Ryan's Journal

"My life amounts to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean. Yet what is any ocean, but a multitude of drops?" — David Mitchell

The More You Know…

Posted from Culver City, California at 9:40 pm, February 28th, 2015

Confirmation bias is a well-studied aspect of human behavior that shows that people will interpret or cherry pick information in a way that confirms their own beliefs. In practice this means that in some cases, people who are more educated about a subject tend to be more adamant that an incorrect position is correct than those who are less educated on the same subject. This fact helps explain why no amount of additional info will convince someone who believes that vaccinations are harmful that their opinion is deeply flawed, or convince a global warming skeptic that 97% of climate scientists really do know what they are talking about, or convince someone who thinks that GMOs are inherently dangerous that 88% of scientists really do know what they are talking about.

A recent Facebook posting from National Geographic that referenced global warming as a likely cause of craters in Siberia provides an example of this bias. Assuming that National Geographic attracts a fairly educated audience, most of the comments still deny that current climate change is a problem created by man:

  • “The global warming or climate change theory is getting out of hand. The scare tactics don’t work on anyone with the ability to think and see for themselves. The planet goes through changes on its own and regardless of what anyone says it’ll continue long after man.” — Sean Stuart
    Cherry picking the fact that climate changes naturally reinforces his belief, despite the fact that no scientist denies natural climate fluctuations. The current concern is mostly with the rate of climate change – in past cycles ecosystems have been stressed even with centuries to adjust, while the current cycle is on a scale that will be measured in decades.
  • “Oh good grief. Really. The push the agenda through guilt routine is getting a little old.” – Judith Pannozo
    The mistaken belief that climate change is a hoax used to “push an agenda” can be reinforced by the fact that a search will reveal plenty of examples of groups mis-using science as a way to get what they wanted. However, the idea that the entire worldwide climate science community has somehow coordinated to coalesce around a fake explanation for current warming trends in order to achieve some undetermined goal (more environmentalism? more grant money?) both ignores how scientific peer review works, and requires a conspiracy that could only be successful if practically every scientist in the world was involved and none of those hundreds of thousands of scientists purposefully or accidentally revealed the conspiracy.
  • “The last two years michigan has had big time global warming. -42 below one of the many below zero temperatures that has lasted for months. I run around in flip flops cause its so warm and its getting hotter.” – Elaine Berry
    An individual’s view that the local winter weather is representative of global climate stands as evidence that the global theory is wrong. The misconception that “global warming” means that no place will ever see record cold misses the fact that climate change refers to average worldwide temperatures, and that while some places may actually get cooler, the average temperatures across Earth as a whole will increase. An analogy might be a prediction that if the NFL made touchdowns worth ten points instead of seven that average points per game would increase, and then claiming that because the Browns lost a single game by a score of 13-0 that the prediction had been proven wrong.
  • …and many more like those.

Given the reality that people cannot be convinced by providing them with more information, a lot of the world’s problems might seem hopeless – how do you solve a problem that a significant percentage of the population is dangerously misinformed about when more information will only reinforce their existing belief? What gives me hope is that while the population at large often despairs over such issues, anytime I sit down with a group of engineers the conversation is inevitably about understanding the problem and figuring out what solutions are viable. If society can’t be convinced to take action on an issue through the government, engineers search for other options. We already have the examples of Tesla Motors changing the paradigm on electric cars from “greenest vehicle” to “most desirable automobile”, and Solar City changing the paradigm on solar panels from “greenest solution” to “most economical solution”, and I’m optimistic that this trend will continue. It is probably too late to undo much of the inevitable environmental disruption that will ensue from climate change – sea levels will rise, animal populations will be displaced or disappear, and weather will become more severe – but in the end I honestly believe that the problem will be solved in spite of the fact that denial of the issue, reinforced by confirmation bias, makes the eventual solution far more difficult to reach.

4 responses to “The More You Know…”

  1. Thank you for this. After several months of arguing with a friend who refuses to vaccinate her kids, you are much more optimistic about the future than I currently feel.

  2. Hmm…there seems to be an implicit assumption in the three examples you give that your position is correct and other people have confirmation bias. It could easily be the other way around, don’t you think? Even scientists could have confirmation bias – even with peer reviews involved, they are people after all. Btw, I’m not at all arguing about any of your positions – I may or may not be in agreement with your side on all of them – but how do you prove that there is no confirmation bias in your positions and only in others’?
    As for climate change, I agree that it is man-made but I’m not at all hopeful it will be solved, at least not unless nature forces us to solve it. You just have to come to Indonesia – a paradise of rainforests and life, being cut down at enormous rates so we can, for example, have disposable packaging
    But who knows, I might just have confirmation bias about people not being able to solve this problem!

    1. there seems to be an implicit assumption in the three examples you give that your position is correct and other people have confirmation bias. It could easily be the other way around, don’t you think?

      That’s what makes confirmation bias so interesting, and one of the reasons that the scientific peer review process requires people to repeatedly try to poke holes in their theories and see if they still hold up. One could equally argue that plate tectonics, evolution, the theory of relativity, or any other scientific theory is subject to confirmation bias, but those theories have all held up to decades of repeated scrutiny. Climate science has been looking at sources of climate change for at least six decades now to explain changes in the climate, considering everything from solar activity to the oceans to volcanism, and the only theory that has held up under scrutiny is anthropogenic global warming. Could that theory still be wrong? Sure, but so could plate tectonics, which is a theory that for some reason no one is suggesting that scientists haven’t done their due diligence on and are instead simply ignoring alternatives due to confirmation bias.

  3. That makes sense. Only problem is that I’m on the fence about us being able to solve the climate change problem – those rainforests in Indonesia being clearcut aren’t going to come back by returning the dollars for which they were cut.

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