Confirmation Bias on My Side? I Certainly Don’t Recall Any!

 

shutterstock_146163434Thank 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.

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  1. livingthehighlife Inactive
    livingthehighlife
    @livingthehighlife

    Tim H.: Whenever you see articles like this, it’s worth finding the original paper. Many, many, many times, the press interpretations are far off from what the researchers actually say.

    Hmmm… confirmation bias, perhaps?

    Most journalists have very little self-awareness.

    • #1
  2. Man With the Axe Inactive
    Man With the Axe
    @ManWiththeAxe

    The clearest example of this I’ve seen is the willingness of everyone from Obama on down to believe the “97% of scientists believe climate change is anthropogenic” claim, but when you read the paper that supposedly is the source of that figure, it’s actually 32% who make that claim, and even then it’s not “scientists” that they counted but rather peer-reviewed papers, without showing how many scientists wrote how many papers each, and indicating nothing about all the scientists whose papers were rejected (perhaps for going against orthodoxy?) or who haven’t written peer-reviewed papers but have an opinion.

    • #2
  3. PHCheese Inactive
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    Climate Change, heads I win, tails you lose.

    • #3
  4. Manfred Arcane Inactive
    Manfred Arcane
    @ManfredArcane

    Can’t wait for the OP author to give us a lecture some day.  With lots of cool photos of galaxies and such.  And quasars!

    • #4
  5. Vance Richards Member
    Vance Richards
    @VanceRichards

    Tim H.: Every warm spell is taken as proof of global warming, while every cold spell is dismissed as merely “weather.” That approach was the mirror image of the other side. But now that the framework has evolved into “climate change,” the side of panic will often take both hot and cold spells as confirmation of their biases. It’s win-win.

    The switch from warming to change was brilliant. It will almost always be proven right.

    How you get from “change” to “people are to blame” still isn’t clear to me though.

    • #5
  6. Z in MT Member
    Z in MT
    @ZinMT

    Confirmation bias is hard to combat in science. When you perform an experiment or make an observation and you measure what you expect, it is too easy to just stop your experiment and write up the result as confirming your theory. Too often however, when you revisit the experiment and/or observation you cannot repeat your previous results. The climate change issue is no different and both sides emphasize the evidence that supports their position. One of the problems with how science is funded in the US is that controversy and real-world consequences helps to secure funding from Congress. What this tends to do is funnel money not to the necessarily to the best science, but to the best promoted science.

    • #6
  7. lesserson Member
    lesserson
    @LesserSonofBarsham

    Vance Richards:

    Tim H.: Every warm spell is taken as proof of global warming, while every cold spell is dismissed as merely “weather.” That approach was the mirror image of the other side. But now that the framework has evolved into “climate change,” the side of panic will often take both hot and cold spells as confirmation of their biases. It’s win-win.

    The switch from warming to change was brilliant. It will almost always be proven right.

    How you get from “change” to “people are to blame” still isn’t clear to me though.

    Because SCIENCE! you neanderthal…   or at least I think that’s how it goes.

    • #7
  8. cirby Inactive
    cirby
    @cirby

    Man With the Axe:The clearest example of this I’ve seen is the willingness of everyone from Obama on down to believe the “97% of scientists believe climate change is anthropogenic” claim,

    It’s not one survey. It’s several. However, they all tend to have similar disastrous structures.

    One particular survey started with over a thousand responses, but had a “bad” result, so they started whittling down the numbers until it was basically “we asked 32 climate scientists who believe in it, and one of them said the evidence was iffy.”

    Another one was pretty much “a climate scientist surveyed the other scientists in his address book.”

    A third was “we asked the people who attended a climate conference, and included everyone – including secretaries and grad students – in the ‘scientist’ category.”

    It’s the “97% sounds scientific” effect: when you want amazing but believable results, 99% is ridiculous, 98% is just a little too much, and 96% sounds boring. So they cherry-pick results to hit 97%. Even more so for climate science, since the “97%” meme is such a huge part of their faith now.

    If you see a “97%” number on ANYTHING that claims to be scientific, start looking for the cards they’re palming.

