Ebola, ‘Epistemic Closure,’ and the Political Class

Nobody likes a know-it-all. You know the type I mean: somebody who sits there with a smug-as-all-hell look on his/her face while pontificating on a subject with absolute certainty, secure in the knowledge that they’re echoing the Conventional Wisdom. Yes, they could be right, you think, but their tone conveys the distinct impression that any attempt to contradict them will exile you to the Nether Regions inhabited by Those We Never Listen To.

This type is dominant in the world of politics, and naturally Washington, D.C. is chock full of them. Professional politicians are among the most obnoxious of the species, but even worse are their courtesans, the publicists and pundits – people paid to pontificate. These characters have an inherent interest in maintaining the illusion of their omniscience. If and when they’re proved wrong, they can always seek cover with the excuse that "everybody thought so at the time." This supposedly exonerates them.

We saw this in the run up to our disastrous invasion of Iraq. Everybody knew – they just knew – Saddam Hussein possessed "weapons of mass destruction" and that at some point he was going to jump out and ambush us, like a mugger waiting in the shadows. Every intelligence agency on earth believed this, along with all the so-called experts – not to mention the pundits and their favored politicians. And anyone who doubted it was either studiously ignored or else smeared into oblivion.

And of course after it turned out that the whole thing was a lie, manufactured out of whole cloth by murky little agencies like the "Office of Special Plans," the know-it-alls took cover in the Everybody Thought So defense. Hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, over four-thousand dead Americans, tens of thousands horribly wounded, and … Iraq War III – but, hey, they had plenty of company in their utter wrongness!

How could this have happened? It was "epistemic closure," for sure – the idea that people living in a self-created self-contained bubble, reinforcing their wrong-headed ideas by means of constant repetition, simply could not see the error of their ways. Indeed, they refused to see: when confronted by critics, they simply refrained from engaging, writing off all contrary opinions as delusional, enemy propaganda, or – worse – "conspiracy theories."

"Epistemic closure" was supposedly the nearly exclusive domain of conservatives, at least according to the "liberaltarian" popularizer of the concept, but in reality the phenomenon exists on both sides on the political spectrum, albeit not equally distributed. The tendency toward such closure is inherent in the psychopathology of American progressives, who have an ideological interest in claiming near-omniscience. After all, if you’re going to be one of the Central Planners, you had better be able to claim near-perfect knowledge of whatever realm you’re regulating. This is impossible, as Friedrich Hayek taught us, but then again what progressive ideologue is going to take Hayek seriously – especially if we’re talking about Josh Marshall over at TalkingPointsMemo.

After all, he has his talking points, and he isn’t deviating from them for all the gold in Ron Paul’s investment portfolio. That’s how he came up with his latest brainfart, a post entitled "Are the Pauls Ebola Truthers?"

You see, all you have to do these days is attach the word "truther" to any subject on which you claim absolute certitude in order to disdain – and smear – your political opponents, exiling them to ideological Coventry. And with the spread of Ebola becoming a hot political issue, it was inevitable that apologists for the Obama administration – a job description that fits Marshall and his "Talking Points" crew to a tee – would invent "Ebola Trutherism" to smear anyone who questions the absolute wisdom of the Center for Disease Control:

"Over the weekend, I wrote a couple posts and engaged with various folks on Twitter about the emerging Ebola Truth Movement, the mix of various voices, mainly on the right, either questioning what we know about Ebola, suggesting that public health officials are hiding the truth or simply saying they won’t be patsies for the virology elite.

"But is the far-right Paul clan (Ron and Rand) also Ebola Truther? Seems they might be."

Sen. Paul has dared to question the air of certitude that pervades the federal government’s pronouncements on Ebola – and the issues he raises gain resonance with each new mysterious infection of healthworkers who were wearing hazmat suits in their interactions with Ebola patients. Do we really know how this relatively little-studied disease is transmitted? In view of the latest new infection in the US, raising this question isn’t "trutherism" – whatever that may mean – it’s just plain common sense.

But not in the world of Joshua Micah Marshall, where there are no facts – only "talking points," which he’s sticking to come hell or high casualty rates. The progressives – at least, once they’re in power – are like the neocons in this sense: both live in a self-referential bubble, where "epistemic closure" of their mental borders has led to an embargo on the importation of reality.

Marshall cites Sen. Paul saying "If it’s so hard to transmit why are doctors getting it with masks, gloves, boots and hats – the whole works?" Rather than answer this question, Marshall merely sniffs: "It is notable that the flu is an airborne contagion and Ebola is not" and proceeds to launch into a multi-paragraph diatribe against … the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS) as the insidious source of the Ebola Truther Menace.

