Posted by: Steve Shema | July 14, 2010



Steve Shema is

1. technician for a zooplankton sensory biology/ecology laboratory

2. artist-educator for a regional ensemble theatre

3. New York ex-urb and current resident of a coastal village in Maine

In response to the WMAHM (the proper pronunciation of which I believe rhymes with shi-ZAM) confirmation bias news source challenge:

I have to say my news-gathering is spotty at best and daily reads are more informed by the 17th and 19th Centuries than current events.  That said, a day typically involves a combination of Huffington Post followed by Drudge Report (or vice versa–but each one gets at least a glance at headlines even if no investigation.)

Winter months mean evenings of CNN; no TV news in summer.

Semi- to infrequent visits to — a blog by a University of Minnesota biologist and atheist

Several toolbar-bookmarked sites (Slate, Wikileaks, ITAR-TASS, xkcd, Edge, and Seed magazine) that are utilized quarterly, at best.

The Paris Review (quarterly) and a subscription to Architectural Digest of unknown provenance.

Commentary from my scientist/director bosses.

This demonstrates, I suppose, a semi-conscious effort to remain apart from a large part of current, popular discourse.  There is a definite seasonal trend to my hunger for news with the winter months lending themselves much more to what was once the Wolf Blitzer-Cambell Brown-Lou Dobbs-Larry King-Anderson Cooper line-up.  Other than the perusal of Drudge, I guess it’s pretty clear to see an effort to avoid anything uncomfortably cognitively dissonant with my own leanings.  Even with those precautions, though, I find myself sometimes surprisingly comfortable with rural New England conservativism.   It may be the lack of daylight and human contact eight months out of the year.

Part of the unwillingness to consume a great deal of online news–or more particularly opinion–is related to my first pedantic gripe on this blog (viz. epistemic closure vs. confirmation bias.)  Some quick research showed that the whole dialogue around epistemic closure had been generated from one person’s misuse of a very specific philosophical term to describe a psychological phenomenon that has its own name.  –Not to say that the language of an argument determines the validity of its premises, but I get nervous when people have publishing capability (and demand) that exceeds their ability to responsibly generate or contribute to dialogue.  (Yes, this too, is a blog.)  This is really just another way of identifying the 24-hour-cable-news-gotcha-network issue, but I do think it is both considerably easier and more attractive to 1) assume that you are the first to construct a given argument (curious, given that information acquisition ability has grown at least as fast, if not faster than, information dissemination ability) and 2) actively limit the pool from which you draw information to a very (perceived as useful) few sources that are separated from the millions of other sources by their a priori appeal to your way of thinking.  This is more of an issue the more options there are.

Confirmation bias is really just a manifestation of the desire for binary systems: good/bad = I accept/I reject = I respect/I trivialize.

I wonder, though, if the hyperpolarization of news consumers is fed by the tone of the news received.  Does it matter how clever your news sources are?  When do witty titles/sobriquets (think ObamaCare, General Betrayus, etc) catalyze moderate opinion holders into taking on a group identity (real or perceived) simply because they are 1) attractive (we like to be smart/witty and use words like ‘epistemic closure’ when we hear them) and 2) easily memorable (substance-free) cues or place-holders for our own position in a given debate?  The tenor of these terms can be unnecessarily extreme (if linguistically convenient) and the resonance of their meaning grows to fill the size of the phrase.  But then again, that’s just a definition of propaganda, I suppose.

In other news, I’ve burned dinner.



  1. Steve,

    Confirmation bias, epistemic closure, hyperactive prey drive…call it whatever. I do remember reading that the guy who started this kerfuffle, Julian Sanchez at Cato, said he dredged the term up from some undergrad philosophy course. I think there are two interesting things about this debate. First: to what extent are we all guilty of only reading opinions with which we agree? And second: does this debate represent the beginning of the GOP pruning its fringes?

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