Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Bullshit Heuristic and Defense of (a little) Epistemic Closure

Or a defense of what passes for “epistemic closure” these days, which is to say information cocooning and the walling off of certain individuals, information sources, and arguments from one’s attention and consideration.

Some time ago, it was discovered that certain political phrases provoke emotional brain responses rather than logical ones. This was popularly interpreted as evidence of irrationality in political beliefs. While there is most certainly a great deal of irrationality in political beliefs, I suggest that some of these responses are heuristical responses corresponding to rationally held positions. Certain subjects trip my “bullshit heuristic”. “Green jobs” is a good one. The debate about global warming may still be active, but the debate about green jobs is over, and “green jobs” lost by any objective manner. “Saved or created.” “Social justice.” “Aggregate demand.” Speakers of these and other phrases are asking me to ignore them, for they speak bullshit.

A number of people make me immediately change the channel or hit the “back” button on my web browser. They aren’t worth listening to. Ever. They actually make you less intelligent just by listening to them. The main culprits are Olbermann, Maddow, Andrew Sullivan, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, along with some others.

More fall into what I’ll call the “5% category”, meaning that 95% of the time they are safe to ignore, but on a rare occasion they might actually say something worthwhile. I will typically come across the useful statements made by these people by way of some other source. I’m talking about Chris Matthews, David Frum, Tom Friedman, Newsweek and Time magazines, Joe Klein, etc. The signal-to-noise ratio isn’t terribly favorable in this crew, so I don’t actively seek out the purported wisdom of these sources. More often they are subjects of derision for their inane remarks. (Deriding the idiocy of Olbermann et al is like shooting fish in a barrel, and thus lacks a certain fun and sport.)

Then there’s a category of largely irrelevant sources that I tend to ignore, not because of overly egregious bias (though there is some of it), but because they don’t offer anything that can’t be found elsewhere. Once upon a time, I used to read the websites of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CNN on a daily basis. I haven’t done that in years, and any time I’ve returned to those sources I usually wonder why I bothered. The era of dominance by monolithic media sources is over. Aggregators and social media rule the information market now. I probably get 95% of my information from Google News, Twitter, and a few blogs. I watch a network broadcast news about 3 or 4 times a week. I have CNBC on in the background during the day, but I check in on the content only occasionally. Sometimes I peek at “Morning Joe”, or flip through Fox News to make sure I’m not missing something.

Am I walled off? Maybe some, but judging by what I see when I watch the network news, or pick up a major newspaper, I’m not missing much. A generation ago, if a person read 3 or 4 major newspapers (Some combination of NYT, WaPo, LAT, AJC, or WSJ) and watched the broadcast news, he or she was very well informed. Now, such a person is getting only a fraction of the available and relevant information. Some information sources must necessarily be ignored.

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