The Corner

Epistemic Cloture

I made some comments about the great “epistemic closure” debate last week on Bloggingheads. I said that I do think that conservatives have a growing tendency to retreat into a cocoon, that it both reduces conservatism’s knowledge base and reduces conservatives’ ability to persuade non-conservatives, and that my general sense of it is that liberals right now have this tendency to a lesser extent. I qualified this last point by noting that I am not aware of any compelling evidence that conservatives have more factually incorrect beliefs than liberals.

A friend of mine took exception to that last point, even as qualified. He emailed to note that my book on abortion and related issues is practically dedicated to the debunking of liberal myths: myths about what Roe v. Wade holds, about the history of U.S. abortion law, about the reasons partial-birth abortion took place, about public opinion on abortion, and about many other topics besides. He writes: “[Y]ou have this long forum I just watched now where you could have not let Chait get away with this, on the issue of the relative epistemic closure of the Left and the Right, you didn’t offer *one* *word* on how much more guilty his side is of it on social issues than your own.  And it screams to be said in a debate/discussion like this.”

I’ll make two comments before filing for cloture on closure. The first is that I’m not sure these examples are truly apposite. It is certainly true that many liberals have been highly misleading about the scope of Roe, for example, and that widespread confusion has been helpful to liberals in that debate. But I’m afraid that so many people have been misled that it is not clear that conservatives are significantly less likely than liberals to buy the myths. I have very often read or heard conservatives who believe that Roe applies only to the first trimester of pregnancy.

Second: I’m not sure that the question of which side is more guilty of this cognitive vice is all that important. All else equal, sure, you’d want to trust the side with less of this vice with power; but all else isn’t equal, and there are plenty of other reasons I side with conservatives rather than liberals in most political struggles. I said what I said partly in the same spirit that an observant Christian might declare himself chief among sinners. Someone who says that does not actually believe he is the worst person in history; what he means is that the sins he knows and for which he has responsibility are chiefly his own. (The late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus had a lovely discussion of this notion in Death on a Friday Afternoon.) Maybe my inchoate sense of things is wrong, and contemporary liberalism is just as closed-minded as (or more closed-minded than) contemporary conservatism. But liberalism isn’t my responsibility. In some small way, conservatism is.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


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