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Confirmation bias

This is a guest post by Matt Ridley

Dan Gardner’s superb book `Future Babble’ examines why expert predictions so frequently fail, and why we believe them anyway. I strongly recommend it. Gardner devotes very little of the book to climate change, and makes clear that he does not want to be thought too sceptical about it. This is standard procedure in the world of non-fiction these days: Tim Harford in Adapt likewise avoids pursuing the logic of his argument as far into the climate debate as he might. You can, of course, kiss good bye to good reviews, or even reviews, if you stray too far from the true faith on this subject these days. Even lukewarmers like me regularly get called `deniers’.

None the less, Gardner’s argument does apply very clearly to the climate debate. Below is a list of quotations from the book that apply to pretty well any polarised scientific debate – nature versus nurture, dietary fat, and of course scepticism versus alarm. Honest readers will admit that they fall into all the traps Gardner describes, whether they are sceptics or alarmists. (At the end of the lists are a few quotes, about the value of doubt, that will be more uncomfortable for the alarmists.)

Here is my question: can we each read these quotes and admit that they apply to each of us as well as to the people we disagree with? It’s a question for sceptics and alarmists alike. Or does each of us think we are more self-aware about confirmation bias than our opponents are?

Here are the quotes:

Once we form a belief, for any reason, good or bad, rational or bonkers, we will eagerly seek out information that supports it, while not bothering to look for information that doesn’t – and if we are unavoidably confronted with information that does not fit, we will be hyper-critical of it, looking for any excuse to dismiss it as worthless. P84

We all enjoy having our beliefs confirmed after all. And it shows that we too are informed people. But dispute that belief and the same psychology works against you. You are risking saying goodbye to your client and your reputation. Following the herd is usually the safer bet. P 109.

Contrarians ... are almost always outsiders, which is not a coincidence. They don’t have a seat at the table so they aren’t subject to the social pressures identified by Asch and other psychologists. P 109.

Genuinely imaginary attempts to portray change – including scenario planning – may help pull us out of that rut but they may also cause to us to develop an unrealistic sense of how likely those imaginative futures really are. And all the while, no matter what happens, we are convinced we are right. P 115

Having settled on a belief, we naturally subject evidence that contradicts the belief to harsh critical scrutiny or ignore such evidence altogether. At the same time we lower our standards when we examine supportive evidence so that even weak evidence is accepted as powerful proof. P 204.

It should be obvious that being skeptical about a prediction does not render people unable to make a decision, it just makes them cautious. This is not a bad thing, and, indeed, in some circumstances, it can be a very good thing. P 247

Doubt is the hallmark of the fox. P 254 [foxes, who are open to wider sources of evidence, are more accurate forecasters than hedgehogs, who adhere to one big idea.]

"Foxes"’... are modest about their ability forecast the future, comfortable with uncertainty, and very self-critical. P 255.

(Buy at,

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Reader Comments (58)

Yup, agreed, but hoping I am a fox ;-)

Jun 8, 2011 at 7:43 AM | Unregistered CommenterJosh

Looks like an excellent read.

And I've got to admit that the quotes do apply significantly to the way I think about the cAGW scam.

As an obvious example, I come on here and to WUWT at least once a day. To Climate Progress and Real Climate? Rarely.

But in fairness, I wasn't 'raised' as a sceptic (other than some of the basic approaches in a science / technology education). I went along with the IPCC approach for some years because that was portrayed as the only show in town. A 'consensus' indeed. Pretty effective Public Relations on that side.

But I was always a little unsure how an essential trace gas that we all continuously exhale could be wrecking the planet quite so effectively. And despite much evidence that I could see.

So I made the time to look at it in more detail.

Then came "The Great Global Warming Swindle". Then, of course, came Climategate.

And once trust has been comprehensively trashed, it is pretty hard to keep on giving the same lying scam artists the benefit of the doubt.

Jun 8, 2011 at 7:56 AM | Unregistered CommenterMartin Brumby

Except that most AGW sceptics I know started out believing in the consensus.

Jun 8, 2011 at 8:07 AM | Unregistered CommenterJames P

(That was a reply to the OP, not Martin!)

