Letter: Or an example of confirmation bias

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Editor of the Reformer:



How to respond to Rothbard and Rucker's commentary ("Climate skeptics have valid reasons to question manmade warming," Jan. 10)? One way to respond would be to refute their claims of what the science says about climate change. What would we have then? An argument. Rothbard and Rucker are not climate scientists and neither am I. I have no scientific credentials to lend credibility to my opinions and neither do they. They can quote bits of science, and so can I. They can cite scientific papers, and so can I. And so on. As opinionated individuals both they and I are likely under the sway of confirmation bias — the common psychological phenomena of picking up on information that confirms your worldview while being deaf to what does not confirm your opinions. So, why should anyone listen to either of us (unless you enjoy arguments).

Another way to respond is to shift to questions of how do we evaluate sources of information and determine credibility, in the interest of making decisions less influenced by conformation bias and more likely to achieve some good? I recommend a process of evaluation called a credibility spectrum, as taught by Greg Craven in his book, "What's the Worst That Could Happen? A Rational Response to the Climate Change Debate."

I assigned this task to students when I was teaching college level environmental studies. First, list the types of sources of information: professional scientific societies (like National Academy of Science); government reports; university research programs; think tanks and advocacy organizations (like Rothbard and Ruckers' C-FACT or Union of Concerned Scientists); politicians; individual scientists; friends and family; celebrities; religious leaders; etc.

The second step is to rank which type of source of information is most credible, less credible, all the way down to least credible. This is not a task of deciding, for example, which scientific organization you think is more credible, or which advocacy organization you think is more credible. No, the task is categorical: Which type of source of information is more credible? You decide. I may decide that professional scientific societies are more credible than think tanks. You might decide otherwise. Then I asked my students to give their reasoning for how they assigned credibility. Whatever credibility ranking you arrive at, the next step is to analyze who's saying what within a given type of source of information. This is how we avoid confirmation bias. For example, which long-standing professional scientific societies agree that climate change is a problem, and driven by human activity, and which ones don't agree? Any consensus? I also gave my students the assignment to answer the question that Greg Craven asks in his book: whatever you opinion is, what would it take to convince you that you are wrong? A person, or organization, unwilling to answer that question is probably operating from significant confirmation-bias or some political agenda that is less about the science and more about some other concern.

Take a look at C-FACT's website. They have an obvious political agenda — and that's fine — but they are, at best, cherry-picking the science. And I doubt they would come out and answer that question: what would it take to convince you that you are wrong? Because, the peer-reviewed science overwhelmingly states that climate change is real, it's mostly not good for us, human activity is driving it, and we can do something about it. Perhaps they decided that some other type of source of information is more credible? Or maybe they are doing what many advocacy groups do when they don't like the solutions to problems that science directs us toward — they muddy the waters with more argument, they sow doubt, they strategize to delay action.

Finally, as to the Reformer's decision to print Rothbard and Rucker's commentary — if you want to present a scientific debate, first determine if there is actually a debate going on, broadly speaking, in the scientific community. Advocacy groups, (C-FACT, for example), have less credibility, at least in my book, when it comes to science. Policy debates are more appropriate for advocacy groups. Will we take action on climate change or not? What actions make sense, given the scientific consensus?

Charlie Laurel,

Dummerston, Jan. 11


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