Elizabeth Anderson

April 20, 2018

Presentation Title

Epistemic Bubbles and Authoritarian Politics


Philosophy, University of Michigan

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Gibson 296


Abstract: Contemporary U.S. political discourse is structured by “epistemic bubbles.”  In social epistemology, an epistemic bubble is a self-segregated network for the circulation of ideas, resistant to correction of false beliefs.  Dominant models of epistemic bubbles explain some of their features, but fail to account for their recent spread, increasing extremity, and asymmetrical distribution across political groups.  The rise of populist authoritarian politics explains these recent changes.  I propose three models of how populism creates epistemic bubbles or their functional equivalents:  (1) by activating cognitive biases in ethnocentric and authoritarian partisans; (2) by promulgating biased group norms of information processing; and (3) by replacing empirically-oriented policy discourse with an identity-expressive discourse of group status competition.  Each model recommends different strategies for popping epistemic bubbles.  My analysis suggests that social epistemology needs to get more social, by modeling cognitive biases not as operating inside individuals’ heads, but as operating collectively and externally, via group norms for framing the meanings of political events, processing information, and discussing politics.


Bio: Elizabeth Anderson is John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, where she has taught since 1987.  She is the author of Value in Ethics and Economics (Harvard UP, 1993), The Imperative of Integration (Princeton UP, 2010), Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About It) (Princeton UP, 2017) and numerous, widely reprinted articles in journals of philosophy, law, and economics.  She has written extensively on egalitarianism, affirmative action, racial integration, the ethical limits of the market, values in social science research, democratic theory, social epistemology, and pragmatism.  She has won fellowships from the ACLS and Guggenheim Foundations, was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and served as President of the Central Division of the American Philosophical Association.  Professor Anderson designed and was the founding director of University of Michigan’s Philosophy, Politics, and Economics program.

Photo by David Paterson