Epistemic Closure

As a psychologist, one of the things that has interested me about the recent Presidential election has been all the post-election talk about "epistemic closure" on the political right.

In this polarized electorate we often hear the word "propaganda" thrown around. Fox News is propaganda for the right, but Fox News came into being to combat the left-leaning propaganda of the mainstream media. And it's always been hard to adjudicate between those claims as one man's propaganda is another man's "fair and balanced."

But in the wake of the recent election many have suggested that something was decisively revealed about the poverty of information coming from places like Fox News and the talk radio of the right. Specifically, it seemed that many Republicans were absolutely convinced that their candidate was going to win the election. Perhaps even in a landslide. Thus, as the results from battleground states rolled in on election night there was collective disbelief and shock among the GOP. Reality was crashing in upon belief.

How did that happen?

For those who were closely following the Presidential polls heading into election night this shock was a bit of a head-scratcher. Anyone who had a clue knew that President Obama was leading when the polls opened and was the odds on favorite to win on election night. True, it was close, battleground leads were only a few percentage points, so it was a very real possibility that Obama would lose. Turnout was going to be key. But no one looking at the data would have doubted that Obama was the favorite.

And yet, as I talked with various Republican friends--before and after the election--they seemed to be living in another world. Had they not been following 538, Pollster, Real Clear Politics, and Intrade (among others)? All these sites were aggregating and averaging the polls--both left and right leaning--and all had Obama favored. All of them. And nothing fancy or skewed or biased or book-cooking was going on. You didn't need to be a quant to figure this out. Anyone could have pulled out a calculator and performed a simple average of the polls and gotten the electoral map 100% correct. The data was there. Available to anyone with a calculator. So why couldn't many on the right see it?

To be clear, I don't mean to say that people shouldn't hope against the data. Or wish the data was wrong. Or look for contrary evidence. We all do this. But when we do this we generally know we are, well, hoping. We know we are crossing our fingers. We know we are the underdog. And underdogs do win.

So I'm not talking about that. What I'm talking about is what some have called epistemic closure. Feeling dogmatic rather than doubtful. Mistaking emotion for information (Exhibit A: Peggy Noonan). Feeling certain rather than hopeful. Failing to realize that you are, in fact, the underdog.

How did it happen to so many on the right? What was the source of the shock?

Some have blamed the blind hatred of Obama, a hatred so hot that it was, well, blinding. Blind to what many Americans were seeing who were looking at both the President and the polls without a filter of rage.

Some have blamed Fox News for systematically deluding its viewers, feeding them red meat rather than facts for four years, particularly during the election season. Because in the end, Fox was found to be biased in 2012 and the mainstream media got it right.

For my part, I can't say for sure what happened. All I know is this: something happened. I saw it close up in personal interactions, both before and after the election. People were living in an alternate reality. And the epistemic shock on election night was real. Not the shock of loss. That's to be expected. I'm talking about an epistemic shock, the shock of experiencing a belief system catastrophically collide with empirical reality.

Because reality wasn't hidden heading into election night. Obama was the favorite and Romney was the underdog. It was there for all to see.

All you needed was a calculator.

(Pictured above: Graph of Intrade odds for Obama winning Ohio from October 9 to November 7. Note that Intrade had odds of Obama winning Ohio the night before the election at just under 70%.)


  1. As one who definitely feels disoriented, if I was trying to describe it, it wouldn't be so much "epistemic closure" as "this is who we think Americans are".  And what most republicans thought/think is that Americans have a rough hierarchy of sovereignty that goes something like: family, church, mediating institutions, and most suspicious and limited government.  What this election confirmed or put forward is that a majority of the electorate choose government (or leviathan) as the first and as we suspect eventually only sovereign.  Why was it shocking? Because Americans chose to be something that we couldn't imagine them ever choosing.  As the DNC opened with "the only thing we all belong to is the government".  No Burkean or just American conservative would ever express himself as belonging to the government.  We couldn't or didn't want to believe that Americans had changed that much.  The flip side is the question of just how poor those family and civil society institutions must be for Americans to have chosen government as the better.  Even if you could see it, and you could, the death of a belief about who you are is still something shocking and to be mourned.

