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Science and Confirmation Bias

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From Alex Caro writing at Real Clear Science:

If I told you I had proof the world was ending, would you believe me? You would probably call me crazy, but that’s what government-funded scientists are telling us is happening, barring revolutionary steps to fight the plague known as climate change.  

If you’re conservative, perhaps you’re skeptical of these claims, likely because liberals and environmentalists have been touting climate change for decades, most (in)famously with former Vice President Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. 

Conversely, if you’re liberal, you might aim your skepticism towards Monsanto and all the chemicals they’re throwing into our food supply. If so, you probably pay extra for the green, organic, sustainable stuff at the local Whole Foods, and you might even think scientists who say you’re just a little too paranoid are simply shills for Big Corporations. 

Our politics and ideologies have a massive influence on the way we think about the world. They provide a heuristic, a mental shortcut, that gives us that gut-feeling about what is right.

Caro is attempting to point out that when it comes to a lot of what the press passes off as science these days, skepticism is important.  He has a point.  It is very similar to the one I was trying to make last week when I wrote of the elegant and brutish science.  But there are a couple of points from Caro’s piece that I think need to be addressed a little deeper.

The first point is to expand on my discussion of brutish and elegant science.   Caro points out, :…science isn’t incorruptible. Humans are the ones doing science, and so who funds it matters. This is especially problematic when faced with complex, urgent, and politically sensitive issues combined with the reality that nothing is absolutely certain. Science doesn’t give us the irrefutable truth. Nothing can. What science does give us is a best guess, and that’s much better than anything else.”  He has a point there, but I would counter that if the science being done is that corruptible, it is most certainly brutish science.

The other point is more important.  Caro says that “…politics and ideologies have a massive influence….”  That means, essentially, that people treat their politics and their ideologies as if they were very similar.  I could not disagree more.  Our politics are generally based in our ideologies, but they should be distinct things.  In the end politics in America is the art of the achievable – it’s not about what is ideal, it is about what can be accomplished given the reality presented by the politics of the moment.

The key question is what are our ideologies based in.  Generally speaking, the right bases its ideology if not in religion, in classical thought.  The left on the other hand bases their ideology in a blend of personal experience and perception, interpretations of science that may or may not be actually scientific, and politics.  This is where confirmation bias become incredibly important.  When you have a feedback loop in your ideological formation like the left do, confirmation bias can change the entire landscape of your thinking.

This is especially problematic because it causes the left to see their ideology as highly malleable, where as the right holds their ideology dear and work very hard not to alter it.  Very, very interesting differences can develop in light of that.  Take for example this piece that blames religions, with their ceremonial uses of fire, for much environmental damage,  (I haven’t done the math, but if we assume fire is such a horrific environmental damaging mechanism, I think we could add up all the ceremonial fires in history and still not get up to one good Los Angeles rush hour.)

So yes, ideology can create confirmation bias.  But all that really says is it is very important to base your ideology in something of substance.   As I said in my piece on elegant and brutish science, “When I was studying science in undergrad and graduate school elegance was part of what told you you had it right.  When it happened it was like tapping into the mind of God.”  Yes, that reflects a sort of confirmation bias, but if we are confirming the mind of God, how can that be bad?  If we are simply confirming our own bias, that’s when we have a problem.

Mankind will never be without ideology.  We cannot be without one.  The key is not to avoid ideology, but to hold a good one, one that has proven to be reliable.  Then our confirmation bias helps build a good worldview, and the world in general works better.  What more can we ask?


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