"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Carrying the Reminders of Every Glove that Laid Him Down

Lie la lie...

Quoth Ezra Klein, in discussing Bartels and Achens, echoing Dunning-Kruger:
The more an individual voter knew, the more they self-deceived. "Among the least well-informed respondents, neither objective reality nor partisan bias seems to have provided much structure to perceptions of the budget deficit," they dryly note. "Uninformed Republicans and Democrats were slightly, and about equally, more likely to say that the deficit had increased than that it had decreased." But travel up the information scale, and the situation dims. Partisan bias exerts its pull. Objective reality does not.
I think that understates the case. People who are especially interested in X, or Y, or AGW or what have you, will seek out confirming information and reject nonconfirming information. In a sense they are "more informed" but they are not "better informed". But it isn't partisan bias exercising pull; it's prejudice exercising push filtering out inconvenient information. (H/T Dano)

Also H/T Geryon, whom I gave a hard time recently but who really aren't all bad.

This reinforces the point I started this blog with. Most people don't have the habits of mind of scientists, and even those that do are fallible and need to hang out with other scientists to really filter effectively. We don't have the scale to do that, so how do we go about convincing people to get things right?

The first top-of-page quote on "In It" was from myself, and "Logical Science" has kindly captured it, along with more respectable opinions far and wide.

Here is what I said. Let me say it again:

It's easy to refute all the contrarian arguments but that seems to have very little effect on how commonly they are believed. Refuted arguments seem to live on in the public imagination. To bring the public on board to a rational discussion of climate policy needs more than logical argument.

So what should we actually do

Any useful advice on this matter would be deeply appreciated.


DThompson55 said...

You hit the nail on the head when you wrote, "People ... will seek out confirming information and reject nonconfirming information." Someone I normally respect wrote, "People will believe what they want to believe". And I think this is largely true, whether push or pull, I'm not sure. His statement was in regards to the moon landings. In his case, his thinking started with "the government lies", the government is the source of information about the moon landings", therefore "the government lies about the moon landings." From there he can comfortably reject nonconfirming information (moon rocks and videos) and accept confirming information of a photograph of a flag in a supposedly airless environment appearing to wave in a breeze. How then to convince him otherwise? It is the same problem as AGW deniers, the creationists, etc. Once they have a comfortable mode of thought, perhaps one that conforms with their peers or social group, or one that simply requires less effort to hold, how do you change an individual? I think this is a central problem that needs to be addressed.

Dano said...

Refuted arguments seem to live on in the public imagination. To bring the public on board to a rational discussion of climate policy needs more than logical argument.

So what should we actually do?

Any useful advice on this matter would be deeply appreciated.

I'm not going to tell you what we should do - when I finally get access and recommend policies and actions that actually do something and change this paradigm of human nature, I'll be a billionaire. Billlllyuns. I'll then crackberry you from my private island.


At any rate, one of the GF's old co-workers has a good friend who is working on his PhD in cognitive science, studying confirmation bias with fMRI. Fascinating to talk to the guy, and frustrating at the same time - makes you think about the fraction of nature:nurture that we can actually change and do something about, and what fraction of the overall population falls into each category...



Michael Tobis said...


It makes me think that perhaps Americans are harder to reach with valid information because they expect their government (and other authority figures) to lie. Therefore they need to rely more on their personal intuition to filter facts. Of course, that means more stubbornness and stupidity, but lacking trustworthy authorities, what choice do people have?

It would seem, then, that an important first step would be for the government to scrupulously avoid lying.

This also argues strongly against spin control in the sciences, but there's a question that has two sides...

King of the Road said...

I've also blogged about this issue. I make it a central point to seek out "non-confirming" information for my beliefs and opinions, sometimes to the frustration of people such as you.

It's my belief that, unfortunately, this self-affirming tendency is at the core of human behavior. Thus, while it may be possible to succeed in getting individuals to make objective evaluations of factual material, I am extremely pessimistic about a breakthrough whereby (to quote myself) a nation of Walmart consumers, self-satisfied and self-indulgent baby boomers, MTV, Fox TV and Lil Wayne watchers and listeners, Obama voters who think "now I don't have to worry about filling my car with gas or paying my mortgage because the government will take care of it," and sports fans who brag that "if they (opposing fans) come into our house, they'll get a beer in their grill" comes to a point where they are able and willing to gather facts, objectively analyze them, and reach rational conclusions. Very smart people cannot or will not do this, preferring instead to seek only confirming information, what hope is there for a breakthrough among those who listen to these smart people?

I think both talk radio and the "blogosphere" (I loathe that term) have exacerbated this situation; one can now spend 24/7 gathering confirming information for any conceivable viewpoint, and many people do. Platonic Republic anyone?

Michael Tobis said...


First of all, here's some skepticism for you.

To me and probably most of my readers, the caricature of "Obama voters" is pretty disturbing. It would be interesting if you could find anyone like that, never mind a significant voting population. Maybe there are one or two; the banks did write some pretty dubious mortgages. But you seem to be implying a voting bloc, and you don't provide any evidence for this extraordinary claim, which I find very hard to believe and pointlessly provocative. I can't imagine why you'd want to raise it here. I don't see it as contributing to the conversation at all. Please take it somewhere else.