Jun 8, 2011 at 8:08 AM | Unregistered CommenterJames P

I agree with the 'Once we form a belief' quote above. Because to confirms my own belief. And thus it must be true. Unless I am just seeking any confirmation at all to support my position. Oh, but then it must be true.

Jun 8, 2011 at 8:17 AM | Unregistered CommenterRhoda

I uncritically accepted the consensus until I saw the consequences and thought, "this consensus had better be cast iron". After watching "The Great Global Warming Swindle", I had time to investigate the "scientific" claims and rapidly became a sceptic (or denier as I am labelled). I no longer look closely at the other side of the argument (e.g. Climate Progress and Real Climate) as I have had too may nasty experiences. So I have fallen into the trap as Gardner describes. I agree with Martin Brumby that, once trust has been completely trashed, it is difficult to examine anything they say with any seriousness.

Jun 8, 2011 at 8:30 AM | Unregistered CommenterPhillip Bratby

The IAC Review of IPCC mentions confirmation bias. In that context it seemed to refer to IPCC authors giving undue prominence to their own publications while excluding evidence to the contrary. Hence it seems to be a form of selection bias.

Jun 8, 2011 at 8:46 AM | Unregistered Commentergyptis444

Agreed with Martin Brumby and James P.
I was a firm believer in (worrying-if-not-catastrophic) Man-made Global Warming until I retired , read in passing Booker & North's "Scared to Death" and then actually could take the time to look at the "science"....of which there was very little...and the hoo-hah...of which there was much. "Climategate" was a turning point. Though not the "smoking gun" a lot of people think it was for me an extraordinarily telling glimpse in to the way that that particular branch of climate science was being conducted. Reading the HSI put the top hat on it.
It appears to me that for avid believers and proponents of AGW in everyday life the concept is easily bound up in other political anti-capitalistic, anti-globalist, environmentalist and pro-social justice views and it is too convenient for these purposes to even think about questioning it. Noble sentiments,but misguided with regard to CO2.
If it were not being used as a stick to beat me with I would not be so forthright in my "contrarian" views.
It is surprising what you can do in a pub conversation simply by stating that you believe Catastrophic AGW to be nonsense and backing it up with a point or two. Whole swathes of society swallow it whole because they are constantly being told by the Radio, TV and other MSM that it is an indisputable fact.
You cannot blame them (people, not the Media!) for that. Once you put the idea in someone's head that it might be a crock of the proverbial....they start to see the weasel words, note the prevalence of the words "models" and "studies" and note the failed predictions and see the bluster of some of the protagonists.
Anyway...thank you, Bish, for your efforts, and also all the contributors here who hardly ever stray from the path of proper debate and civilised and sometimes humourous comment. In this debate, which for the most part has become a political one, it is important to retain the moral and rational high ground and not descend to the weepy fingerpointing or jeering tactics of the catastrophists.
More power to your crozier!

Jun 8, 2011 at 8:50 AM | Unregistered CommenterJack Savage

Guilty as charged

Jun 8, 2011 at 8:55 AM | Unregistered Commenterpesadia

And that's where science comes in, to give an un-biased answer to questions that may need more belief than fact to understand.

I believe that god hold's me to the planet until someone came along and said 'an apple just fell on me head and.....'

It is scary that so many people are blindly following scientist just because they say thing's they like.

Jun 8, 2011 at 9:06 AM | Unregistered CommenterShevva

@ Jack Savage

'In this debate, which for the most part has become a political one' - It's not much of a debate when all but 4 MP's voted for the Climate Change Act and then only one questioned the cost of the Act?

It has never been a political debate here in Blighty as no MP has the gut's to rock-the-boat.

Jun 8, 2011 at 9:09 AM | Unregistered CommenterShevva

Honest readers will admit that they fall into all the traps Gardner describes, whether they are sceptics or alarmists.

I am reading the book and agree. That kind of nudge into reassessment is one of very sobering and valuable things the book provides. But as Matt says it does seem, as in many other similar popular books about about social discourse, there is more often the big glaring hole where you would expect a rigorous application of the books thesis to the climate debate. I guess the risk of losing the dust jacket encomiums from a couple of the broadsheets must have some bearing on that trend ;).

