Blinding Reason Through Confirmation Bias

If you note an unusual, or at least unexplained phenomena in nature, you may suggest how it operates. This, as most people would know, is a hypothesis. In previous eras, this was as far as the process had to go and if the hypothesis came from an authority, it is likely to be considered unquestionable.

The many Gods, past and present that gave meaning to complex processes, such as the weather, seasons, birth and illness where part of such thinking. Countless humans and other animals have been slaughtered in response – as a remedy for the detrimental effects of such complex processes. The four humours of ancient medicine (still widely accepted until around a century and half ago) tried to keep the “four fluids of the body” in balance in a world unaware of sanitation. Consuming certain parts of the body of other animals was thought to work wonders; from impotence (think the thick chunk of hair that makes the Rhino’s horn) to superhuman strength (the heart of any given large carnivore). The smoke from burning certain plant matter or the sound made by ringing certain bells keep evil spirits and bad luck away.

This is now called “ancient wisdom” in some corners, but by and large is the result of a time when we had to guess our way through existence. If such guessing ever worked, or was thought to have worked, even once in a hundred occasions, it was considered a success (ie. since I’ve owned my coffee mug, I’ve had no major misfortune – it must keep bad spirits away).

This is a form of confirmation bias.

Fortunately we have developed methodology that allows us to go beyond the hypothesis and draw conclusions with greater confidence. This is the methodology behind modern science.

In short, once someone has a hypothesis, they try to disprove it. By removing all other possible influences, they run a series of experiments to test the hypothetical conclusions. If by this form of elimination, the hypothesis looks to be the only possible correct answer, it is submitted to the scientific community, through peer-review literature, thoroughly explaining every step taken so others can replicate, not only to test the assumptions and results, but also to test the methods (it must also be noted that null results are also important as it lets us know that a certain possibility is disproven).

There are always uncertainties and unknowns. If there were no uncertainties and unknowns, there would be no need for the tools of scientific investigation because everything would already be known. Confidence is the heart of scientific understanding, not belief (as it’s understood and applied in the real world). A scientist will make assumptions based on mounting evidence and as more of this accumulated data comes to light and tends to point in the same direction, the scientist will have greater confidence in the assumption. Any study that attempts to pass flawed methodology under the radar cannot hold up to the scrutiny of peer-review.

Likewise, if a study tries to rely on bias data (such as the claim by some climate deniers that scientists “cook the books”), it will stand as an outlier – a study that cannot be backed up or confirmed because no other study can repeat the results. There is little doubt that this occurs, but in the end it is counter-productive, even to the researchers involved. One study, or one research group does little to provide confidence of a hypothesis – it takes many independent sources of evidence to strengthen our confidence in a conclusion.

It could be suggest that some such studies are designed only to create confusion and unmerited doubt, however, as stated above, a scientist will look for patterns across independent sources of evidence for confidence – such outlier studies designed to create confusion do so in the public and political arena.

Scientific methodology is opposite to confirmation bias. It refuses to accept a conclusion solely when the data supports it, but rather when little to no data seems to challenge the hypothesis.

Andrew Bolt, rejecting the potential importance of a species based on an assumed lack of importance of another is an example of confirmation bias (and one that begins with a fallacy), regardless of the available ecological data that states otherwise.

That Donna Laframboise rejects the bulk of climate science because an engineer, author, elderly physicist and a comedian also do and because we cannot make long term weather predictions is a simple straw man argument. It does not even rely on outlier studies or make fair comparisons but still concretes her held belief, regardless of the mountain of contrary evidence. See more here.

There are also those who exaggerate uncertainty. They like to claim that the “Hockey Stick is broken, therefore climate change is false” (similar to creationists claiming the fossil record isn’t complete, therefore evolution is false), or they try to talk about climate sensitivity (of which there is some uncertainty still within the scientific community, but the best indications seem to suggest a positive value for increasing CO2) or past climate events, which are clearly not directly translatable to our current climate.

Much of the noise that we hear against science by so called “sceptics” is of this nature. They do not try to question what is clear and obvious, but instead attack the weakest part of our understanding – that which is at the forefront – to assist obscurity.

If reason was an Ankylosaurus, which grew larger, with more inertia, as it walked forward, doubt, based on ideological confirmation bias, attempts to poke out the eyes – scientific investigation – to subdue the creature.

Illustration of Ankylosaurus

I’ve recently looked into why climate science is not a religion, in fact quite the opposite. I’ve also looked into why being concerned about potential climate change is not based on alarmism. In both cases, I’ve demonstrated that people whom make such claims do so hypocritically, for it is their foundation that is rooted in ideology and alarmism.

Here, I’ve tried to extend the reasoning to cover another anti-science claim; that there are other ways of knowing that are equally valid. The notion that science is arrogant is just absurd – it is simply confident because of the available evidence. The opponents to this, as stated above, do not supply a challenge to the reasoning, but only a scrap of evidence or unfair comparisons that fit what they would like to think – or like you to think.

Modern scientific methodology has radically changed humanity over the past few hundred years and made existence fair more enjoyable and safe for our species (regardless of what some might think of “ancient wisdom”). It is now telling us that our actions are becoming a significant pressure on other biological and physical processes that is leading to degradation. It isn’t a comfortable realisation, however it is the reality. It is also providing some of the answers as to how we can change our behaviour for the benefit of all life, including our own. By encouraging science, we will have even more answers over time.

Blinding the beast of reason will just send us into a ditch that we are unlikely to get ourselves out of.


One thought on “Blinding Reason Through Confirmation Bias

  1. Adults are difficult to change, children are more open minded. We need a series of high interest (thinking Harry Potter or Twilight) style books that hammer the point of confirmation bias leading to a bad end in an entertaining way. The context is just there for the content, a teaspoon of sugar for the medicine that can save mankind.
    Something to work on when I retire maybe.


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