Epistemic Closure by the Numbers

Some economists at the University of Chicago have tried to answer the question of whether the Internet allows people to isolate themselves in an echo chamber. They’ve come up with an “isolation index”. The higher the index, the more isolation. Here are the media numbers:

The isolation index we estimate for the Internet is higher than that of broadcast television (1.8), magazines (2.9), cable television (3.3), and local newspapers (4.1), and lower than that of national newspapers (10.4). We estimate that eliminating the Internet would reduce the ideological segregation of news and opinion consumption across all media from 4.9 to 3.8.

But then there’s this:

It is significantly lower than the segregation of actual networks formed through voluntary associations (14.5), work (16.8), neighborhoods (18.7), or family (24.3). The Internet is also far less segregated than networks of trusted friends (30.3).

The conclusion is clear: if you want to be “open minded”, stay the hell away from friends and family.

(via Ars)

35 replies
  1. 1
    Lisa K. says:

    The conclusion is clear: if you want to be “open minded”, stay the hell away from friends and family.

    Particularly those who spend hours on the internet.

  2. 2
    J.W. Hamner says:

    Clearly, so called “trusted friends” are not to be trusted.

  3. 3
    PaulW says:

    Stay away from family or friends? Then how the hell am I gonna wean my dad off of Glenn Beck?!

  4. 4
    loretta says:

    Isolation index of the internet? It’s a contradiction in terms and impossible unless self-imposed. And if it’s self-imposed, then it’s not existential.

    Even if you wanted to avoid all opinions that differed from yours, you’d be hard pressed to do it on the internet without intentional work. It would sort of make the internet irrelevant. You’d have to skip reading any comments on blogs, any editorials (because you wouldn’t be sure of the point of view until you started reading it), any surfing to unknown places. You’d have to rely entirely on links provided by trusted sources, and a handful of reliable websites.

    I don’t think narrow people like tea partiers rely on the internet for their echo chamber. They might read email and a few reliable web sites, but mostly they get their news from Fox, talk radio and their fellow bigots. These people are not enlightened enough to use the internet as a resource.

    So, I’m calling bunk on this “research”.

  5. 5
    Keith G says:

    Some economists at the University of Chicago have tried to answer the question….

    And that has worked out so well in the past.

  6. 6

    I have a question about epistemic closure on the left.

    One of the problems with epistemic closure is that you get blindsided by events that are perfectly predictable outside your chosen bubble. Now, in my memory, after the 2004 election GWB said, "I've got a mandate, so I'm going to do what I promised … privatize Social Security!"

    I was gobsmacked, because I hadn't thought SS reform was a central issue in the campaign, I hadn't thought that was what he was running on. Conversely, when I heard conservatives (or libertarians) saying last year that they were surprised that Obama was pushing health care reform, I would have said that was clear evidence of epistemic closure — HCR was a central topic of debate during the Democratic primaries, and was one of the issues Democrats knew we were voting for in the election.

    Do those of you who were more on the right in 2004 recall thinking of SS reform as a central goal, and GWB's push for it in early 2005 as obvious and expected? Was I in a leftie bubble, or not?

  7. 7
    Ash Can says:

    @loretta:

    I’m calling bunk on this “research”.

    Me too. These guys are kidding themselves. Back in the days when I read various local and national newspapers on a regular basis, I quickly recognized the difference between the thinkers and the hot-headed trolls on the op-ed pages. I’d read the former and ignore the latter. So right then and there I was “ideologically segregating” myself (although in my “ideological segregation” I avoided yahoos on either end of the political spectrum if all they ever did was rant pointlessly). And I imagine that, other than our brave FPers here who read the assholes so we don’t have to ourselves, most people do the same thing.

    I suppose that this kind of quantification has value as a parlor game or conversation-starter over cocktails. But it’s too full of holes to be of any serious use.

  8. 8
    Napoleon says:

    @Doctor Science:

    Do those of you who were more on the right in 2004 recall thinking of SS reform as a central goal, and GWB’s push for it in early 2005 as obvious and expected?

    I am on the left but I guarantee you he did not run on it in any kind of high profile way. But that is no surprise because the central goals of the right are at odds with what most people even in their base would want if they really knew what their elected leaders were up to, whereas at least in general Dems run on things that are generally popular. So the right has to hide the ball, while the left doesn’t need to.

  9. 9
    bkny says:

    Some economists at the University of Chicago have tried to answer the question…

    now that’s a reliable group…

  10. 10

    there’s another word for this: cyberbalkanization. It’s been around a while, it’s real, but economists are not the people to lead this research, IMHO.