Jun 8, 2011 at 9:10 AM | Unregistered CommenterThe Leopard in the Basement

I should have added that what finally swung it for me was the Bishop's 'Caspar and the Jesus Paper' which was (and still is) one of the finest pieces of technical authorship I have read. I say that through gritted teeth, rather, as that is one of my day jobs, but credit were credit is due!


Jun 8, 2011 at 9:34 AM | Unregistered CommenterJames P

Haven't read the book yet, will do shortly. Anything Matt R recommends...

Of course, it's pointless each of us trying to eliminate our own biases. We can't (maybe a very few people can, but 99% of us can't). The point of debate and the point of science is to remove the effect of those individual biases by using a mechanism to arrive at some useful approximation to the truth (i.e. how the physical world actually works). The contemptible aspect of the CAGW approach is that it is effectively anti-science, as it has used politics to directly influence scientific opinion and to rule certain conclusions as 'unacceptable' (career suicide).

Jun 8, 2011 at 9:45 AM | Unregistered CommenterCeri Reid

Martin, James and Jack make the best of many good points.

It is important to remind folk that many sceptics/deniers started as believers until they found the leisure to look into the "science", and discovered it doesn't hold up for long.

As the months and years pass, the "science" continues to fall apart, and realism is strengthened.

As Pesada remarks, Guilty as charged; and no repentance is offered. I am old enough to have seen many scares evaporate, beginning with the famous Global Cooling recently referred to here, and scepticism is the the only practical default position.

Jun 8, 2011 at 9:51 AM | Unregistered CommenterJeff Wood

I was a sceptical-leaning neutral until climategate (Mr Turning Tide had been saying AGW is bollocks for years). After that, I tried to look honestly at both sides and was surprised at how flimsy the foundation of AGW is.

What I found most telling is how certain facts about the atmosphere are very hard to track down for the layperson. For example, I'm pretty sure the average joe has no idea how little CO2 there is in the atmosphere, and how small a proportion of that little amount is contributed by human activities. It's almost as though there's a conspiracy of silence to keep such information out of easily accessible sources. All the "pro" sources talk about us "pumping out" "megatons" of the stuff. Similarly, the actual data for the temperature increase is rarely mentioned in popular sources: it's always alarmist nonsense about the world have a "fever", rather than the truth, that the warming is a mere imperceptible fraction of a degree (not all of which can be attributed to human activities anyway).

I also found that (with the exception of some obviously biased politically motivated sites) the sceptical websites were temperate in tone and non-insulting, while the pro sources seemed to be a hotbed of personal abuse and sarcasm. For example, I doubt an interested neutral could ever come away from RealClimate thinking, "hmmm, yes, these guys are probably right".

And finally, the climategate emails revealed a bunch of people acting like they were under siege, and the subsequent (blatantly biased) investigations were quite obvious whitewashes. I think a good rule of thumb is that if people are acting like they've got something to hide, they've probably got something to hide. If there was the cast-iron indisputable consensus that is often claimed, they'd be happily throwing open their doors and inviting sceptics to come in and do their worst.

Jun 8, 2011 at 10:22 AM | Unregistered CommenterTurning Tide

Nobody is immune to confirmation bias and other psychological tendencies.

Science can be thought of as a way to minimize the effects of confirmation bias (since it is evidence based and –ideally- independent of the practitioner)

Even though scientists are not the tight knit group they’re often made out to be (they’re a very stubborn and individualistic bunch in my experience), the risk of groupthink may indeed be larger for (senior) climate scientists than for contrarians.

OTOH, the risks for conformation bias on the basis of one’s individual beliefs/ideology seem much larger for contrarians (who in their right mind would *want* AGW to be real and risky? See also last point)

Jun 8, 2011 at 10:27 AM | Unregistered CommenterBart Verheggen

O/T but don't miss the fun on the Goot thread. We've just hit the Mothertroll.

Jun 8, 2011 at 10:30 AM | Unregistered CommenterGixxerboy

My route to scepticism;

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me (Anonymous Chinaman).

Not guilty as charged.