    • #8
  9. Susan the Buju Contributor
    Susan the Buju
    @SusanQuinn

    I’m a “lukewarmer” too. The most discouraging aspects for me are that any scientist worth his or her salt should never say the science is conclusive or done–what’s with that!? Maybe the government funds the issues that are controversial; my impression is that they fund projects that support their political point of view: you want to prove that man-made climate change is real, so you get funded. It is very sad.

    • #9
  10. Tom Meyer, Ed. Contributor
    Tom Meyer, Ed.
    @tommeyer

    Z in MT: Confirmation bias is hard to combat in science. When you perform an experiment or make an observation and you measure what you expect, it is too easy to just stop your experiment and write up the result as confirming your theory. Too often however, when you revisit the experiment and/or observation you cannot repeat your previous results. The climate change issue is no different and both sides emphasize the evidence that supports their position.

    Absolutely, and the same applies for almost anything (allegedly) evidence based. One should always consider whether there are opposing explanations that better explain the matter than your working theory.

    The problem is that doing so is difficult, time-consuming, and may invalidate one’s earlier hard work.

    • #10
  11. Man With the Axe Inactive
    Man With the Axe
    @ManWiththeAxe

    Check out the abstract from this paper.

    • #11
  12. Johnny Dubya Inactive
    Johnny Dubya
    @JohnnyDubya

    What is most hilarious/frustrating to me is the global warming confirmation bias that results from extreme weather events, which are often described with the unscientific term “weather weirding”.

    The extent of warming that can be attributed to mankind is far from settled.  The Medieval Warm Period was quite warm, the Little Ice Age was quite cold, and temperatures have warmed since then.

    While the jury is still out on the blame that can be laid at mankind’s feet for warming, the connection between warming and “weird weather” is even more tenuous.  Yet every weather event that is extreme enough to make the evening news is attributed by numerous left-leaning simpletons to global warming, based on nothing more than a faith that capitalism and economic development simply must be making Gaia angry.

    • #12
  13. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    Great article, thanks!

    • #13
  14. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Richard Feynman:

    It’s interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of an electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bit bigger than Millikan’s, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher. Why didn’t they discover the new number was higher right away? It’s a thing that scientists are ashamed of – this history – because it’s apparent that people did things like this: When they got a number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something must be wrong – and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number close to Millikan’s value they didn’t look so hard.”

    • #14
  15. Richard Finlay Member
    Richard Finlay
    @RichardFinlay

    Z in MT: When you perform an experiment or make an observation and you measure what you expect, it is too easy to just stop your experiment and write up the result as confirming your theory.

    Isn’t this the standard in college lab courses?  In fact, if what you measure isn’t what you expected, it is just as easy (and just as effective) to modify the measurements to support the ‘expected’ result.  If ever you (meaning ‘I’) actually submitted other data, the conclusion (possibly accurate, but never investigated) that I just botched the experiment was communicated through the grade at the top of the paper.  The reinforcement was always to submit the expected result.

    • #15
  16. Austin Murrey Inactive
    Austin Murrey
    @AustinMurrey

    Slightly on topic I know, but the best comment I ever read about confirmation bias on human-caused global warming was from Ace of Spades HQ.

    Which of course you all read, so I don’t need to point out the url is ace.mu.nu right? Right.

    It was “I believe that non-human factors may be largely responsible for global warming and cooling. This hypothetical non-human factor would have to be very large, though — on the order of magnitude of our own sun.”

    • #16
  17. James Of England Moderator
    James Of England
    @JamesOfEngland

    No conversation about confirmation bias being something that only happens with other people would be complete without Krugman’s finest ever article, explaining how only conservatives suffer from it because liberals are always right. Around 95% of Krugman columns are essentially the same tedious piece, but whenever I get irritated with the NYT carrying it, I remember that this also meant that they published this thing of beauty and I forgive them. Where else in the world can one find chronic stupidity and hubris on this scale in a winner of a Nobel prize for thinking?

    • #17
  18. Susan the Buju Contributor
    Susan the Buju
    @SusanQuinn

    James Of England: Where else in the world can one find chronic stupidity and hubris on this scale in a winner of a Nobel prize for thinking?

