Epistemic Closure — Revised and Updated

Epistemic Closure is a fancy phrase in philosophy related to epistemology. It refers to knowledge, how we know things and what we know about things. An example might be Locke’s epistemology which refers to the belief of philosopher John Locke that each newborn child is a tabula rasa, a blank slate upon which his life experiences write and from which all of his knowledge is derived. Epistemic closure then might describe what occurs when the child becomes a man and becomes convinced that what he now knows is so correct that nothing which challenges any of his collected knowledge will be considered by him. He will simply ignore all new evidence, i.e., epistemic closure occurs.

A way to think of epistemic closure in an institutional setting is what happens when a criminal trial ends in a verdict. The evidence becomes closed, double jeopardy prevents consideration of newly discovered evidence in a second criminal trial brought by the state and a convicted defendant will have an enormously difficult time getting a new trial on the basis of any newly discovered evidence no matter how innocent it may seem to make him. The new evidence will usually have to clearly establish that the first trial resulted in a gross miscarriage of justice otherwise prosecutors will fight harder to save the conviction than they fought to get it in the first place. Judges are just as reluctant to grant new trials except in extraordinary circumstances. Witness the reaction of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in the face of overwhelming evidence that Fells Acres defendant Gerald Amirault had been wrongly convicted. The court’s response and the efforts of prosecutor Marsha Coakley to keep him in prison and the manner in which she rejected all the evidence that showed the first trial to have been a farce must be one of the more classic examples of institutional epistemic closure in legal history.

I once attended a continuing legal education seminar given by the highly regarded Charles Nesson, evidence professor at Harvard Law School. I had heard from other professors in law school that a trial is not about the discovery of truth but rather it is about resolution of a case. But never had I heard it more forcefully stated as by Professor Nesson, who stressed to the audience of lawyers that the facts established in a trial are not necessarily “true” but are what is to suffice as true. The facts established in a trial are what a group of people who can’t agree on the facts will now accept as the facts, willingly or forcefully. Once concluded, it is over. No additional evidence will be considered, except in extraordinary or even extra-extraordinary circumstances. Whether this makes sense or constitutes justice one can understand the reasoning behind the rule. The argument must end somewhere. A trial is to put the matter to rest in the best way possible. Epistemic closure for sure, but with justification.

The blank slate theory of human development is not in favor anymore, but epistemic closure is gaining in notoriety as a twenty dollar set of words to describe what might be better referred to by its ten cent cousin, close minded or having a closed mind. Liberals are defending their pet theories of global warming by attacking the intellect of skeptics. For this liberals want to occupy the intellectual high ground. Common words and phrases won’t do. They use highfalutin phrases like epistemic closure so they will sound clever and sharp-witted (they think) when they attack the skeptics as being stupid back-woodsy toothless goobers with no capacity for learning anything more sophisticated than ice cream.

Conservative skepticism of man-made global warming is at the heart of the new attraction for the phrase “epistemic closure” as a way for liberals to make themselves feel really smart. With the global warming cat pretty much out of the bag by the disclosure of the East Anglia emails and the hockey stick fraud, liberals are desperate to hang on to the global warming scare because without it the whole agenda of carbon taxes and green energy is in jeopardy. Without these and other parts of the liberal agenda for moving America ever more toward European style socialism, liberals are left with few ways to make themselves feel superior to us common schlubs who are too dense to know what is good for us.

So next time you hear or read the words “epistemic closure,” you can expect a condescending speech on how people who don’t buy into the global warming scare or some other liberal hype are just not open to expanding their minds.

UPDATE: Mark Levin’s book Liberty and Tyranny was a runaway best seller for over a year. It’s a book that most liberals would naturally hate because it characterizes most of their agenda as either tyranny or likely to need a tyrannical government to implement because free people would not stand for it. Levin’s book is now in paperback and still ranks #3409 in Amazon’s overall sales rating and #5 in the nonfiction political category. In addition to scalding criticism of liberalism and the liberal agenda, Levin flatly states that carbon dioxide has not been sufficiently shown to be capable of affecting global atmospheric temperature. For this statement alone liberals such as Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute (where he masquerades as a libertarian) have charged Levin with suffering from “epistemic closure.” Levin is not alone is being skeptical of CO2, at least at levels that could be associated with human activity, as a cause of global warming. He cites the work of scientists who have studied the question and also are skeptical, such as Dr. Nir Shariv, a top astrophysicist and associate professor at Hebrew University. Since I read Levin’s book on Kindle I cannot be sure of the page number in either the hardback or paperback where this discussion takes place but it is at locations 1899-1907 or 50% in the Kindle edition.

Levin also describes in specific detail how the proponents of CO2 based warming have deliberately manipulated the testing and measurement procedures to produce false data that purport to find a causal connection between atmospheric CO2 concentrations and higher global temperatures. A roundup of scientific evidence about CO2’s ability to warm the planet can be found in Dr. Roy Spencer’s new book The Great Global Warming Blunder.

Liberals could not let a book as popular as Levin’s go unchallenged but they have no scientific evidence with which to attack it, or at least none that has not already been discredited. The traditional liberal tactics of demonization are not reliable when attempted to be used against a book that has sold in such high numbers. Besides, there is nothing about Levin that can be used to make us hate him. He’s a big-hearted good guy as readers of Rescuing Sprite know and as parents of soldiers or marines killed in the war on terror can attest.

Hence, the attempt to cast Levin as suffering from the intellectual stubbornness of epistemic closure. It hasn’t worked and it won’t work. Not only does Levin have reason on his side, he is himself a very effective communicator and unlike many conservatives he is not intimidated by liberals. He eats them for lunch.

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