Jun 8, 2011 at 10:38 AM | Unregistered Commentersimpleseekeraftertruth

I am another who once accepted that the world was getting warmer and that it was possibly partly due to the effects of Man-made technology but didn't think a great deal about it. I knew from my background in the Arts and Humanities that eras such as the MWP and the Roman Warm Period are historical fact and that the Vikings did indeed farm large areas of Greenland and left not only physical remainders of their occupation but were prolific writers and storytellers who left voluminous written records.
Growing up in New Zealand and becoming fascintaed by the early Polynesian voyages of exploration that criss-crossed the vast Pacific and were known to have occurred at about the time of the MWP, the prominence given to Mann's Hockey Stick and the inferences drawn from it by the IPCC seemed to be more than a little dishonest, but it was not until I asked what I thought to be an innocent but important question on the Guardian's CIF about the existence of standards for measuring and recording land-based temps and was roundly attacked as a troll by a prolific poster there, who listed his occupation as 'Greenpeace Activist', that I began to read about CAGW in earnest. The more I have read, the more thoroughly I have become convinced that the world's climate has natural cycles which trace atmospheric gases probably don't have much influence on.
The emregence of the 'Climategate' email tranche from the UEA, and particularly the 'Harryreadme' file, have convinced me that much of climate science is of dubious quality and the 'enquiries' into the UEA, CRU, Mann and 'the science' were all contrived parodies rather than real, which makes me question the agenda of the scientists involved and also that of their so-called investigators and what is being deliberitely obscured..
Where am I now? I believe the earth experiences multiple climactic cycles caused by a myriad of powerful interacting forces, including the sun, knowledge of which is still in its infancy. I also believe that Man's effect on the earth is slight and that the evil effects assigned to CO2 are wildly overblown and that the beneficial effects of the same CO2 probably heavily outweigh the evils.
I also worry that various quite shameless carpetbaggers in the form of WWF, Greenpeace, etc are seriously harming current Western culture.

Jun 8, 2011 at 10:42 AM | Unregistered CommenterAlexander K

For what it is worth, I was a consensus believer (albeit of the worried-not-alarmed type) until climategate. As Jack Savage eloquently wrote, climategate is not a smoking gun in my opinion but it showed me just how much militancy there is in the consensus camp - and not all of it can be justified by defensiveness. Now I'm probably some sort of a lukewarmer - I don't e.g. agree with Turning Tide that the fact that CO2 concentrations are low means ipso facto that it is irrelevant. I guess it is easier to change one's mind when the belief is less strongly held to start with.

Bart V, there's a lot of amateur psychology thrown around about people's beliefs in terms of global warming. There's a tendency to believe confirmation bias must be stronger on the other side. You concede that senior consensus-following scientists may be subject to confirmation bias in the form of groupthink, but consider it ridiculous that there could be any ideological commitment to believing in the consensus:

"who in their right mind would *want* AGW to be real and risky?"

That's an interesting question - but the evidence from many past scares is that being a Cassandra can be quite an appealing role for many people.

Jun 8, 2011 at 10:46 AM | Unregistered Commenterj

I'm a lukewarmer and believe the CO2 is having some small effect on temperatures, other things being equal. The arguments and evidence for feedbacks are weak and the less said about the paleo reconstructions, the better. However, I think I could convince any dispassionate person that all is not well in the field of climate science by simply showing them the "climategate" emails and the subsequent inquiries. No scientific understanding required. If climatologists want to convince people then my advice is: Don't lie. Don't get caught lying. Don't cover up. Don't get caught lying when you cover up.

Jun 8, 2011 at 10:47 AM | Unregistered Commenterandy mc

I too have to confess to being guilty of mainly visting web sites that support my point of view. Like others I previously didn't question the IPCC science and took it for granted that the 'science was settled'. As related in the following CA link, one day I had the good fortune to visit Tim Lambert's blog and read a piece in which Tim Lambert called John Brignell of Numberwatch a 'crank'. At that time I was an avid Numberwatch visitor (owned both of JEB's books) and so wondered why he considered JEB to be a 'crank'. The rest is history as they say and thanks to Tim L I took the time to look at the science and like many found it somewhat wanting and most definitely 'not settled'.

I even watched Steve Mc's congressional testimony 'live' and consequently followed the whole HS debate blow by blow on a daily basis on CA. I therefore have a confession to make to your good Grace. So far I have yet purchase a copy of the HSI :-(. I promise I will soon though your good Grace. Based on the debates currently going on at CA and WUWT may I suggest your Grace that it is time for a sequel to the HSI as it appears that bought and paid for trolls like CSIRO's Professor Nick Stokes BSc MSc, PhD, and 'pete' etc have very selective memories.

