Don't Lose Sight of Those Biases

By Keith Kloor | December 20, 2011 10:03 pm

I dip in and out of the comment threads at Judith Curry’s blog. The nesting style annoys me, so I rarely follow an actual conversation all the way through. But there are some commenters, such as Joshua, Martha, and Louise, and a few others on the skeptical side, who I find quite engaging. They usually make the time worthwhile.

This comment from Joshua just caught my eye. He’s responding to someone who asked how he would feel if global warming didn’t play out as expected:

That is a good and important question, and it is one that I have given quite a bit of thought to.

In all honesty, I can’t deny that at some partisan level, I will feel vindicated if AGW is definitively proven (I don’t feel it has been just yet).

When my better self thinks about the implications of that, I realize just how easy it is to let partisan interest, motivated reasoning, socio-centric bias, etc., distort my more rational thinking processes.

And not viewing myself as particularly better or worse then your average Joe or Jane climate combatant, that is why I am astounded that so many combatants, on both sides of the debate, seem so oblivious to influences that bias their thinking as well.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: climate change, climate politics
  • Anteros

    I’m a little wary criticising Joshua in his (possible) absence, but the last paragraph reminds me of Jane Austin and the subtle self-praise of “my pen is just too slow to keep up with the rush of my thoughts”.
    To be astounded that other people don’t do the sensible thing one does oneself, but at the same time hold onto the façade of “not viewing myself as particularly better or worse than your average Joe or Jane climate combatant” is a little disingenuous. At least it isn’t very consistent, because it is specifically stated that being self-reflective and aware of at least the possibility of biases is a good thing [cf "my better self"]

    However, I can save young Joshua some ill-seeming immodesty and remove the contradiction at the same time. One thing Joshua (usually) is, is more self-reflective than the average climate combatant. Therefore, if this is a good thing [I agree that it is] then Joshua is better then the average Joes and Janes. I should add that it doesn’t add any ‘better or worse’ that I find him frequently exasperating.

    KK – do you also find that the completely un-moderated nature of Climate Etc and the consequent frequent descent into unrestrained mud-slinging quite off-putting? Or are you OK with the rough ‘n’ tumble of an internet free-for-all?

    FWIW, although I spend most of my internet time at Climate Etc, it is a generally much more civilised forum here.
     

  • Jack Hughes

    Here is the BBC’s Richard Black:

    “I agree that a short term disaster would be effective in persuading people.”

    http://bishophill.squarespace.com/blog/2010/2/27/how-to-report-climate-change-after-climategate.html

  • Anteros

    Another way of looking at people who really want their fears to come true [strangely, like a lot of doomers throughout history] is to ask if any of them are going to be attending the parties in January to celebrate the first dataset showing 15 years of cooling.
    After all, if you are seriously, genuinely worried about global warming, surely 15 years of it being ‘not as bad as we thought’ is worth a little celebration?
    A tiny one, even?
    No?
    Oh well, we’ll have to celebrate without you :)

  • Jarmo

    #3

    Another way to look at doomsayers is to ask what are they after?

    Many demand a profound change in the way things are run in this world. Like Caroline Lucas in the Guardian a few days ago (  I want a debate about how we move away from today’s failed economic order and build a new one that is socially just and ecologically sustainable ).

    For these people, AGW and Peak Oil are also vehicles that force a change on people. Without these vehicles, few would listen to their message or the solutions they suggest.

    I am reminded of the Russian Revolution. It was not caused by peoples desire for a socially just society but World War 1.  It was not capitalism that brought suffering predicted by Marx but war.  War brought millions of dead and wounded, a shattered economy and the revolution.

     

  • Keith Kloor

    Anteros,

    I have said previously that I find the comments at Climate Etc to be too one-sided (climate skeptics), and yes, the flaming is a put-off. 

  • hunter

    But the believers seldom if ever go tot he next step and question if their biases are supported by history, fact, or even rational considerations.
    Skeptics typically openly embrace their biases- a free people are more likely to face the future successfully.
    Believers mutter on about silencing the skeptics- when they are not denigrating them or pretending we do not exist or ignoring them.
    Joshua as a self-aware person is a tough concept to get one’s mind around. He is a troll’s troll most of the time. But if he is at least willing to attempt the occasional self-reflection, great.

     

  • Marlowe Johnson

    Keith it’s an interesting question that those inclined to honest introspection grapple with from time to time.  However, I think the biases we need to look for in the climate debate relate to WG III not WG I.  I’d suggest that the chances of the science being wrong/overturned in any meaningful (i.e. policy relevant) way are so remote relative to ambition of current policy initiatives that I don’t think it’s really worth considering.  If we already had a $150/tCO2e tax the situation might be different.

    Biases as they relate to mitigation policies are pervasive and work in both directions.  On the one hand, I think that there is a tendency for skeptics to overestimate the costs and underestimate the benefits of mitigation technologies. They also tend to overstate the benefits and understate the costs of current energy policies (e.g. gas tax policies, urban sprawl, etc.).  On the other hand, some mitigation advocates understate the costs and logistical challenges and overstate the ‘green jobs’ meme.  

    The problem is further compounded by the fact that identifying ‘costs’ and ‘benefits’ isn’t a strictly objective exercise. Choosing an appropriate discount rate for example.

    Paging Tol and Ackerman…

  • http://thingsbreak.wordpress.com/ thingsbreak

    Who wouldn’t at some level want to be wrong about the severity of unchecked emissions, or the continued failure to reach emissions stabilization? I know I do, in the narrow terms of the suffering that could be avoided.

    Wishful thinking is one of the few things we have left as a mental coping mechanism. I posited that as one reason why journalists in particular and those only superficially engaged in general tend to glom onto “maybe it won’t be as bad as we think” papers like Schmittner et al. way out of proportion to their actual scientific merits (which I think were conversely unnecessarily underplayed by Romm as an example).

