Yesterday my niece, Jenny, raised the following question:
I'm interested in the psychology behind people's views of global climate change. Specifically, it is so interesting that this is such a partisan issue. What a great example of the confirmation bias (i.e. people seek to confirm their pre-existing views rather than looking for contrary information). Also, this issue is a perfect example of how data is filtered through our own lenses. That's my random academic thought for the day. Any opinions?
Yes, Jenny, I do have an opinion. And it is opinion (not 'fact'), though one based on considerable study and thought. My main concern is that we live in a society built to a large degree on science and technology, but the general public does not know much science, does not understand how science works, and exhibits a deep distrust of science. Moreover, our leadership demonstrates many of the same characteristics. This is a dangerous set of circumstances. Why is this so? The psychology is fascinating.
The point you make about confirmation bias is a good start. It was interesting that several Comments to your post objected to the use of the word bias. The idea seems to be that (a) there is truth and (b) everything else is bias. Thus, claiming someone else is biased reveals my own bias unless I am right, and how do we know who is right? Well, no, we all exhibit confirmation bias to some degree, regardless of how close we are to the truth.
So the first thing to understand about science is that scientists are human, and they have confirmation bias like everyone else. But they are trained to minimize the impact of this by (1) always being skeptical, (2) following certain procedures to avoid the most egregious errors, and (3) submitting their work to the scrutiny of peers. Is the scientific method perfect? No. Is it better than the alternatives? Yep.
Here is what Steve said:
- Only .07 C is certainly not scientific evidence of anything
- and that increase stopped 16 years ago.
- Nearly all the heat records for our area were set in the 1930s during the dust bowl and have rarely been topped.
- The idea that men can control climate in any way is ludicrous.
- We can't even predict weather more than what 12 hours?
- What we have is political consensus there is no science involved.
Let me start with statement #5. With regard to Hurricane Sandy, the Weather Service made the disclaimer many times that "these conditions are so unusual that we cannot be sure of any of our predictions". They admitted the limitations of their computer models because of lack of previous similar conditions. Despite this, they were spot on days in advance probably saving hundreds of lives because of their accuracy. Remarkable. The computer models of a decade ago have come quite close, but the modeling of today is ten times better. Don't claim we don't know what is going on. About #4, of course we cannot control weather or climate specifically or directly, but to claim that our actions play no role is just putting our heads in the sand. One of the great successes of climate science is the way predictions about the impact of greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide on the actual temperatures have born out. The models did not get it exactly right, but actually quite close. Points #2 and #3 are simply false. If you want me to post the evidence, just ask.
Point #1, however, is more interesting. To be honest, I felt this way for a long time. How could a fraction of a degree in average temperature make any difference, when our daily and seasonal temperatures vary widely? This is a powerful emotional argument. But that is all it is, emotional. The melting polar ice, sea level rises, extremes of drought and flooding, multiple hottest months on record, extreme 'once in a lifetime' storms cannot be ignored. But part of the reason we have such a hard time with this is not understanding the nature of causation. None of these phenomenon are direct cause and effect. They are systemic effects.
Jon rightly said that "It is not a partisan issue on the scientific level, just the political level." Later, presumably in response to my analogy about smoking and cancer, he said that "Technically, we still can't say with complete certainty that smoking causes lung cancer because we can't rule out all of the Possible causes. There will always be an infinitesimally small percentage chance that something else that we are unaware of caused the cancer." Actually the chance is not infinitesimally small, but this is an example of direct causal thinking. The evidence that smoking increases the chances of cancer and a host of other deadly conditions is unassailable, and this evidence was irrefutable decades before the public accepted it (and the tobacco industry admitted it). Jon goes on to say " The same is true with climate change. However, this discussion is not about the science so much as people's motivations for believing the way they do." Exactly! And what are these motivations? As with the tobacco industry, the fossil fuel industry began bankrolling a campaign of disinformation. The "Report" to which Brett posted a link is a good example. Whatever else it may be, it is not science.
So, yes Jenny there is a lot of "confirmation bias". But science works hard to minimize this bias among its individual members. Let me give you a good example. Several years ago, Professor Richard Muller identified problems in previous climate studies that, in his mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming. He co-founded the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature project to rectify the previous problems. After three years of work by dozens of climate scientists he changed his mind.
"The Berkeley project's research has shown," Muller says, "that the average temperature of the Earth’s land has risen by two and a half degrees Fahrenheit over the past 250 years, including an increase of one and a half degrees over the most recent 50 years. Moreover, it appears likely that essentially all of this increase results from the human emission of greenhouse gases."