Jun 8, 2011 at 10:50 AM | Unregistered CommenterKevinUK

The best reason for visiting blogs is not to be confirmed, but to find links to papers on both sides.
There are a few pretty thought-free skeptics about, and if they deserve the title 'deniers', then there are some equally airheaded supporters of AGW who ought to labelled 'proniers', I believe, since they're probably enviro-layabouts anyway.. oh oops, I believe I may have gone too far. Slap me.

Jun 8, 2011 at 10:53 AM | Unregistered CommenterGeoff Cruickshank

One step into the cauldron of the warmist blogosphere is enough to induce confirmation bias into anybody with a sense of survival.

Jun 8, 2011 at 11:16 AM | Unregistered Commenterandyscrase

There is a class of sceptic, seldom mentioned, that contributes ideas for possible improvement of scientific adventures that seem to be going wrong.

Most innovatory science starts out as a minority view. It makes no sense to knock it when you can point to ways to advance it.

That's why we have bodies like "The Australian Association for the Advancement of Science." Unfortunately, they seem a bit aloof because the President has not bothered to reply to 2 letters in this vein:
The President,
Australian Academy of Science,
GPO Box 783
Canberra ACT 2601

Dear Professor Cory,

re: Evaluation of Emergent Science.

In about 1993, I became interested in the use of temperatures used to make a case for Global Warming and later corresponded with Professor P Jones of University of East Anglia, before his name was so prominent in the field. This was an aside from my normal work, but it caused me to look deeper into the topic of how to handle emergent science, as was the work of Professor Jones then. I examined some of it and found it to be incorrect, not by opinion, but by hard numbers.

I had, since the early 1970s, worked closely with John Elliston AM, a geologist, and Professor S. Warren Carey, who was a motivator of the plate tectonic theory. By now it is fair to deduce that Carey and Elliston were likely to be more correct with their science about this topic than those I shall call “The Establishment” in a neutral, shorthand way.

The AAS had an acrimonious relationship with Professor Carey, see

In hindsight, one can name several Australian examples where emerging science clashed with the Establishment view, an outcome that is not unexpected. See, for example, the struggles of Nobel Laureates Warren and Marshall at

A less resolved matter is the toxicity of lead in children, with research by old friends Dr Allen Christophers and Pamela de Silva.

Here are some international examples showing difficulties for emergent science: Hans Krebs's description of the citric acid cycle, which won him the Nobel prize, Solomon Berson's discovery of radioimmunoassay, which led to a Nobel prize, and Bruce Glick's identification of B lymphocytes.

A view from one end of a spectrum of thought is given by J. Ioannidis under the tile “Why Most Published Research Findings are False.”,f1000m,isrctn

The growth of the web log on the Internet and its impact on the older peer review process is the subject of much current discussion. It would seem by now to be scientifically imprudent to rely on the publication/peer review process as the main indicator of quality; high quality blogs are making a niche.

These examples indicate that there is interest in the early identification and proper treatment of emergent science. I wish to put this in context with the AAS publication “The Science of Climate Change” of August 2010 at

By late 2010, the “Establishment” view of climate science that was reproduced by the AAS was undergoing critical examination by many scientists whose findings were often at odds with the Establishment view. This emergent science was in easy view, but it was given scarce a mention by the AAS.

The AAS publication can be regarded as setting the stage for yet another suppression of emergent science. An optimistic and experienced scientist might hope that bodies like the AAS have devised methods and safeguards that assist in the recognition of valuable emergent science, whether it accords with the Establishment view or not. (Indeed, there is a high probability that valuable new science starts from a minority position).

The purpose of this letter is simple. It asks whether the AAS has a series of checks and balances that are used to assess emergent science; what they are; and whether they were used prior to issue of the 2010 report “The Science of Climate Change”.

Kind regards

Jun 8, 2011 at 11:28 AM | Unregistered CommenterGeoff Sherrington

I think the strength of confirmation bias depends how close to an issue you are. The Greens are the last people to trust with analysis of an environmental problem, they are just incapable of using dispassionate reason. Equally, there is no chance of Bob Ward ever changing his mind on this issue, nor Mann whose career is defined by it.