  2. Richard,

    Watching the aftermath from my perch high in the Colorado Rockies (pun definitely intended) has been comical, if it weren't so serious. It's like a bad episode of "Doomsday Preppers". I wish I could blame an evangelical culture that brings us things like small group presentations of "The Truth Project", but I have almost atheist friends who are acting the same way. I think it is just the overarching denial that is prevalent in our society--where we deny good economics, history, climate change, science, aging, death, bad grades, bad weather, diseases, sexuality, our true motives and selves, etc.--because reality doesn't make us comfortable or happy. It's even in the Constitution; "the pursuit of happiness" is guaranteed to ME. Anything else cramps my style.

    If Romney would have won, I firmly believe the other side would be acting similarly, in general terms.

    I have to admit I deny reality, too. I'm just lucky enough to not expect politics to make me happy. I will also admit that all this hullaballoo entertains me and helps me deny the reality of the cold snowstorm brewing outside my window. So, rather than get all worked up, I'll just smugly sip my beverage and go back to rooting on Michigan.


  3. Oh, I agree. I think mourning is wholly legitimate. I tried to tease that out in the post. And the edges are not clean between cheerleading and closure.

    But there is an epistemic differences between, "We might be down, but it's close and we can win this thing!" versus "We're winning, and winning going away!" The former is hopeful and legitimate cheerleading as underdogs do win, the latter is tending toward epistemic closure.

  4. Agreed. It's only a matter of time before the shoe is on the other foot. Human nature.

  5. I wonder how much of the distrust of the media spilled over into a distrust of the polls?  As a math/stats professor, I discussed this with my students all the time in class this semester.  Here in College Station, Texas, several of them were skeptical of the polls, even as we discussed them and how all of that works.  It was almost as if they were looking for an "out" with the facts.

  6. Jonathan HuddlestonSaturday, November 10, 2012

    Yeah. I think you might rethink your line that "anyone who had a clue knew Obama was leading." In light of the results, it is easy to see this as self-justifying. But I think it spoils the valid point in your article, which is that anyone who thought this would be a blow-out ON EITHER SIDE was ignoring some pretty important evidence.

    Pollists who thought Obama would win by 5%-6% were just as inaccurate as those who had Romney winning by 3%-4%--and just as far removed from the statistical tie found at RealClearPolitics, where +.6% doesn't really mean Obama was "leading" in any significant sense.

    Yet I can't imagine you saying that any of the many predictions that were off by a couple of percentage points contradicted what "anyone who had a clue" should have known--only those that were off by a couple of percentage points in denying that Obama was likely to win.This is the bias I see on the left. It is never overt or crass. But it buries a put-down under a pile of hindsight whenever the right-leaning arguments prove to be wrong (as they were in this case)--and, when the right-leaning arguments prove to be right, calls the results "surprising" or even "unpredictable" because the most "reputed" prognosticators had not correctly called the outcome.

  7. All the poll aggregator (and Intrade) sites had Obama favored. "Having a clue" is looking at all those sites and swallowing hard.

    If you did that you wouldn't have been "surprised" on election day. You and I talked about Ohio and Florida. Everyone who "had a clue" knew Obama had slight leads there. So no shock when, you know, he actually won there. Disappointment, sure, but not shock.

  8. Obama clearly had the upper hand in the race. The incumbent President generally does. While he was widely perceived as having lost that key first debate with Romney, which gave Romney a slight, short-lived edge, his performance in later debates, combined with his pitch-perfect response to the Hurricane Sandy disaster, allowed him to once again close the gap and gain either a strong or marginal lead in most states.

    On another note, I am VERY well aware of this feeling you are getting on to with the "epistemic shock" phrase (not only in the political sphere, I mean, but there too ... I was a blind Ron Paul cheerleader in 2008, for crying out loud).

  9. At least from someone not immediately involved, I live in NY so why bother, I really don't think it was closure but something deeper that I don't have a word for.  There was just a fundamental belief that "this is not the American People that I know".  This is the party that cherishes Buckley's phrase "I'd rather be governed by the first 300 names in the Boston phone book than the faculty of Harvard".  A belief bordering on religious in the character of the American people which inclined away from state-ism.  And that American people just returned a verdict that said "I'll have more of that" to the most openly state-ist administration probably since Wilson.  It might be semantics, but closure to me implies the head in the sand.  This wasn't head in sand.  This was a core belief that was proven false.  When you have to go back and look again at axioms...  The closest religious analogy I could come up with would be a Catholic being told the Zwingli was right about the sacrament.  What once was a sacramental understanding of the American people has just been demythologized.

