Matt Ridley Reveals His Confirmation Bias

By Keith Kloor | December 20, 2012 1:55 pm

Several years ago, the BBC aired an excellent program called, “Science Under Attack.” It was hosted by UK Royal Society President Paul Nurse, who examined

why public trust in key scientific theories has been eroded – from the theory that man-made climate change is warming our planet, to the safety of GM food, or that HIV causes AIDS.

Now I happen to think that science, generally speaking, is held in high esteem by a large percentage of people, and that scientists are widely respected. But some topics, such as evolution, GMOs, and climate change, are a continuing source of contention because of cultural and ideological factors. There is a political dimension to this, too, but I don’t ascribe as much importance to it as some do.

The majority of us (who are too busy working, parenting, watching sports, and playing video games) tend to get our information from sources that we trust. It’s a convenient shortcut. Our trusted information brokers are usually determined by tribal affiliation. (Fox News or MSNBC, the Guardian or the Daily Telegraph?) There is a problem with this selection process, however. It’s addled by what is known as confirmation bias, or what Nicholas Kristof has described as “selective truth-seeking.”

To be sure, we are all guilty of this to some extent, myself included. To combat our own biases, some of us (and everybody reading this blog, of course) deliberately seek out perspectives from people outside our tribe. But even that decision is governed by trust–do I trust that person enough to be a fair interpreter of information, even if I think he’s biased? 

How would that trust be determined, though? For me, it involves a few things (especially for people communicating in the public sphere):

(1) Are you willing to call bullshit on your own tribe?  (2) Are you engaging in good faith and not letting political calculations or tribal loyalty dictate your argument? (3) Are you open to new information that challenges your existing position on x, y, or z? (4) Do you have an ax to grind?

This is my personal criteria that I have for sources that I consider turning to for interpretation of information that I don’t have the knowledge to properly understand and/or assess. Making a determination based on any of the above involves some work. You have to be familiar with a source’s record, what he or she has said and/or written on x, y, or z.

Now, to come back to that BBC show and one of its subjects–climate change–let’s turn to one of the clips that got a lot of press attention at the time. It was Nurse’s interview with James Delingpole, the bellicose Telegraph blogger I recently mentioned here.

At one point, Delingpole says this:

It is not my job to sit down and read peer reviewed papers, because I simply haven’t got the time. I am an interpreter of interpretations…

You can watch the exchange here.

After this aired, Delingpole was pilloried. How could he not bother to read the primary research in a field he was heavily criticizing? Never mind that journalists who do read many of these papers can barely grasp them (at least the super technical ones). That’s why reporters rely so heavily on PR releases accompanying publication of the jargon-gilded papers and interviews with scientists to interpret the findings.

None of this is to absolve Delingpole from doing even nominal background research for his rhetorical broadsides. But he is an example of someone whose confirmation biases are so strong that he only listens to one side in climate debates. He bases his interpretations on that one side. Anyone who reads his stuff approvingly shares his confirmation bias. The guy obviously has an agenda every bit as much as some of his partisan counterparts. He adds nothing to the conversation except shrill noise.

Matt Ridley, a widely respected science writer, is no Delingpole. But they do share a deeply held suspicion of climate science and of the consensus concerns about global warming. In 2011, Ridley gave a lecture that was toasted on climate skeptic blogs. Its main point was summarized by Reason Magazine:

Ridley cogently explains why he thinks that massive confirmation bias is behind the claims that man-made global warming is potentially catastrophic.

In the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, Ridley wrote three columns on what he called the “perils of confirmation bias.” In the first piece he noted:

One of the alarming things about confirmation bias is that it seems to get worse with greater expertise. Lawyers and doctors (but not weather forecasters who get regularly mugged by reality) become more confident in their judgment as they become more senior, requiring less positive evidence to support their views than they need negative evidence to drop them.

The origin of our tendency to confirmation bias is fairly obvious. Our brains were not built to find the truth but to make pragmatic judgments, check them cheaply and win arguments, whether we are in the right or in the wrong.

Flash forward to this week and Ridley’s latest opinion piece, in which he writes:

By far the most important debate about climate change is taking place among scientists, on the issue of climate sensitivity: How much warming will a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide actually produce? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has to pronounce its answer to this question in its Fifth Assessment Report next year.

Ridley then goes on to argue that this “important debate” has now been given a revelatory jolt by the unpublished work of someone he describes as “a semiretired successful financier from Bath, England, with a strong mathematics and physics background.”

It is my assumption, after reading Ridley’s column, that he believes the financier (Nic Lewis) is on to something big–namely that climate sensitivity is low and that we can all stop worrying about this thing called global warming. As Tim Worstall puts it in Forbes:

That [low climate sensitivity finding] is an extraordinary claim and clearly requires extraordinary evidence to support it. Much as I like Ridley (we swap stories and information regularly) I’m not going to accept it on the basis of one newspaper column. And Ridley wouldn’t expect me or you to either.

Really? It’s telling that Ridley didn’t include any skeptical perspective of this “extraordinary claim.”

What does it tell us? That on the issue of climate change he has become a victim of confirmation bias.

 

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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and 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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