"Echo chambers," polarization, and the increasing tension between the (social) reality of expertise and the (cultural) suspicion of authority

October 11, 2019

I've found an interesting set of reflections on the besetting problem of epistemic polarization in our culture, one that makes a nice analytic distinction between "epistemic bubbles" and "echo chambers."  I think the distinction could be useful.  It also touches on a larger issue that I think warrants our more general reflection, that of the relationship between increasing complexity in our society, and our concomitant increasing reliance on expertise, and our culture's increasing suspicion of certain forms of authority.


First: The author, C. Thi Nguyen, seems pretty interesting; he says he was a "food writer" before becoming a philosopher.  I imagine that he's had an interesting path, in which reflecting on "taste" has given him useful provocation.  After all, the question of taste is not only metaphorically, but arguably also literally, one of the deepest of echo-chambers, an experience of the world that is inescapably subjective and profoundly difficult to communicate.

And the idea of a book on games--especially here video games--as a genre of art in which the question of "agency" is the medium employed--seems fruitful and suggestive, not only about aesthetics and the ontological status of what happens in games, but also about helping us to understand something new about the idea of agency itself.

But I'm particularly interested in this nice little piece he wrote, both for what he does in it, and for what it suggests to me, beyond what he does in it. In the piece he makes a fine and useful distinction between an "epistemic bubble" and an "echo chamber":

"An epistemic bubble is what happens when insiders aren’t exposed to people from the opposite side.

An echo chamber is what happens when insiders come to distrust everybody on the outside."

The analysis of an echo chamber is particularly interesting:

"an echo chamber is a lot like a cult.

Echo chambers isolate their members, not by cutting off their lines of communication to the world, but by changing whom they trust. And echo chambers aren’t just on the right. I’ve seen echo chambers on the left, but also on parenting forums, nutritional forums and even around exercise methods.

In an epistemic bubble, outside voices aren’t heard. In an echo chamber, outside voices are discredited."

Here's where he's unlike others who study what's happening on the Interwebs.  For, he says, while most scholars "believe that the problem of today’s polarization can be explained through epistemic bubbles," he argues that: 

"New research suggests there probably aren’t any real epistemic bubbles. As a matter of fact, most people are regularly exposed to the other side.

Moreover, bubbles should be easy to pop: Just expose insiders to the arguments they’ve missed.…

What’s going on, in my view, isn’t just a bubble. It’s not that people’s social media feeds are arranged so they don’t run across any scientific arguments; it’s that they’ve come to systematically distrust the institutions of science.

This is an echo chamber. Echo chambers are far more entrenched and far more resistant to outside voices than epistemic bubbles. Echo chamber members have been prepared to face contrary evidence. Their echo-chambered worldview has been arranged to dismiss that evidence at its source."

Then he makes a final, and to my mind very important, observation:

"They’re not totally irrational, either. In the era of scientific specialization, people must trust doctors, statisticians, biologists, chemists, physicists, nuclear engineers and aeronautical engineers, just to go about their day. And they can’t always check with perfect accuracy whether they have put their trust in the right place."

This is important.  This observation gestures at one of the most interesting facts about our world today: the tension between our rising reliance on expertise and our cultural resentment at authority.  What do I mean by this?  A couple things.  

First, socio-cultural complexity begets a need to trust others.  Consider: Once upon a time, all sorts of practices were informal, or simply performed by ourselves; thus, parents would educate children, or relatives would make medicines, or priests would adjudicate small-claims disputes in their parish, or a king's counsellor would be a man educated in the Greek and Latin classics, and learn about the shape and functioning of the state and the polity while on the job.  There were not a thousand professions, there were not a thousand different sub-specialisms within those professions, there were not explicit structures for training and certification within those professions.  Today there are.  As society becomes more specialized, we increasingly seek out formal modes of authorization and legitimation for all sorts of things that were informally acknowledged, or self-performed (very frequently poorly), at an earlier time.  This has its extremities, even--dare I say?--excesses; thus we have not only "life coaches," but certification processes for becoming a "life coach."  

Second and (somehow, but somewhat obscurely) related to this, as this has gone on, a certain suspicion of the degree of trust we are required to invest in these systems has also risen.  Is this the inevitable smoke arising from the grinding of the wheel of expertise on the metal of our self-regard?  Maybe.  It isn't aided by the fact that, alongside expertise, we have increasingly seen the emergence, over the past several centuries, of an ideology of individual autonomy that sits uncomfortably alongside our increasingly flagrant heteronomy.

So there's a tension here, between our increasing need of expertise and first, our (perhaps natural) resentment and insecurity towards that need, and second, the burgeoning ideology of individualism and autonomy that also seems an independent feature of our world.

So, in a way, the question of "epistemic bubbles" and "echo chambers" is not only immediately analytically useful, as a way of better describing our polarization and the conundrums of social media; they, or the phenomena they are responsive to, are also expressive of a deep dynamic in modern societies that long predates the rise of the interwebs.


Have a happy Friday, everyone.  End of the week!