  10. Sgt. Pepper's Bleeding HeartSunday, November 11, 2012

    Goes hand-in-hand with the prevalence of climate change denial among the contemporary right wing, I think. When ideology predetermines fact in one area, it's not surprising that it leaches over to other realities that are politically unacceptable.

  11. In my little corner of the world, I definently saw dismay and unbelief that Romney didn't win.  In my circles I believe it was because people really truly thought that Romney was God's choice, and with God in his corner, how could he lose?  My friends on social media were distraught that America would turn their back on God with their vote.  I gave up trying to explain how messed up that was.

  12. Nobody was talking about a blowout.

  13. For one thing, every election year the press trots out the famous "Truman Wins!" photo and therefore plants the seed of doubt in polling.  This is to their neglect and poor thinking.  Polling, at least, has gotten better since 1950.   But, we have that "hope" that the polls are not calling it right.  You are correct, just a casual glance at the polls told you the outcome.  I told my GOP friend many times that Obama would win, but it would be a tight one. 
    The incumbent has an advantage-esp. in a tight race.  Most incumbent presidents win re-election, a few don't.  We'll probably switch parties in 2014 because that is the trend in American politics.  (just look at 1968-1976-1980-1992-2004).
    I was "hoping" Obama wouldn't win, but I knew he would and went to bed at 10 pm knowing the outcome.  With the internet you can follow all the data you want and it was easy to figure it out.  (Even before t.v. talking heads did.)
    I don't think people were deluded or anything.  We even hope our fav. team will win the game because we just want them to.
    There is nothing wrong with this. 
    We still have to get up and go to work tomorrow.

  14. Go Blue!


  15. Richard,

    Regardless of our level of intelligence, we all choose some of the time, even much of the time, to live in our fantasies: that we are in control, that what we think conforms to reality, that what we hope will come to pass, and to ignore the fact that we are all going to die.  Sometimes these fantasies become relatively coherent ideologies with story-lines and heroes and demons and apocalyptic scenarios.  In short, we can be blind to reality.  But our blindness is convenient, provides us with comfort, and give us a way of organizing our lives.  Karl Rove's "epistemic shock" was momentarily on display on Fox News Tuesday night when Fox called the election in favor of Obama.  He has recovered nicely, however, and doing, saying, and believing what is needed to preserve his outlook on reality rather than assessing reality.  In that, he is little different from the rest of us who Thomas Hobbes called "children of pride."  Who among us enjoys acknowledging, confessing our failure, folly, miscalculation, wrong-headedness, sin, weakness, stubbornness, venality, gluttony, and vanity?  Who among us can number the hairs on our head (aside from that fast growing minority of baldies) or increase our height?  Who among us has ears to hear and eyes to see?  The late Tip O'Neill noted that all politics is local, personal.  So is most of our reality--which is why, I think, that Jesus commanded his followers to be awake and alert, to love brothers and sisters, and neighbors, and why he said that the Kingdom of God is within our grasp.


  16. Again, I do see the deep, deep disillusionment. And I'm not questioning that or saying it's wrong. I'm really talking about something different and very specific. I'd frame it this way: for those who were paying attention to the data this disillusionment should have been sinking in months, weeks, and days before the election. For example, Obama was never behind in Ohio, never once over the past year. And no modern Republican has won the White House without Ohio. Which is to say, any Republican paying attention should have had massive heartburn heading into election night.

  17. I think you nailed it when you said, "Mistaking emotion for information".  Even neurologically speaking, we now know that much of our "intellectual certainty" is, in fact, an emotional experience- and an addictive one at that.  There was a huge pay off to be that certain, lending itself to (and/or also being caused by) a lack of capacity to identify with the views of others.