Also the thing about sports fans didn't make any sense to me. Bears or Packers is perhaps something people take much too seriously, but it's not a factual opinion, it's a preference.


Seeking out "non-confirming" opinions is easy. Distinguishing real thought from BS is not.

The frustration on our end isn't that people are looking for contrary evidence. It's first, that they are looking for ONLY contrary evidence (which was the point here). And second, that there is enough motivation (and little enough consequence) to manufacture what at first glance looks like such evidence that there is plenty of it for people to choose from.

This is why we are uncomfortable with the term "skeptic". A real "skeptic" wouldn't limit his doubts to one side but spreads it around equally.

In the end, if you aren't inclined to spend a fair effort getting to know the climate system, it seems the consensus among experts ought to be decisive. The only way it fails to be decisive is if you find a conspiracy theory view of science more plausible than a human impact on climate. Which brings us back to the initial point; if you refuse to believe something you will manage to find something else to believe.

If you are genuinely openminded I have no problem discussing the evidence. I would enjoy it, and I'm glad we have something to talk about after all those years. But on the whole, that isn't what this blog is about; there are other bloggers who handle that turf better than me anyway.

What this blog is mostly about is trying to figure out what to do about it.

By the way, Rob, I have a pretty clear memory of you and me on the steps of the Baha'i temple in Wilmette in the wee hours of some weekend morning, over 35 years ago.

In a typical moment of undergraduate philosophizing, I said "the world has been pretty much exactly the same for millions of years until just about this moment, and now it's turning into something different. Somebody has to figure out what to do about it."

So I could make the case that you were there at the moment I first committed myself to having a really frustrating career...

King of the Road said...

Well, by no means did I intend to demean Obama or a large number of people who voted for him. My point was not political. As to the specific sentiment regarding Obama FROM A SPECIFIC PERSON you can find her saying it at an Obama rally on youtube. In that regard, I'm sure she is not representative of Obama supporters, but in her distorted view of the world and her irrational expectations irrespective of reality, she represents many on the left and the right of almost any issue.

Seriously, if I gave the impression that my discouragement was related to a specific political perspective, or group of people, I apologize. In fact, the ire I've expressed on my blog regarding this issue was, ironically, directed at right wing radio talk show hosts and their listeners.

My point is that people hear what they want to hear, adjust it as necessary to meet their personal viewpoint/philosophy/outlook, etc., and are unwilling to consider change.

With respect to sports fans, the comment was made with respect to peoples' overall closed mindedness and lack of respect for any differing viewpoint. And lately, people seem much more willing to take any difference as a threat and react with actual or threatened hostility.

All of the above discourages me greatly, and it's an issue to which I've given significant thought. I'm sorry if I've stepped outside the bounds of the type of commentary you find constructive in your blog, I mean that sincerely.

Much of my writing has tacitly implied agreement that the Earth's climate is changing and that the change is caused by mankind's activities. It is quite explicit with the need to drastically reduce our reliance on and burning of fossil fuels. I'm not a "denier" and I really do believe that I am motivated by a desire to understand reality. In that sense, I believe I do spread my skepticism around equally.


Phil said...

Didn't Karl Popper raise the whole problem of logically convincing people of your arguments only to have them choose to ignore them? If I recall correctly, he had no real solution to this one.

Anonymous said...

I recently was having a drink with an English Teacher friend of mine, and was telling her about this woman I talked with on a plane ride. This woman and I had a discussion about global warming and she kept asking (I'm a grad student in oceanography) about global warming, whether it was settled, wasn't there a natural climate cycle, isn't there a lot of money behind the warming studies. She wasn't being difficult, she was just skeptical, and the things I said didn't really seem to reach her (except when I said, yeah, well, there's a lot more money in the oil and coal industry than in the scientific research community).

My english teacher friend pointed out the reason it was such a frustrating discussion for me is because I kept giving facts and explanations of systems. She suggested that I should have used stories. Talk about villages in Alaska where grandparents have seen all the ice disappear, or something.

EliRabett said...

Not have kids?

Anonymous said...

"And second, that there is enough motivation (and little enough consequence) to manufacture what at first glance looks like such evidence that there is plenty of it for people to choose from."

That's a good point. One starting point for making a change might be to construct a decent and easy to use shit filter. I'd usually assume that that was an internal contradiction, but such an assumption might stop us getting anywhere...

giovanni da procida said: except when I said, yeah, well, there's a lot more money in the oil and coal industry than in the scientific research community

Perhaps it would be interesting to run a study on how much money is going into each field (ie. reliable science, vs. fossil fuel funded hogwash). Then again, the conspiracy theorists who seem to think anything a government does is inherently evil would probably (extremely vocally) unbalance the impact of the results...

Michael Tobis said...

eco, the money comparison is done often enough.

The conspircay theorists think there is 2 billion in the US climate change budget.

