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Thank goodness confirmation bias never strikes the purveyors of global warming panic. In the Washington Post, Chelsea Harvey reports on a study regarding the spread of misinformation online. She eagerly applies it to those who are skeptical of global warming claims and dives into a lesson on confirmation bias … which apparently only affects people she disagrees with.
It’s true: confirmation bias affects global warming skeptics; I’ve seen it myself. But I’ve also seen it in the warming-affirmers, both the moderates and the we’re-all-going-to-die panickers, for whom every warm spell is taken as proof of global warming, while every cold spell is dismissed as merely “weather” (this approach has its mirror image of the other side, of course). But now that the discussion is about “climate change,” the side of panic will often take both hot and cold spells as confirmation of their biases. For them, it’s a win-win.
But while the effects of confirmation bias are probably about equal on both sides of the lay public, I think the effect of confirmation bias among scientists is actually worse for the warming-affirmers. Their position has become dogma among climate researchers, which magnifies the effects of confirmation bias. Skeptical scientists know they’re challenging the dominant paradigm and are daily confronted with contrary opinions. For my own part, I’m kind of a lukewarmer: I believe there is some warming (especially early and late 20th century) and that some of it could be caused by humans, but that the amount and effects are exaggerated. I’m not doing any climate research, but I work with model-fitting in astronomy, and we have to deal with similar systematic errors and biases.
I’ll note a couple of other things quickly. First, the original article cited in the Post is rather dry and only mentions global warming in passing. Whenever you see articles like this in popular media, it’s worth finding the original source. Many, many, many times, the press exaggerates or misinterprets what the researchers actually said.
Second, confirmation bias is a real problem in science. Just this week, in fact, I found out I’d fallen for it. I’m presenting my astronomy research at a conference where we’re looking at whether quasar activity within galaxies is caused by galactic collisions. There’s a paper out there that seems to show a very clear correlation, which goes along with what I — and a lot of my colleagues — expect, so I held it up as the standard of comparison. But my collaborator just told me that this paper has a lot of problems and — when you correct for their uncertainties, biases, and assumptions — you’re left with little or no trend. I never bothered to check into it, because it concluded what I already thought was true! That’s confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias is most insidious — in the sciences and elsewhere — when there’s some sense of a “consensus.” At that point, results that affirm the consensus simply aren’t going to be checked, while results that contradict the consensus will be rigorously evaluated. With that in mind, the Washington Post would do well to consider how confirmation bias affected this article itself.