    I could only bring myself to skim it . . . pathetic. The icing on the cake:

    “One possible answer would be that liberals and conservatives are very different kinds of people — that liberalism goes along with a skeptical, doubting — even self-doubting — frame of mind; ‘a liberal is someone who won’t take his own side in an argument.’”

    • #18
  19. Dan Hanson Thatcher
    Dan Hanson
    @DanHanson

    Miffed White Male:Richard Feynman:

    It’s interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of an electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bit bigger than Millikan’s, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher. Why didn’t they discover the new number was higher right away? It’s a thing that scientists are ashamed of – this history – because it’s apparent that people did things like this: When they got a number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something must be wrong – and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number close to Millikan’s value they didn’t look so hard.”

    I came here to post the same quote!  Feynman was very skeptical of many ‘sciences’, because he knew how hard he had to work to avoid bias in physics, and how easy it is to fool yourself and others when the work is not absolutely meticulous and cannot easily be tested.   He was very skeptical of ‘social sciences’ and other sciences in fields where it was impossible to have proper controls,  double-blind protocols,  lack of falsifiability, etc.

    I sure wish he was still around,  because I’d love to hear his take on the current state of climate science.

    • #19
  20. Dan Hanson Thatcher
    Dan Hanson
    @DanHanson

    There’s another way in which the ‘97%’ consensus is used as a smokescreen:  To the extent it exists at all,  the consensus view of scientists is that the earth is warming, and that man is contributing to the warming to some degree.  That’s it.  But climate activists feel free to make all kinds of wild claims about the future,  and if you call them on it they fall back on the ‘97% consensus’.

    If you read the actual IPCC report as opposed to the summary for policymakers, you’ll find that they actually list the ‘consensus’ and probabilities of other more specific claims,  and you’ll rapidly see that there is no consensus at all.  They also admit that there are still very large unknowns that could radically affect future temperatures, and for which there is no consensus at all.  The effect of cloud formation,  for example.

    And don’t forget, the actual science of warming is only one small part of the puzzle.  Even if we had perfect knowledge of warming,  and we knew it was going to be between, say, 2 degrees and 6 degrees within a century,  that still doesn’t tell us what kind of action we could or should take.  That’s my biggest beef with the current state of the climate debate – the jump from “Global warming is happening” to the assumption that we must necessarily put in place some very specific policies to stop it without any debate over the cost-benefit of action,  the likelihood of success of any specific action,  etc.

    Even if we knew for sure that global warming was going to cost trillions of dollars in damages in a hundred years,  the correct action might be to do nothing at all if A) the proposed action won’t work, or B) it will cost more than the damage caused by warming.  And we’re not having that debate at all.

    • #20
  21. Tim H. Member
    Tim H.
    @TimH

    Dan Hanson:And don’t forget, the actual science of warming is only one small part of the puzzle. Even if we had perfect knowledge of warming, and we knew it was going to be between, say, 2 degrees and 6 degrees within a century, that still doesn’t tell us what kind of action we could or should take. That’s my biggest beef with the current state of the climate debate – the jump from “Global warming is happening” to the assumption that we must necessarily put in place some very specific policies to stop it without any debate over the cost-benefit of action, the likelihood of success of any specific action, etc.

    Even if we knew for sure that global warming was going to cost trillions of dollars in damages in a hundred years, the correct action might be to do nothing at all if A) the proposed action won’t work, or B) it will cost more than the damage caused by warming. And we’re not having that debate at all.

    This is exactly my position.  Having a scientific description of the problem does not tell us whether we need to find a “solution” in the first place.  And it cannot judge what is the appropriate solution.  That is the proper place of politics in a society.

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  22. Tim H. Member
    Tim H.
    @TimH

    P.S:  I think that the dogmatic insistence on regulation-heavy, economy-destroying “solutions” by the pro-panic crowd is the underlying reason so many people are skeptical of global warming in the first place.  There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical, but I find my deepest motivation is a hatred of their solutions.  If, as they often claim, agreement with their diagnosis of the “problem” requires agreement with their proposed “solution,” then why agree with the problem?  They’ve argued themselves into a corner, politically.

    • #22

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