Rod Dreher

Tired of the epistemic closure discussion? Me neither. A Texas reader sends along this post from the excellent science writer/blogger Jonah Lehrer, who discusses how becoming enculturated within a particular group involves epistemic closure. Excerpt:

The process of enculturation doesn’t just afflict middle-aged scientists, struggling to appreciate a new anomaly. It’s a problem for any collection of experts, from CIA analysts to Wall Street bankers. Let’s stick with Wall Street, since Goldman Sachs is in the news. The question for senators and regulators is why some very smart people (and their very clever quantitative models) missed a financial bubble that, in retrospect, looks devastatingly obvious.
Let’s begin with a classic experiment, led by Jerome Bruner and Leo Postman. A group of undergraduates was briefly shown a series of playing cards. The vast majority of the cards were normal, the usual assortment of face cards and numbered suites. Every once in a while, however, one of the cards was “anomalous,” so that Bruner and Postman would flash the students a card that couldn’t exist, such as the red ten of spades, or the black five of diamonds. Interestingly, the subjects almost never recognized these aberrations. Instead, they distorted the perception to fit their expectations, so that they remembered seeing a black ten of spades, and a red five of diamonds. They were so familiar with the standard deck of cards that they could no longer see what was unfamiliar. This meant, of course, that they ended up missing the most interesting bits of information.
Such are the hazards of enculturation. The only difference is that, instead of becoming too familiar with a standard deck of cards, we become too familiar with the standard model of physics, or the Wall Street models that assume real estate prices won’t drop simultaneously all across the country. And so we become blind to our blind spots.

This is what I’m getting at in my post about elites and their private contempt: how the epistemic closure that all elites, whatever their group or ideology, necessarily undergo. Big problems come when you become so closed-minded that you don’t know what you don’t know. And you put your faith in the experts that your particular culture tells you to respect, however misguided. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote in “The Black Swan”:

I am most often irritated by those who attack the bishop but somehow fall for the securities analyst — those who exercise their skepticism against religion but not against economists, social scientists, and phony statisticians. Using the confirmation bias, these people will tell you that religion was horrible for mankind by counting deaths from the Inquisition and various religious wars. But they will not show you how many people were killed by nationalism, social science, and political theory under Stalinism or during the Vietnam War. Even priests don’t go to bishops when they feel ill: their first stop is the doctor’s. But we stop by the offices of many pseudo-scientists and “experts” without alternative. We no longer believe in papal infallibility; we seem to believe in the infallibility of the Nobel… .

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