In fact, there is something like that in the USGCRP, but most of that is funding for NASA earth observation, and it was moved into the USGCRP by the Clinton administration which wanted to look like it was doing something about climate change.

Money available to climate scientists to study climate is probably about a tenth of that total, equivalent to something like $1 per capita in the US. If you write three letters complaining about your tax dollars going to climate research, you have matched that tax expediture in postage.

The conspiracy theorists put that up against some tens of millions spent by the conspiracists' PR arm, but that is unfair. They claim to be outspent 5 to 1, but the $200 mn actually goes to people doing science, not to people doing outreach. The main outreach efforts from the climate science community are unfunded (RC, blogs, public talks typefied by Hansen's). Such publicly funded outreach as there is is hamstrung by the sorts of constraints that limit all US public communication; it is mostly low status work in the universities and labs anyway. So the climate science community has unpaid, untrained volunteers telling the truth while the bad guys have tens of millions for PR prfessionals.

One might have hoped for a change recently with the unveiling of Gore's "We" campaign, but I am sorry to say it strikes me as oblivious to the playing field and woefully incompetent.

Anyway, you put a dollar (per capita) into climatology, which is out of ten dollars into earth observation, climatology and climate impacts broadly construed. Compare this to what you pay to heat and/or cool your home and fill your gas tank, (never mind the energy component of other purchases you make) and you will get some sense of which way the corrupting influence of money pulls more effectively.

Anonymous said...

Michael: Agreed, re: money, although I don't think the argument has come anywhere near the necessary saturation point in widely-read media.

One thing I was going to mention in the previous comment, but forgot was empathy.

If you know what a person is feeling, then it's much easier to communicate with them. If you know what they're thinking it's easier, and if you know how they think it's extremely easy to communicate with them.

On the other hand, if you think you know what they're thinking, but are wrong, then you're gonna screw up the communication.

(It strikes me here that I need a new word - empathy is the correct word for understanding someone else's feelings, but it doesn't really cover understanding how someone thinks - encogny (where's an etymologist when you need one?))

The internet makes it even harder, for a number of reasons:
- It's very hard to convey emotions in text
- Following from that, in direct verbal communication, a lot of the implied textual meaning is convey with gesture, and facial expressions, obviously this doesn't exist on the 'net.
- Since there's no penalties for being a complete arsehole to people on the 'net, cause you're not likely to meet them in real life, everyone is more of an arsehole.

I think most, or perhaps all of us who tackle deniers on the 'web really don't understand how they think, and what their motivations are. We make broad assumptions that they are lying for personal gain, or as an act of denial, but perhaps that's not the case from their point of view.

I can't say I've come across any evidence that anyone who accepts AGW (including myself), actually understands where the deniers are coming from (except in the obvious cases of financial incentive). But I also can't immediately think of a way to deal with this - if someone truly is in denial, and is aware that you're trying to convince them otherwise, they aren't exactly going to tell you how they really feel and think...

--naught101 (not eco101... stupid wordpress openID)

Marion Delgado said...

All "we" can do is apply consistent standards to every dataset we encounter, and accept that most things we encounter that are important are representable as, or contain, datasets.

The main way people filter datasets that have errors associated with populating them, in my opinion, is by virtuously pointing out only the errors they want to see.

Other than that, it's not like confirmation bias is brand new. We have to obey the rules the various sciences have decided on to counter it, and insist our sources do to.

The corollary to that, unfortunately, is that we can't compromise with people who don't avoid confirmation bias. Even if we look uncompromising.

Marion Delgado said...

apropos de rien, Michael, I realized what I am doing wrong out in the non-net world. I joked with my friends that I should be handing out crude xeroxed pamphlets saying the big nutrition and chiropractry and homeopathy industry is trying to hide the truth about vaccination. As are people associated with unpleasant and secretive government organizations.

But in truth, what I really need is lots and lots of anecdotal evidence. Since we have the statistics on our side, we also QED have potentially far more anecdotes.

people's emotional attachment to anecdotal evidence is so huge that underestimating it is probably our biggest error.

I am not the public's parent or professor to tell them how to think, but I can say, honestly, that in addition to accepting scientific statistics, I also know about anecdotal cases such as ...

Michael Tobis said...

"virtuously pointing out only the errors they want to see. "

Yes, I've thought of that too. I wonder whether, if the Climate Audit folk ever do stumble on a correction that steepens the trend, they would report it. Or whether they are just failing to see them.

"that in addition to accepting scientific statistics, I also know about anecdotal cases such as ..."

This amounts to "An Inconvenient Truth", doesn't it? I think that turf is covered. It now comes down to whether you like Al Gore or loathe him, I suppose.

It's a quandary. Scientific virtue is not really enough when the opposition doesn't really have it.

Even if science education can, optimistically, be turned around in two generations, that leaves us plenty of time to continue riding off the rails. Meanwhile most people cannot even begin to understand where understanding comes from.

I think it's getting worse, ironically, at the hands of engineers.

Many people used to be able to understand, say, cars or telephones. This sort of practicality would introduce them to rational thinking. The number of opportunities for this sourt of learning is going down, as most technical work is "by the book".