  11. 11
    Brent says:

    I call shenanigans. The internet provides acess to extremism and diversity to many areas of the globe and the US where there might not be, say, a local gay neo-nazi chapter. The networking potential is unprecedented and growing. Of course there is self selecting isolation, which is one reason I read ballon juice daily, so I don’t have to encounter right wing idiocy, save to mock it.

    There are niches and subcultures which would not otherwise develop into full cultlike status if not for the net. The isolation chamber effect is massive and very different from other forms of media due to it’s interactive nature. As to freinds and family, I concur, which is why, for years, I’ve only needed my trannie blow up love doll and the many forums and websites devoted to it.

  12. 12
    rootless-e says:

    he university of chicago economists, if the free market only required the insane Ayn Randian drivel of UofC economists it would have told you that.

  13. 13
    Norbrook says:

    There’s always been some form of isolation, and as they point out, friends, family, and where you live are even more likely to impact than media. I remember the intense culture shock of moving from a small town to a large city – the diversity was at first a little overwhelming.

    I think when we talk about what the echo chambers do, it’s to provide an additive effect on people’s ideological tendencies. I’ve seen it on the conservative and the liberal blogs. When you take what you already believe to the Internet, and you find that some other people from other parts of the country believe exactly like you do, it “confirms” that you’re right and you represent the “majority.” Objectively, most of them aren’t even close to being a majority, but it’s why you see the “purity wars” and the claims of being the mainstream thought from them.

  14. 14
    acallidryas says:

    Hm. I’m just wondering where talk radio comes into play and how that rates on the “isolation index.” I somehow don’t see that, though.

  15. 15
    Shygetz says:

    Of course there is self selecting isolation, which is one reason I read ballon juice daily, so I don’t have to encounter right wing idiocy, save to mock it.

    This is the crux of the UofC argument; the internet allows for easy access to tons of people who agree with you, so you self-select those sources of news/entertainment/whatever in order to protect your brain from the discomfort of opposing views.

    And I happen to think it’s probably true. I see a hell of a lot more people who disagree with me in one hour on the Sunday morning TV circuit than I would in a day on the internet.

  16. 16
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    There’s simply got to be a better term for this, “epistemic closure” sounds like infected sutures.

    “I’m sorry sir, your pain is being caused by an epistemic closure, we’ll have reopen it immediately.”

    “Epistemology” is familiar enough, but somehow not that form.

    In the meantime here’s a question: What do people read online?

    This has me thinking that I’ve been running in my well-worn ruts online, but wondering what others’ ruts consist of.

    I agree with the research, I think we actually end up wandering pretty far afield, but I do tend to start in the same places.

    My work gives me these frequent pauses and I end up, well, here’s my list:

    TPM

    GOS (Daily Abbreviated Pundit Roundup only, really. At least habitually. Kept me sane during the election, when the “Great news for McCain!” mania was in full battle cry, he’d post these rational explanations about convention bumps that all turned out to be precisely correct, and while family and friends were panicking, I could point them to it to read)

    Huffpost (Meh. I cain’t quit them. Should though)

    Crooks and Liars (Videos of Wingnuts being wingnuts)

    Arts and Letters Daily (Infuriating place. Great site, absolutely, but the editors have a glibertarian slant, and half the things you click on you find go to some hideous extreme right wing nonsense.)

    Eschaton

    Tbogg

    NY Times, Washington Post, Atlantic, etc etc

    True Slant (Matt Taibbi)

    538

    IMDB (In some ways the most useful Web site ever invented).

    Oh and Salon but only the mobile version since their horrific redesign, with screaming red CNN-clone interface, gahh. Mobile.salon.com works fine. Just for TT and GG, especially now that Stephanie Zacharek has gone.

    Google for all the functional stuff, maps, mail, search, groups, docs online, etc.

    NPR (Science Friday, Wait Wait, etc)

    PBS (I can’t quit Beavis and Brooks either. I miss David Gergen)

    I’m sure there’s more, those are just the habitual ones. What are yours?

  17. 17
    Joey Maloney says:

    The conclusion is clear: if you want to be “open minded” avoid sexual abuse, stay the hell away from friends and family.

    Fixed for childhood.

  18. 18
    LittlePig says:

    I think “is this a rational argument?” is an external check on that sort of thing that the study doesn’t take into account.

    Yes, I don’t read teabagger sites that say “cut government spending, cut taxes, spend more on defense, and don’t cut my Medicare and Social Security”. That’s not because of “I don’t like those guys” (well, not exclusively anyway), it is because those actions cannot take place in the real world – they are mutually contradictory.

    So as loretta notes, there’s a ‘self-selecting to avoid morons’ angle these folks ignored (without even noting that economists did the study, which makes no damn sense – not that I would expect sense of UoC economists).