Despite the ludicrous alarmist projection that sceptics are all right-wing and funded by oil, many as evidenced here are just intelligent laymen who have started out as believers or at least neutral observers and been unconvinced by the "science". They ARE capable of a change in stance.

The most perplexing cases to me are Singh and Goldacre who have made their names exposing Bad Science yet just avert their gaze on AGW. Fascinating.

Whilst we all fall for confirmation bias to varying degrees I think it helps to first be aware of your own bias and then have a defence mechansim in place to minimise it:

1. What biases did I personally bring to the debate? A deep distrust of overuse of computer models (from work experience). Worn down by failed "doom and gloom" Malthusian predictions.
2. "What would change my mind?". Real evidence that the many forecasts are sufficiently "skilful" (not hindcasting which to my mind is just dial tweaking). Not at all likely to happen in my view but possible.

It is interesting that it was a similar question which floored ZDB on the other thread. What would falsify the AGW hypothesis? Answer was there none, suggesting he is incapable of having his mind changed.

I read an excellent similar book last year with some scary real life examples:

"Mistakes were made (but not by me)" Carol Tavris.

If you are arrested by the police and they think you're out. Their game will then be to find evidence to prove it rather than assess all the evidence to find the truth.

Good thread and interesting subject.

Jun 8, 2011 at 12:21 PM | Unregistered CommenterSimonW

I not sure I agree entirely with the analyses that we are all victims of our own prejudice in judging evidence that doesn't support our "faith". Some of us are simply constructed thusly that we cannot "believe" in anything that doesn't have a solid empirical basis (a Popperian world-view, if you will). We all want to follow the herd at some level, and therefore expose ourselves to the same beliefs as our peers, hoping they will latch on to our own world-view.

As a child I was deeply fascinated by religious dogma (as presented to a young child). But try as I might I could never accept the doctrine. In fact, I concluded as a 7-year old that it was all bunk, and still is.
But I was still desperately searching for proof of this wonderful, promised afterlife, and was very open to any actual evidence of either gods or souls. Still am, sort of...

The same thing applies to AGW. At some level we all want to believe what others around us believe, particularly when it comes to "moral" questions of saving the planet etc., lest we be castigated and excommunicated by our peers.

So at least for me, as I die-hard denier of the non-science emanating from The Team, I have the opposite bias described in the post: I am desperately searching for evidence of AGW, but since there is none, I remain unenlightened on the lithurgi.

I fear I shall remain in the dark, until the light moves to the side where actual evidence resides.

Jun 8, 2011 at 12:50 PM | Unregistered CommenterChris Torgersen

As a country bumpkin, I gew up with gardening, farming sailing etc, living in an area more likely than most to suffer the consequences of winter weather.

Snowball earth, UHI, LIA, MWP, conservation and ecology were part of my education.

Scuba diving and marine biology were my hobbies, along with the latest David Attenbrough series on the BBC. In my teens I did voluntary work for the WWF, believing I was doing my bit to preserve rare habitats

Through the 90's I could see for myself subtle changes in the weather, that matched the predictions.

In the noughties, I started to see the political hijacking of the theory, and realised any comment I made was treated as heresy, and learnt to keep my gob shut, until 2006, when I realised I was not a lone voice.

I was working abroad, and out of contact in 2008 when the Climate Change Act came in, and returned as the economic meltdown was in full flow.

I am interested in history, associated with exploration by sailing ships, the NWP etc, all independent corroboration of the MWP and LIA.

So I was aware of technical questions about the Hockey Stick prior to Climategate, but had not done much background research of my own.

I have qualifications in surveying and engineering, but I am basically a troubleshooter. Something is beleived to be wrong, fix it. If something breaks, when the textbooks say it should not, maybe the text books are wrong.

I came to suspect that something was broken about climate science. Then Climategate confirmed it.

Jun 8, 2011 at 12:56 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charley

I'll reiterate a theme repeated many times above. Since CAGW was presented as a virtual fait accompli, an established wisdom and belief, the ensuing process has sifted out those with the most control over their confirmation biases, and we have become skeptic.

