20 November 2017

Everyone Fights Confirmation Bias, but Science Teaches You How To Win the Battle.

Posted by Dan Satterfield

Read the comments on any news story, and you get a free lesson on confirmation bias. This error in thinking strangles our ability to analyse information and make rational decisions. Doctors see it in patients that refuse vaccines for their children and waste money on homoeopathic sugar water in fancy bottles. Vitamin salesman, astrologers, and naturopaths rely on it for a living. It’s also responsible for the anger (rather than the thanks) when you try and convince someone they are getting scammed.

Science (especially climate science) communicators see it every day. When someone with a high school education proclaims every major science body on Earth is wrong about the impact of greenhouse gases, confirmation bias is at work. It also keeps them from seeing how foolish they look to those not suffering from their illusion.

Scientists are by no means immune! My friend Greg Fishel has a great piece in the Columbia Journalism Review this weekend about his journey (and the eventual sudden revelation) that he was a victim on the subject of climate change. I remember well his conflicted days and how he put it all together. He took longer than I did and that is a compliment to Greg. Doing so actually turned him into the best critical thinker I know. Among my friends, when he says something that conflicts with my worldview on any subject, it makes me stop and think hard about it. Confirmation bias is always there; You must fight it constantly.

How To Fight Confirmation Bias

Carl Sagan developed his “Baloney Detection Kit” and at its heart, it’s an instruction manual on how to fight confirmation bias. The very best thing you can do to protect yourself from childish thinking is to read Sagan’s masterpiece The Demon-Haunted World. If I were the Secretary of Education, I would push hard to make reading it a requirement in every high school science classroom and science teachers, you can do that today.

I was about to give a talk about climate change a few years back when someone came up to me and loudly proclaimed that “Nothing you can say will change my mind. It’s all a hoax!”

I replied “Then why are you wasting your time here?? Isn’t there anything you would rather be doing??”

Lesson: When someone says their mind is made up, and nothing you can say will change it, find someone more intelligent to talk to. Life is short and there’s probably someone around who can teach you something you do not know. Those are really cool people to find!

Confirmation Bias warning Signs

  1. Seeing something online that conflicts with your worldview and immediately searching Google to find something to refute it.
  2. Look at the image below created by Patent Attorney Vanessa Otero. It’s been modified and reposted online by people adjusting it to fit their confirmation bias, and I am sure her own biases were present when she made it. All in all, though, it’s really pretty good, but I’d make some minor changes based on hanging around newsrooms for 40 years (BBC/NPR would be next to AP/Reuters at the top). That would be my bias showing through though, so it is good enough to post? Are you getting most of your news from sources on the far left or far right? If so, you are almost certainly feeding your confirmation bias.
    3. Complaining on Twitter about Tom Nichols book The Death of Expertise. He hit the nail on the head, and if that book angers you, your worldview has an unbreakable bubble protecting it. Get a library card. They have glass cutters built into them if you learn to use it properly. That said, I’m open to a fact-based discussion about that opinion.
Note: The graph above is  an update from my original post. Vanessa Otero updated it on Nov. 8. Hat tip to Seth Borenstein at AP for spotting that!