  19. 19
    asiangrrlMN says:

    I think it’s true in the broad sense that we gravitate towards blogs/sites that reinforce our beliefs. And, since we are wired to discount opinions that do not coincide with ours, it’s easy to dismiss the outliers. Politically, I read WaMo, TBoggs, TNC, and BJ on a daily basis. I rarely read the comments at WaMo or TNC. So, while I am exposed to other opinions (I only pie Makalakawiwi on this site), I tend to resonate more with the ones that reinforce my beliefs to some degree. If someone is one or two steps away from where I am, I will most likely listen to that person. If someone is 179 degrees away from me, I tend to block out that person.

  20. 20
    cleek says:

    What do people read online?

    these days, the routine goes:

    BJ, Sully, TPM, Atrios, Yglesias, ObWi, TBogg, Kevin Drum, Sadly No, Unqualified Offerings.

    Sully’s about as far towards mainstream “conservatism” as i get (not counting the right-learning ObWi posters). i just don’t find any value in reading the wingnut sites directly – it’s all GOP boosterism.

  21. 21
    Jose Padilla says:

    Bush never said he was going to privatize SS in the ’04 campaign. In fact, in October of ’04 a reporter got into a closed door Republican meeting where SS privatization was discussed openly. He reported it an article in the NY Times Magazine section and the Bush campaign vehemently denied they planned to privatize SS, calling the allegations a Democratic smear.

  22. 22
    V.O.R. says:

    “So as loretta notes, there’s a ‘self-selecting to avoid morons’ angle these folks ignored”

    Why should they give a damn? I thought the study was just trying to measure how much or little isolation there is in practice, not the ‘net’s potential. Not pass judgment on it.

    Or point fingers. The study’s conlusion is completely unsurprising to me. The wingnuts I know are completely within the conservative bubble. They quote NRO, for example, like it’s Gospel and are pretty much automatically dismiss or ignore – let alone read – anything from outside their bubble. Like the Gospel, for example.

    Heck, lets look at what they say they conclude:

    “We find that ideological segregation of online news consumption is low in absolute terms, higher than the segregation of most offline news consumption, ”

    What’s so hard to believe? A lot of the segregation online is because we can choose better sources. Not just self-selecting for agreeable prejudice (NRO), but self-selecting for quality: TPM. Still, that’s “less diverse.” If you really want diversity, make sure you include 4chan in your daily reading…

    Heck, I used to go to conservative sites regularly, but I’ve stopped because it was always mostly bullshit. Now, I was responding to the wingnuts, and I doubt they steered me in the best directions. Still – the fact remains that I’m not anything like a regular reader of stuff from outside my own little bubble.

    I’d say there’s a big difference between my bubble and the wingnuts. Mine, IMexcellentO is reality based, and wider. Theirs isn’t. But still you could attach an “isolation index” to my ‘net habit. According to the paper it’s still probably a low one, relatively speaking.

    I’ve long been convinced that the ability to isolate themselves from antithetical viewpoints is the very thing some people seek out on the internet. Big isolation index.

    But just turn that around a little: It gives the ability to isolate yourself from bullshit viewpoints. According to Rodenberry’s Law 90% of everything is bullshit… So you’ve still got a non-trivial isolation index. That it’s there to avoid morons don’t signify.

  23. 23
    Papa Tony says:

    Those researchers missed a BIG, obvious and clear factor that overarches everything…

    Location.

    The reason why Red States are red, and Blue States are blue, is because of easy mobility. I live in San Diego, and almost nobody is actually from here. They come from areas of the country that creep them out, causing them to move away and to react with revulsion if I ask them (jokingly) how soon they are moving back.

    They get the hell out of “Inbred, Alabama”, to be where they can raise their kids (or experience a gay life without torment) in an open-minded, relaxed environment.

    This also means that the intolerant areas get even more closed-down, because there is a brain-drain of the smartest, most-creative folks who would normally take a stand and shut own the haters if they had all stuck around and united as a team.

    Seems to me that the study was pretty damn incomplete without this.

  24. 24
    Remember November says:

    I think going away to college/university opens one’s eyes to the wider world and cultures. I for one never knew Muslims washed their feet before worship, and found this out accidentally by going into the wrong “restroom” in Hendrick’s Chapel at SU. – there were benches with foot washing stations there.

    Isolationism never works- it’s unnatural. Just ask the pollen that travels hundreds of miles on an insect’s legs. Someday, eventually one finds oneself out of one’s element.

  25. 25
    John says:

    The isolation index we estimate for the Internet is higher than that of broadcast television (1.8), magazines (2.9), cable television (3.3), and local newspapers (4.1), and lower than that of national newspapers (10.4).

    Do these numbers make any sense to anyone?

