Sunday, April 25, 2010

Agristemic closure...

I have been following with amazement the Great Epistemic Closure Debate of 2010 that is raging in the political blogosphere. I won't begin the claim to have an accurate handle on the subtlety of the philosophy involved, so to set the stage, here is one pretty clear description:
There’s been a surprising amount of online commentary in the last few weeks that prominently uses the term “epistemic closure,” a term I’d never actually heard used in casual conversation before this year. It started with some posts by libertarian blogger Julian Sanchez, who was writing about the excommunication of David Frum from the conservative think tank AEI. Sanchez argued that this was part of a conservative move toward “epistemic closure,” meaning being unreceptive to facts that don’t fit into the pre-approved worldview:
One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media, and is therefore ipso facto not to be trusted. (How do you know they’re liberal? Well, they disagree with the conservative media!)  This epistemic closure can be a source of solidarity and energy, but it also renders the conservative media ecosystem fragile.
This argument was taken up both by heterodox conservatives and by liberals, who agree with the claim that Frum and Bruce Bartlett and other conservative apostates have been making: that in the era of Fox News, conservatives have effectively created their own reality which cannot be violated by outside facts. [More]
I found this debate clarifying for several reasons. First, it helps me understand my own drift and now, outright flight from what passes for "conservative thought" currently. Not that I am justified in my position, just that I'm not the only person wondering what these people are thinking.

Most curious is the growing number of former stalwarts of conservative thought like Bruce Bartlett, David Frum, and now, apparently, Jim Manzi, with whom I have sometimes disagreed but always admired their thoughtful comments, who have been excommunicated from the right wing for thinking unapproved thoughts And then writing them down. (BTW, it occurs to me I cannot name a counterexample of a liberal thinkmeister being dropped from the club for drifting right. I guess there is some social security (heh) in being more liberal, if nothing else)

But more importantly, doesn't this closed information system ring a cowbell for any of us in farming? For the most part we listen to the same ag news sources which reiterate the same litany of "truths", such as:
  • Farmers are the backbone of the nation
  • Farmers deserve a different deal from the government as other citizens
  • Current ag production is not only good, it is the best of all possible farms
  • Farms producing the Sacred 7 Crops (corn, soy, wheat, rice, sugar, dairy, cotton) must be publicly funded.
  • Farmers are just better than other Americans
  • Farms are the best place to raise children
  • Every farmer has a right to farm the way he* sees fit
  • Farmer taxes are too high - even if they are less than others.
  • Ethanol from corn is a brilliant idea, despite the mandates and subsidies needed to make it work.
  • Farmers work harder than anyone else in the universe.
I could go on. But the point is - and I have heard it delicately phrased by people in the ag media - you don't contradict these dogma and live to tell the story.

This is the same type of information bubble that got us into the never-ending Iraq sandmire. And our own ag policy, I might add. By limiting the introduction of new information, or ruling out facts that are incompatible with our world view, we have contructed an insular and self-reinforcing reality that is rapidly sliding away from reality.

Just as has been illustrated well in the issue of epistemic closure, our own industrial parochialism will have to cope with a new information system. Say what you will about the blogosphere, but the absence of editors and publishers is remarkably empowering at the individual level.

More to the point, as I tried to illuminate earlier, the new media demands proof - not just assertion. One quick test for closure is the quality and breadth of the links in any blog post.  If they are simply others in the echo chamber (of which I am frequently guilty) then it is rapidly becoming obvious the opinions are likely the product of circular reasoning.

Agriculture, like everything else, is always at a crossroads. But we have never had so many choices of directions to move.  What a shame - and how professionally suicidal - it would be if we simply regurgitated popular bromides instead of engaging in real debate.

*Still not sure about female farmers


Anonymous said...

Similar thoughts John. I always figured these "agri-truths" came from the ag salesmen who for decades used this these comments of praise to make a sale to farmers. Never hurts to praise a paying customer. "Nice place you got here!" Of course after a couple of generations of listening to them, a lot of us ended up really thinking that they must be true.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes if you tell people something long enough they will actually believe it...fact is we farmers have been blessed with majority of our net income from gov't payments for the last 30 yrs....having seen many "small independent business fail or struggle" during tough times with out support should make us pretty happy when we can cash 6 figure checks while going to coffee shop too complain about welfare moms or bums....thinking our day of big checks may be coming to an end sooner than we think--regards-kevin

Anonymous said...

i agree, the 10 agricultural truths that you listed are mostly rhetoric, designed to make farmers feel good, and buy inputs at higher prices. i've been in a few lively discussions with conservative glenn beck disciples and for the most part these people have no interest in listening to opinions other than their own. I'm not out to convert anyone to my way of thinking, just have the need to respectfully express my opinions, such as, since agricultural subsidies are essentially a subsidy to land owners, and i've seen land values and returns to land ownership increase dramatically the past 10 years,do we really need to continue receiving government payments? ok, thanks AC

Anonymous said...

Met with a big farm management client today about plans for 2011 leases. This next generation of landowners don't see things from a "farmers" perspective.
I suspect the bidding for farm leases won't be part of the new financial regulations any time soon. Its gonna be UGLY!

John Phipps said...


What?? You mean it's been PRETTY up until now?

Anonymous said...

-not too realistic too want a farm management co. too look at things from a "farmers perspective"...there job is too get best return and tenant for the farm --period-regards-kevin

Anonymous said...

Farm Managers are people too. Yes there is the dogma of the "farming romance", but nobody enjoys seeing good long term farm operators loose land to those willing to push the envelope on rents. I know it has not been pretty so far, but I sense it is about to blow, and become SOP, IMHO.