Epistemic closure's back, and it's called "explanatory journalism"

Remember “epistemic closure“? That phrase had a shelf life of a couple of years on the Left as a way to explain the refusal of the Right to see how Democrats won the 2008 election, among other things. It meant that conservatives had retreated too far into echo chambers to deal with reality, refusing to acknowledge differing points of view and contrary data points, let alone deal with them directly. For the most part, the charge was nonsense; no conservative, even in the echoiest of echo chambers, can avoid dealing with the media and its bias. As it turned out at the time, conservatives actually did engage outside the echo chambers more often than their counterparts, and won a huge victory in the 2010 midterms within months of that meme getting flotation — a victory that progressive commentators never saw coming until far too late.

Well, epistemic closure’s back, argues my colleague at The Week Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, and this time it’s in the form of “explanatory journalism”:

Meanwhile, two things are particularly striking about the current Democratic agenda. The first is that it’s so tired. Raising the minimum wage, raising taxes on high earners, tightening environmental regulation — these are all ideas from the ’60s. The second is that nobody on the left seems to be aware of it.

One of the most striking examples of this epistemic closure among liberal writers are their forays into “explanatory journalism.” The idea that many people might like clear, smart explanations of what’s going on in the news certainly has merit. But the tricky thing with “explaining” the news is that in order to do so fairly, you have to be able to do the mental exercise of detaching your ideological priors from just factually explaining what is going on. Of course, as non-liberal readers of the press have long been well aware, this has always been a problem for most journalists. And yet, the most prominent “explanatory journalism” venture has been strikingly bad at actually explaining things in a non-biased way.

I am, of course, talking about Vox, the hot new venture of liberal wonkblogger extraordinaire Ezra Klein. It was already a bad sign that his starting lineup was mostly made up of ideological liberals. And a couple months in, it’s clear that much of what passes for “explanation” on Vox is really partisan commentary in question-and-answer disguise. …

Increasingly, liberal writers have been drinking their own kool-aid. They really believe they are the “reality based community.” When they talk about conservatives they respect, they qualify their praise with “The smart conservative so and so…” — with such “he’s one of the good ones” asterisks betraying the wholly unwarranted assumption on the left that the vast majority of conservatives are crazy, stupid, or both.

And yet, liberals themselves are very rarely capable of passing an Ideological Turing Test. They believe not only that an honest evaluation of the world lines up with their worldview (everyone does, to some extent), but have also forgotten how to differentiate between the honest evaluations and their worldview, or that doing so is even possible, or that their worldview is based on very idiosyncratic moral priors.

Ace tried putting his finger on this last night, too:

The best I could propose was “callowism” or “callownalism,” although I doubt too many people could supply the definition of “callow” without resorting to a dictionary (“lacking adult sophistication”). The phenomenon is almost entirely an echo-chamber creation and service, an all-in-one self-affirmation for the Left even without the normal affirmation of the national media. The conceit of Vox and other “explanatory journalism” efforts by partisans and ideologues is that they grant themselves the authority of perfect knowledge rather than honestly argue as one side in a complex debate, and the Q&A format is the heart of that conceit.

None of this was a surprise, either. Plenty of people accurately diagnosed this issue from the beginning of “explanatory journalism,” perhaps even Jeff Bezos, who wisely declined to sink millions of dollars into the enterprise. It’s become an easy punching bag, as Gobry notes from several examples, but yesterday’s efforts to make believe that a -2.9% GDP result in Q1 wasn’t bad news was perhaps the most easily skewered.

To say the least, this kind of sanctimonious lecturing in the guise of factual reporting doesn’t exactly build confidence in the media, but that’s a broader problem than Vox and the other callownalists. Chris Cillizza tried to sound the alarm yesterday on Gallup’s recent polling on confidence in media, which has plunged to new lows. Cillizza asserts that this is the reason that people have gathered into echo chambers in the first place:

Your first reaction to that fact is likely something like this: Damn right. The media is so conservative/liberal/some other ideology that they don’t deserve to be trusted.

Fair enough. But, take a second and reflect on what it means that most people believe that there is simply no referee, no independent observer that exists to litigate the constant fighting in the political world.

The natural result of that loss of faith in the news media is for people to seek out more partisan sources of information which they can “trust” because the information being put out by those sites jibes with their particular point of view.  That is, of course, is exactly what’s happened in recent years as partisans shows, news sites and radio programs have boomed even as more traditional, non-partisan media outlets have struggled.  That means people are faced with information that doesn’t perfectly fit their world view less and less of the time — leading to the idea that people with whom you disagree are not simply looking at the world differently but rather are, at best, stupid, at worst, and evil.

That does explain “explanatory journalism”/callownalism, true. But that’s only possible because the supposedly non-partisan media outlets were anything but, and everyone knew it. The model of objective media had become a farce long before blogs and echo chambers arose. If these national media outlets want to decry this lack of trust in their work, perhaps they should look to themselves and their own biases first.

If only someone had written a book about this to warn them! You know, perhaps a longtime veteran of a national news organization, writing a column in a national print outlet in 1996 and then a book in 2001. But more on that later …

Update: A lot of “fact check” projects suffer from degrees of the same arrogance, but a few are handled reasonably well — although it always pays to fact-check the fact-checkers.