  26. 26
    Joshua says:

    @Remember November: Before college, I was cut from the same jib as my staunch Republican Clinton-hating parents. Went out west and came back… well not a flaming hippy or anything, but with a much clearer mind and a greater ability to process information.

    So needless to say I’m not a Republican anymore. Driving up the PCH listening to Hannity “insinuate” that somebody “put” Terri Schiavo in that coma for 6 hours will do that to you.

    Both my folks voted for Obama in 08. Did I have something to do with that? Maybe. Hopefully.

  27. 27
    gnomedad says:

    The internet makes it possible to automate your isolation (think Cleek’s pie filter), but determined wingers can always fall back on “I don’t believe the liberal media” anyway.

    Also, information theory applies here: the more predictable your source, the less information it contains.

  28. 28
    ThatLeftTurnInABQ says:

     

    Some economists at the University of Chicago

    Hello citizen, I’m Mr. Big Media. I have an offer you can’t refuse: we’ll sell you collateralized douchebag opinions (CDOs) – a mix of information and entertainment which contains multiple tranches of carefully selected opinions by major newsmakers and pundits. Sure a few of them may be subprime but the opinion selection as a whole is guaranteed to be AAA. What could possibly go wrong? Oh, look – WMDs in Iraq! Houses always go up in price! Angry old white people are the real America! What’s that? A balloon? A boy? ZOMG it’s a boy in a balloon ? ! ?

    [Diversity is all great and wonderful until the correlations go to 1.0. This is just portfolio theory applied to media]

    ETA: how about a little diversity in media ownership? Throw in some of that and we will have something to talk about.

  29. 29
    satby says:

    @Joshua: I don’t think only college, for many people entering the military accomplishes the same eye-opening experience. I think the key is when people are exposed to other people and veiwpoints that they can’t dimiss out of hand because they like the person; and they would have never encountered that person in the previous (isolated) life.

    It’s why a lot of fundies home-school, they know that the expsure to other kids and beliefs will undermine their teachings, though they like to say it’s to “protect” their children from the evil “secular” world.

  30. 30
    Herbal Infusion Bagger says:

    “The internet provides acess to extremism and diversity to many areas of the globe and the US where there might not be, say, a local gay neo-nazi chapter.”

    Those uniforms would be really fetching, I bet.

  31. 31
    D. Mason says:

    Even if you wanted to avoid all opinions that differed from yours, you’d be hard pressed to do it on the internet without intentional work

    This is ignorant on its face. It’s supremely easy to avoid accepting differing opinions while still being exposed to them. Simply dismiss them as trolling, insane rantings, political calculus, trying to sell books or maybe even old-fashioned dishonesty. All you have to do to find proof is read the comments sections on this very blog. Of course I might just be a troll, I did disagree with you afterall.

  32. 32
    Origuy says:

    When I see the phrase “epistemic closure”, I think sutures are involved. Am I the only one?

    Edit: Missed Bill E Pilgrim’s comment. Guess I’m not the only one.

  33. 33
    Brachiator says:

    @loretta:

    I don’t think narrow people like tea partiers rely on the internet for their echo chamber. They might read email and a few reliable web sites, but mostly they get their news from Fox, talk radio and their fellow bigots. These people are not enlightened enough to use the internet as a resource.

    I don’t think this is true at all, and I see where the researchers are coming from. One can easily suss out the narrow ideological blogs and see how folks use them to reinforce their beliefs, filter or chase away divergent opinion, and churn any topic into a frenzy of yea-saying true believers.

    I noticed this big time with the Terry Schiavo case, and later with 9/11, where there were forums where posters would simply refuse to acknowledge or even look at messages or links that did not conform with their fantasies that Schiavo was alive or that the government sent missles into the World Trade Center (or blew it up from below).

    And given the ease with which the Internet can be used as a research, I am amazed at how often I see someone, even here, begin and end their understanding of a topic with the Huffington Post, Glenn Greenwald, NPR or “I can’t be bothered with even looking at the Wikipedia on this, so can someone explain to me what X is all about?”

  34. 34
    Yutsano says:

    @Papa Tony: To be fair, though, a lot of folks move to San Diego without much choice in the matter. My dad did a two year stint there in the Navy, I was only a kid but I have been back numerous times and love the place. It doesn’t rally undercut your point, as it’s about the only place in California I could live and be happy.

  35. 35
    Anne Laurie says:

    @V.O.R.:

    According to Rodenberry’s Law 90% of everything is bullshit… So you’ve still got a non-trivial isolation index. That it’s there to avoid morons don’t signify.

    Pedant alert: That’s actually “Sturgeon’s Law” (although Roddenberry did quote it, often, and with reason).

Comments are closed.