  18. Jonathan HuddlestonMonday, November 12, 2012

    Well, since all of the aggregator sites I followed, including one you mentioned, had a statistical tie, I don't really see why you think they all had Obama favored. I'll agree that the state data, especially from Ohio (not Virginia and Florida) was less ambivalent--but considerably more confusing.

    I'd suggest, having consulted people who actually follow Pol Sci for a job, that nobody should have been surprised or shocked either way on election day--that's what a statistical tie means. Not that people who "swallowed" knew Obama would probably win.

  19. I happened to watch this TED talk after the election and couldn't help but think of what had just happened  http://www.ted.com/talks/kathryn_schulz_on_being_wrong.html

    I also thought of my upbringing and the shifts I've been making over the past few years and realize that I've held onto certainty for reasons other than clear incontrovertible proof. But we ALL do that! It's human nature because of the way our minds and emotions work. What a shock. Nobody's immune. It's a call to me for greater humility in this experience of life as a human-among-humans.

  20. Summary of Data Election Day Morning:

    Real Clear Politics (No Toss Ups): Obama 303, Romney 235
    Pollster: Obama 281, Romney 191
    Nate Silver: Obama 313, Romney 225
    Princeton: Obama 313, Romney 226
    Intrade Odds (Obama Win): 72.4%

    Final Outcome: Obama 332, Romney 206

    Jonathan, you and I have very different ideas what a "toss up" looks like.

  21. You know there's a difference between the electoral vote and the popular vote, right?  There was never a statistical tie in the estimated electoral vote count.

  22. I think a Fox "newscaster" diagnosed the problem quite well when she (Megyn Kelly) asked if Karl Rove was doing "math republicans do to make themselves feel better."

  23. What I found interesting about the election was that it seemed that many Republicans were so convinced their guy would win, yet those on the left were far less sure about an Obama victory.

    This is based on a completely unscientific sample of people I know and talk to who live in California.  Most of the people I know range from moderates to way, way, way left of center, and very few were confident of an Obama victory.  They hoped Romney wouldn't win, and many thought Obama had a good shot of winning, but I ran into very few people who were definitively convinced that Obama would win - even though the polls clearly pointed in that direction.  This was the case even with those people who were actively campaigning for Obama. Absolutely no one thought it would be a blow out - even in groups of HIGHLY partisan and very politically involved people who think the GOP platform would destroy America.

    I'm pretty far left of center, did not like George Bush as President
    even a teeny, tiny bit, but I still wasn't surprised when he won in
    2004 - and neither were any of the lefties I know, even the ones who really hated him on a deep, personal level. (And there were a lot of those.)  And in 2008, I knew a lot of people who desperately wanted Obama to win, but didn't truly believe he would until he actually did it.  This was particularly true among a lot of African-Americans. 

    Anyway, don't know that that is particularly illuminating, but I found the difference in perspective interesting.  Maybe the difference is that almost no one I know watches MSNBC on any regular basis - but the vast majority love the Daily Show and Colbert Report.  It's a different approach to the world.

  24. I think there is a shift in the way Americans see government--not as a "leviathan" as if it is something to be limited and leery of--but instead as an extension and expression of "we, the people."  I understand there were more young people voting in 2012 than voted in 2008, for example.  Their voices, together with the voices of diversity (minorities of all stripes) spoke out clearly that we want a government that is in partnership with us.  We don't care that much about how big or small it is.  What we want is a government that expresses and supports the diversity and choices of all of us.  We don't want a government that favors the rich with special tax breaks.  We want a government that (as the president says) gives all of us a fair shot at the American Dream.  Those who have benefited most from this country should give back in proportion to that which they have received.  And those blue collar laborers who work just as hard as hedge fund managers, should be able to make a living for their families--because frankly we could survive without hedge fund managers more easily than we could survive without those who fix our roads and build our houses and repair our cars. We want to create a government that understands that--and honors the contribution of all of us.

  25. I suspect that's the difference. I focused on the popular vote (Obama plus .6% on RealClearPolitics, after a couple days of Romney +.7%). On the other hand, there was a real debate about whether the state polls were more or less accurate than the national polls, so simply citing the state polls and ignoring the popular vote is not necessarily more realistic, or swallowing more, than citing the national polls and ignoring the state polls. Of course, in retrospect, the state polls were right. . . .