It seems the AAPS put out a press release questioning the CDC’s contention that the Ebola virus can’t be transmitted by airborne means: this provokes Marshall into a long disquisition listing the AAPS’s ideological sins, including being against Medicare, Social Security, and Everything We Know Is Good, all of which qualifies them for the official designation as "a conspiracy theory group."

At the end of this orgy of sneering and smearing, we finally get the payoff: it turns out that both Ron and Rand Paul are AAPS members, along with some guy who once posted a picture of Obama in a loincloth on the Internet. This last is thrown in there so Marshall can somehow justify posting the offending bit of Photoshop "art" as a way to illustrate his point – the point being that the Pauls are racists, as well as being Ebola Truthers out to spread panic and sabotage the heroic efforts of our troops as they "liberate" Liberia from the deadly virus.

The laziness of partisan hacks is perhaps attributable to the task they have before them: to repeat "talking points" until they’re blue in the face. They don’t have to assimilate any actual facts, so they limit their "research" to quick Google searches done five minutes before they start writing. Marshall knew what he wanted to "prove" and who he wanted to smear, so he just googled the AAPS and variations of that search turned up "evidence" of a Vast Rightwing Conspiracy to spread medical misinformation far and wide.

A few more minutes of research might have yielded different results. For example, this Los Angeles Times report citing Dr. C. J. Peters, a pioneer Ebola researcher, saying “[H]e would not rule out the possibility that it spreads through the air in tight quarters.” Is he an "Ebola Truther"? Is Dr. Philip J. Russell, former head of the US Army’s Medical Research and Development Command, who raises the possibility that the virus may making an evolutionary leap as a result of this recent outbreak? Russell avers:

“I see the reasons to dampen down public fears. But scientifically, we’re in the middle of the first experiment of multiple, serial passages of Ebola virus in man…. God knows what this virus is going to look like. I don’t.”

While Marshall rushes out to research whether Drs. Russell and Peters are AAPS members, the rest of us would do well to step back and contemplate the real limits of our knowledge – and the dangers posed by any government policy based on the illusion of certitude. Even government health officials, pushed to the wall, admit that airborne transmission is not out of the question under some circumstances. Pressed by the Times reporter, one such official says: “I’m not going to sit here and say that if a person who is highly viremic … were to sneeze or cough right in the face of somebody who wasn’t protected, that we wouldn’t have a transmission.”

So it turns out that Marshall’s axiom – "the flu is an airborne contagion and Ebola is not" – isn’t quite so axiomatic after all. It also turns out that the "Truther" gambit – an attempt to discredit an idea that supposedly flies in the face of Established Truth – won’t fly in this case because we don’t yet know everything about how and under what particular circumstances the virus is transmitted and thrives in the bodies of its victims. If we did we’d already have a vaccine – and those two Dallas nurses wouldn’t have been infected.

The central planners of the government-controlled healthcare system in this country don’t have perfect knowledge, although they are bound and determined to act as if they do. Their hubris may very well have catastrophic consequences, but never mind that – Marshall’s main concern is to protect them from the "Truthers," bigots, and right-wing yahoos who question the CDC’s omni-competence.

However, beyond the merely partisan motivation energizing Marshall’s vitriol is an ideological agenda best summed up as know-it-all-ism. Government officials are doing the best possible job because they know everything about Ebola – and, now that you ask, about practically everything else as well. While even National Public Radio is acknowledging that the private sector has so far outdone all governmental efforts against Ebola, Marshall simply omits it from his purview.

Compared to AIDS, malaria, polio, etc., we know relatively little about Ebola precisely because this is the first large-scale outbreak: the quest for a cure received comparatively puny resources because Ebola was previously confined to isolated regions of Africa. For political reasons, however, government officials will never admit this in public: it would destroy the illusion of their alleged omnipotence – and the popular delusion that government can wield anything resembling perfect control over nature.

The myth of perfect security is the touchstone of statist ideology, the pursuit of which on the home front justifies the welfare state and in the international arena is emblazoned on our flags as we invade and destroy one Middle Eastern state after another. The know-it-alls are always supremely confident their bold policies will work: "They’ll greet us with rose-petals!" When the rose petals turn to dust, and the long winter of "blowback" begins, the certitude of these ideologues turns deadly.

In effect, Marshall’s jeremiad against the Pauls inaugurates a twenty-first century version of Lysenkoism – a form of scientific political correctness, popular in Stalin’s Russia for a time, which converted science into political talking points for the ruling regime. This marks a new low for "progressives," who used to believe in real science, but these people are coming to resemble Stalinists more and more every day.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo is editor-at-large at Antiwar.com, and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and writes a monthly column for Chronicles. He is the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].