Confirmation Bias and Epistemic Closure

 

I learned a new word today…or pair of words—“epistemic closure.” Julian Sanchez used this term two years ago in conjunction with another term I recently learned and shared here—“confirmation bias.” To summarize, this refers to the human tendency to choose to believe what we want to, seek confirmation for that perspective, and shut out anything contrary. (See Sanchez’ observation at: http://www.juliansanchez.com/2010/04/07/epistemic-closure-technology-and-the-end-of-distance/)

Sanchez noted also that this is a human problem and not the exclusive province of any group or any ideology. But he did opine that it appeared to be a particularly egregious problem with the conservative movement in our country at that time; and, he would certainly agree that the problem is much worse in the intensity of this election campaign. This is becoming even more obvious in the past week, with Mr. Romney experiencing an hiccup in the polls, and the conservative press attacking the polls themselves, even Fox News.

The problem with this view of reality is the insularity. Feedback from the outside is discouraged and even in the greatest extremes forbidden. This always leads to madness. No, I’m not saying the conservative movement is mad; but I am saying there is madness on its extremes and these extremes have had too much influence on them. Even Karl Rove himself dismissed these extremists as “the nutty fringe.”

Emily Dickinson knew something about an insular life and her adaptation to this anguish was poetry. Here is an example:

The soul selects her own society,
Then shuts the door;
On her divine majority
Obtrude no more.
Unmoved, she notes the chariot’s pausing
At her low gate;
Unmoved, an emperor is kneeling
Upon her mat.
I’ve known her from an ample nation
Choose one;
Then close the valves of her attention
Like stone.
The image of closing “the valves of her attention” is intense and vivid, cold and brutal. The person who does this has shut out the world and, like Hamlet, retreated “to a nutshell” and there comforts himself in “being king of infinite spaces.” Mental illness is a reference problem. When we have closed off all reference to the outside world, we are nuts. And on that note, Hamlet asked, “What is it to be mad but nothing else but mad?”

 

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6 thoughts on “Confirmation Bias and Epistemic Closure

  1. Rick Kirkpatrick

    I find it interesting that YOUR confirmation bias caused you to only use a politically conservative example to prove your point rather than a broader scope of examples… of which there are many. After all, confirmation bias has caused people to make poor decisions in all areas of life including the personal, military, political, educational, etc. In fact, it has actually caused wars in the past and present. Yet, you chose to mention only one relatively miner example which just happens to further your own political views. Hmmmmm.
    Rick

    On second thought…. perhaps this is just MY confirmation bias.
    In that case, please ignore the above comment.

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    1. waterlexeme

      Okay … what about the Iraq war and “the war on terror” or the ‘Jihad on America’ as examples of confirmation bias – nothing trivial there, but a whole lot of conjured up smoke leading to a very serious fire. These are all examples of things that insanity has talked its way into be a real thing in the world! Things that only existed in some people’s imaginations, but because they believe them to be real they made them real.

      But using opinion polls as an example is valid. Politicians often embrace opinion polls when they confirm what they want to believe about the so-called “silent majority”, and then decry their validity when they don’t say what they believe.

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      1. literary lew Post author

        Oh, I so agree with your examples of confirmation bias. And, I might add, I’ll take our culture’s extremist examples of “confirmation bias” any day over those of many other cultures…such as in the Muslim world. We have a “nutty fringe” but our “nutty fringe” are civilized compared with the its correlate in the Muslim cultures.

        Yes, Emily Dickinson was so good. Such a tormented soul but “torment” can produce beautiful adaptations.

        Thanks for your feedback.

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    2. literary lew Post author

      You miss a subtle but very important point. I, and everyone else, always opine with a “confirmation bias.” I have a point and, therefore, I cannot help it but employ “selective attention” in choosing anecdotes which confirm my bias. A “meta” point I’m making…and admittedly obsessively at times…is that the human task at this point in our evolution is to become somewhat conscious of the biased nature of our world world view and therefore offer a little bit more respect for those who think and feel…and vote…differently than we do. And, alas, I must admit I don’t always do this!

      And, yes, that was YOUR confirmation bias but what else do we have? And yours was a very thoughtful one.

      Thanks for your very insightful comment. We’ll talk more later. Welcome home!

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      Reply

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