will to believe.  For small-c right-wingers, the antagonist is a vast organization that includes corrupt politicians, communists, media outlets and hordes of deluded thralls.  Small-c left-wingers blame different organizations.  Fanatic Christians and Muslims believe the Devil is at the centre of the conspiracy.  Others think it's freemasons, extra-terrestrial intelligences, or a race of reptile men.

I was in the small-c left wing camp.   I felt I was the victim of a group of shadowy rich men who continuously tread on my rights as a human, elect and bribe politicians, control dishonest media outlets and make a mockery of democracy.  As I write this, this theory doesn't sound so crazy.  That's how a conspiracy gets you: it starts somewhere real.  William Randolph Hearst was a rich man who influenced politics with money, owned yellow media outlets and drove America to war.  Rupert Murdoch, with his ownership of Fox News, is Hearst's modern counterpart.  The world is full of rich men who love to wield their power.  

I lived in this world for several years.  Every day I would log on to and check out the array of news sources which spanned mainstream outlets, to hazy sites like and, to sketchy publications like Pravda and the official media outlet of Saddam Hussein's government, to the lowest level of left-wing newsmaking: angry bloggers sitting in their basements making stuff up.  I was angry, too.  Who wouldn't be angry in a world where 9-11 was an inside-job by the American government?  Or Al-qaeda is an invention of Israel's Mossad?  Or hundreds of American soldiers die daily in Iraq and are not reported? 

I wanted this world to be true.  It wasn't just about being right or not being wrong.  Believing in a story like this added meaning to my life: I felt like I was doing something important in opposing the conspiracy.  And believing in the conspiracy made me feel smarter than everybody else. 

Then, suddenly, I stopped.  I was tired of being angry and powerless.  I was reading something claiming that yet another group was responsible for 9-11.  At this point, I had heard that 9-11 had been engineered by Al-qaeda, the CIA, the NSA, NORAD, the Bush White House, the Mossad, the Israeli Army, Cubans or the Rothschilds.  "So which group is it?!" I exclaimed.  And I had no answer.  For you see, I didn't know.  I wasn't there and I didn't see.  I would never really know, it was beyond my power to know, and it was not my responsibility to know.

That was step one of my recovery and it felt great.  My anger dropped away so suddenly that I sighed.  I stepped out of my house into the sunlight, breathed warm autumn air and felt great. 

Step two of my recovery was a little more difficult.  At this stage I looked at my past beliefs and realized that not only did I not know what happened, but my past claims were most likely wrong.  It hurt to admit.  In trying to add significance and importance to my life, I engaged in insignificant and unimportant activity.  In trying to be smarter than everybody else, I became ignorant.  In trying so hard to be right, I was wrong.  

Step three was a little easier.  I realized that there are people in the world who knew what happened.  These are people who are trained to know.  There are intelligence experts all over the world who agreed Al-qaeda is responsible.  There was also Al-qaeda itself, that claimed responsibility for orchestrating the attacks and training the pilots.  The simplest explanation was that these people were right. 

It's easy to fall into the trap of epistemic closure.  I feel embarrassed about the things I thought and said, but I have to remind myself how easy it is to believe incorrect information in the age of the internet.  It's even easier now.  On Facebook, an article with a crazy title goes viral quickly and people will share it without checking sources. 

Let's take a look at this shitty internet situation.  I just Googled the word "reptoid".  Here are the first ten results.

Result 1: Wikipedia.  Anybody can edit Wikipedia.  Because of this, it has a reputation for inaccuracy.  Unfortunately, it's the only search result that is critical of the idea that reptoids control the world.

Results 2, 3, 5 and 6: Conspiracy websites Reptoid Research Center, the Reptoid Wiki and the Alien Research Wiki.  These sites will tell you that a conspiracy of anthropomorphic, maneating reptiles are masquerading as humans and ruling the world.

Results 7 and 8: YouTube videos of reptoids Johnny Depp and Alex Jones supposedly shapeshifting.  (The Alex Jones shapeshifting video is especially silly: yet another example of conspiracy theorists claiming other conspiracy theorists are part of the conspiracy)

Results 4 and 9: results unrelated to the reptoid conspiracy.  A guy nicknamed reptoid has weird photos and a Swedish magazine is named "Reptoid". 

Result 10: Urban Dictionary.  Absolutely useless for anything.  It's uninformative, not funny and fuck fuck fuck I hate Urban Dictionary. 

Here is the point I'm trying to illustrate.  If somebody tells you that Queen Elizabeth II is a shapeshifting flesh-eating reptile, it's difficult to find proof on Google that she's not.  The only sane site on the first page is the perpetually-scorned Wikipedia.  To search further, you will have to wade through scores of unsourced frightmongering conspiracy sites, irrelevant links, broken links, advertisements, mirror sites and porn to find something useful.

It's the Information Age, people.  Why is it so hard to find sourced evidence that reptoids don't exist?  It should be front-row, centre.  Instead, Google has provided me with a series of results that will support an unhealthy belief-system, hedged by random crap.  The Information Age was supposed to disseminate knowledge.  Instead we have a multimedia minefield where banner ads decorate the desperate squeals of mentally-ill persons trying to be correct. 

There has to be a better way.  How about this, Google?  How about letting media outlets, universities and research companies register as "scientific" or "sourced", and if you search with a specific Google setting, these results will come up first?  If Google can SafeSearch porn, it can help the world filter its bullshit, ads and inane yammering.  

In honour of this occasion, I am going back over my posts on this blog and deleting one that was poorly-sourced and spreading misinformation.  I won't tell you which one, though.  It's still hard to admit that I've been wrong.


  1. Great stuff, and I'm glad I had a small part in inspiring that... Really good post! I'm working on a "belief assessment algorithm" designed to help us wade through the muck.

    it rests on the fact that all appeals to us to "believe" something are appeals to get us to take some action.

    So I ask us to rank each belief on four scales:
    1. Time until action is required.
    2. Time until results can be verified.
    3. Specificity of action required by adopting the belief.
    4. Number of times the action requested has previously resulted in the desired results.

    I haven't worked the math yet, but by calculating a value, every belief you could possibly propose would fall into a three-dimensional space... ranging from replicable, falsifiable, often repeated,specific actions on out to the completely deluded, unfalsifiable, unvalidated, non-specific actions.

    There's a "sweet-spot" in that "action space" that we could start using as the arbiter of whether or not a proposal is bat-shit crazy, or maybe tenable.

    1. You're missing some things to factor in, dude! This model doesn't accommodate change, like whether the suggestion has produced good results in the past but has ceased to do so. And also, this is missing the human factor: would adopting the idea physically harm myself or others? Without considering these ideas, it would be a great idea for me to go out and get circumcised right now: how could millions of dead Jews and Muslims be wrong?

  2. Google scholar and news does some of that, but, especially with scholar, is not made really noticeable in normal searches (and for me, to even get to scholar required going to more->even more->scrolling down to the bottom of that page). Scholar's results are much more in line with what you want... there are some results that are dodgy, but in general peer review strikes most of them.

    1. Google scholar... how DOES one get there?