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Environment

What is the Best Way to Combat Confirmation Bias?

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorAugust 13, 2014 12:09 AM

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If I was 20 years younger and participated in a certain body art trend, I might have a tattoo inscribed on my forearm that said something like this:

Confirmation bias MT @jayphilips: "The assumptions you start with dictate the conclusions you arrive at." @james_christie#CAST2014 — Josh Meier (@moshjeier) August 12, 2014

As the Skeptics Dictionary notes:

Confirmation bias refers to a type of selective thinking whereby one tends to notice and to look for what confirms one's beliefs, and to ignore, not look for, or undervalue the relevance of what contradicts one's beliefs.

This is a very human tendency. Public debates on contentious topics, such as GMOs and climate change, are rife with confirmation bias. I know that everything I write on such topics is viewed by most readers with preconceptions, which include strong opinions already held about the topic itself, or even about me. I'm not really bothered by this, because I don't see myself as a persuader. I'm not looking to change minds or win you over to any one side of an argument (even when I aim to debunk myths and misinformation). I'm much more interested in chronicling and exploring the contours of a particular scientific dialogue or narrative--how it formed, how it's maintained, who is shaping it. If, as a result of this, you come to reexamine some of your own assumptions, well, that's an added bonus. So one of the things that's fascinating to me about confirmation bias is how it manifests itself in media and in those who probably think they are not infected by it. For example, the other day I saw a story in a Scottish newspaper that reported:

Tens of thousands of Scots may be suffering from a hidden sickness epidemic caused by wind farms, campaigners have warned.

Now where have I seen a story like that before? Oh yeah! Anyway, I've previously looked into this new assortment of medical ailments characterized as Wind Turbine Syndrome. It is, as the Colbert Report noted, an oddly contagious syndrome. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Daily Caller, a conservative media outlet, picked up on the Scottish article. I say unsurprisingly because if you plug in "wind turbines" into the Daily Caller's search engine, you'll see a gazillion articles about their various dangers and the over-hyped claims from greens about wind energy. So it makes sense that a new story about how wind turbines are sickening thousands of people would find its way onto the Daily Caller website. This made me curious how the same media entity would view fracking, which is a form of natural gas extraction that many in the green community regard as harmful to human health and the environment. (Some might say the anti-wind and anti-fracking campaigns are tactically similar. Campaigners on both sides have been accused of embellishment and scaremongering.) If you plug in "fracking" in the Daily Caller's website, you'll see a gazillion articles downplaying or casting doubt on any studies that found fracking to be harmful. In sum, the glories of fracking are celebrated at the Daily Caller, while the hazards of wind power are played up. What is going on here? Again, from the Skeptics Dictionary:

Motivated reasoning is confirmation bias taken to the next level. Motivated reasoning leads people to confirm what they already believe, while ignoring contrary data.

Examples of this abound on Twitter, such as the one case I discussed about the energy writer who has become fixated on wind turbine syndrome (and seemingly unmoved by any concerns about fracking). To be sure, confirmation bias is not exclusive to any one political persuasion. Prominent skeptics with a liberal worldview can be just as credulous. Of course, it's always easier to see this in others and not ourselves. I freely admit that I have my own biases and assumptions that I struggle to keep in check. But as a journalist it's incumbent on me to be mindful this. One way of combatting biases, I've found, is to stay in a constant state of intellectual flux, so I can be open to new information and perspectives. Another way is to have expert sounding boards that I trust. These are people whose scholarship I (and many of their peers) respect and whose even-keeled disposition I admire. I'd be curious to hear how you combat your own biases and assumptions on topics that have become ensnared in highly charged debates. UPDATE: This 2013 essay is a thoughtful take on wind turbine syndrome. The author, who has left a comment on my post, is employed by the renewable energy industry.

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