    However, there is this to consider as well. A great deal of what informs us about general outlines of the problem is based on the way we understand non-anthro climate issues and ecosystem responses generally. The flip side to being “wrong” about anthropogenic warming would be not just that the near term doesn’t warm as much as projected, but that it could warm much, much faster down the road, or that even a small amount of warming could have outsized impacts relative to what we think it should in the long run, or even completely opposite impacts (which would render any adaptation not just irrelevant but additionally harmful). If we’re wrong about the climate response to a given increase in GHGs, we’re probably wrong about a lot, lot more. And that obviously cuts both ways.

    There is simply no room outside of the fever swamps of “skeptic” sites like WUWT and co. to pretend that we’re not poised to tremendously perturb the carbon cycle and radiative energy balance of the planet. If we’re wrong about that, we’re wrong about a lot more than just climate. That’s “planes and satellites could start dropping out of the sky at any moment” wrong.

    I’ve often tried to point out to the “in it for the fat gubmint grant loot” conspiracists that the relatively fast, near unanimous consensus reached about AGW is exactly the wrong way to go about securing grant funding. If I were in solar-climate interactions, or cosmic rays, or ocean-atmosphere couplings, or any of the myriad “skeptic” alternatives, and I cared only about funding, rather than claim we know what’s going on, I would be desperately shrieking that we don’t know and that my team needed more funding. But that’s not really the case.

    We do think we have a pretty good idea about what’s going on. Where we’re headed is less clear, but that’s largely because it’s our foot on the accelerator and our hands on the wheel. It would obviously be great for all of us if the cliff we’re headed towards turned out to be farther down the road, or perhaps less of a drop. But the prudent course, in my mind, isn’t to keep plowing ahead in hopes that there is no cliff or that we don’t actually understand Newtonian physics.

    Do I wish that I was wrong? In the fantasy land that means being wrong would only result in the outcome of reduced suffering, sure! In the real world where being wrong means we’re then open to much more suffering in addition to less, of course not.

  • Jack Hughes

    I’ve watched 3 friends and now a relative die of cancer.
    In every case, friends and relatives hoped against hope that the diagnosis was wrong, or a cure would be found, or that remission was start of a cure.
    At no time did we gloat over bad news or exaggerate the reports from the hospital. Instead we seized on every morsel of good news and found comfort in tiny hopes that things were better than they really were.
    Now contrast the eco-Munchausen people who pretend to “care” about “the planet”. Watch them get off as they read Revkin and Monbiot’s weekly nonsense about some new problem that’s oh so important until next week’s problem trumps it.
    I see a complete 180 degree contrast between the cancer friends and relatives who DO care and the eco-babblers who deep down need something to be wrong to feed their own neuroses.
     

  • EdG

    I’m not biased… but everybody who sees thing differently than me is.

    Only joking… but that does seem to sum things up.

    Bias is essentially an expression of cultural diversity. On a groupthink level, nationalism or patriotism is a simple example of group bias, and that has its roots in primate group behavior… and thus our evolution. Personal biases are a function of the same dynamic on another level. 

    In terms of our quest for objective scientific information, as free from bias as possible, the only rational place to begin is ‘the middle’ where biases from all sides can be seen and balanced.

    Of course, the real and the ideal are two very different things, and in this case that is primarily because we are not nearly as rational as we wish we were.

  • hunter

    thingsbreak,
    Your argument that the AGW consensus was not an effective way to secure lots of grant money is profundly contradicted by the simple facts of following the money.
    That you believers still think we are facing climate *doom* is astonishing but at the same not surprising.
     You truly do not seem capable of considering the alternatives.
     That is amazing.
        

  • http://thingsbreak.wordpress.com/ thingsbreak

    @11 hunter:
    Your argument that the AGW consensus was not an effective way to secure lots of grant money is profundly contradicted by the simple facts of following the money.

    The overwhelming majority of Earth science expenditures in general and climate related in particular go to remote sensing and other observational efforts that would be needed whether we knew the warming was anthro or not (and I’d argue much more would be being funded if we did not).

    That you believers still think we are facing climate *doom* is astonishing but at the same not surprising.

    I know what the paleo record shows when you significantly perturb the carbon cycle and the planetary energy balance, and it often isn’t pretty. Granted, such die offs are usually taking place in the context of additional factors reducing biodiversity, but then, that’s where we are now also.

     You truly do not seem capable of considering the alternatives.
     That is amazing.

    This is possibly an intentional and definitely a revealing misrepresentation of what I said.

    I can consider alternatives. But in those cases, we’d have a lot more to worry about than transitioning to low carbon energy infrastructure at the small but admittedly significant price of a few percentage points of global GDP. If our understanding of climate is that far off, that means we can’t rule out a lot of worse things than AGW. and/or our understanding of radiative physics and fluid dynamics is wrong.

    That prospect is far more terrifying to me than the mainstream scientific view on climate. Because at least in the latter case, we know what we’re doing, more or less. It’s the difference between having an identified and treatable but serious illness and no idea why some symptoms of serious illness are manifesting.

    The whole “skeptic” position isn’t just that we might be wrong. It’s that we are both wrong and the only possible “correct” future is that there’s nothing to worry about.

    It’s downright Orwellian to see the co-option of labels like “skeptic” and “uncertainty” by those who are not and have basically none.

    If you think we really don’t know how the climate works, you should be terrified about slipping into another hothouse or snowball with basically no warning at all. If you think we don’t know how radiative transfer and fluid dynamics work, you should fear that our technological civilization is hanging on by a thread and that it’s a miracle it hasn’t fallen apart so far.

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, and an adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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