Further evidence that the skeptic side is less subject to confirmation bias is that each individual skeptic has their own belief about the climate and is cognizant that that belief is only held by them. As a consequence, what they hold as a belief, and unconsciously seek to confirm, is a lonely conceit, and not the religious madness of a herd on the run. Thus, their confirmation biases have little chance for feedback and amplification.

There it is. That's why the alarmist believers will run themselves over a cliff in a panic, and we cautious skeptics will survey the tragedy in bewilderment, but safety.

Jun 8, 2011 at 1:21 PM | Unregistered Commenterkim

I saw from about 40 years ago, working in the nuclear industry ("The China Syndrome" etc) that environmental groups such as FoE and Greenpeace were anti-nuclear for some reason which was not apparent to a normal person. It was impossible to reason with such people and their domatic views held with a religious fervour. Over the years I have seen first hand their violent opposition to nuclear power. They always had a compliant media on their side, but no scientific facts. I came to associate anything organisations such as FoE, Greenpeace and WWF said was likely to be the opposite to the truth. So when I saw their support for man-made climate change, I realised it had to be Bovines Scatology. Is it confirmation bias to associate those groups with falsehoods?

Jun 8, 2011 at 1:31 PM | Unregistered CommenterPhillip Bratby

Higher level biases also operate, giving rise to biases on particular issues. I had a high level bias toward whatever the scientific authorities appeared to say was true, as they had been the most trustworthy source in my experience. This meant that I instinctively sided with the scientific authorities on issues I didn't take special care to scrutinize, such as cAGW and the link between saturated fat and heart disease. This bias allowed perfidious science to mimic trustworthy science, simply by being asseverated by the scientific authorities. The error was partly due to seeing science as a unified endeavour, where trust in one field could be transferred to trust in another. I now try to keep my beliefs neutral until I have examined the issue more closely. Global warming is such a central issue that it's impossible to remain neutral, however, which makes the public's biases and higher level biases of critical importance, as these will be what most people rely upon.

Jun 8, 2011 at 1:32 PM | Unregistered CommenterLemniscate


You might be interested in this and this

They are both responses to FOI requests to Norfolk Police. The first is dated November 2010 and is a request for the number of copies of "The Hockey Stick Illusion" and the "The Climate Files" that Norfolk Police have purchased and the second, dated August 2010, is the same but only requesting information about "The Hockey Stick Illusion".

The answer to both requests was 0 (zero). I've no idea who submitted the requests but it is interesting to browse all the responses Norfolk Police have given (

Jun 8, 2011 at 1:44 PM | Unregistered CommenterTerryS

One way of dealing with this problem is to form multiple hypotheses and collect evidence for both.

The article, originally written for geology, was reprinted by the Institute for Humane Studies to help young scholars consider the Austrian school of economics without having to initially reject mainstream economic views and training.

The Method of Multiple Working Hypotheses

With this method the dangers of parental
affection for a favorite theory can be circumvented.

by T. C. Chamberlin

Jun 8, 2011 at 1:47 PM | Unregistered CommenterGreg Rehmke

Tis true that "Birds of a feather flock together". The greatest danger of self-analysis is, likewise, that you generally end up confusing yourself and thinking that you need to pay a professional shrink to tell you how to think. Another, the more people there are in your neighborhood, the more confusing and aggrivating life gets. This book is well titled but nearly misses the basic point of the original, biblical story: "Be not too proud!"

Jun 8, 2011 at 2:45 PM | Unregistered CommenterPascvaks

Some great responses -- many thanks.


Jun 8, 2011 at 3:00 PM | Unregistered CommenterMatt Ridley

I had my epiphany to reality many years ago in London. I happened to pick up a funny looking newspaper in the lobby of my hotel -- it was printed on salmon colored paper. It was the Financial Times and for the first time I was reading facts about the stories of the day.

Fascinated, I asked a British friend about the FT reports and he said "I hope you don't believe anything in the other papers -- they are all biased. FT is read by money men and they have to know the real story, so FT publishes it."

Sadly, over the last 30 years, FT has fallen into the same quagmire as the other news reporting organizations, but I learned a lesson from the experience. I use the internet to do my reading today, going from one country to the next to read their version of the same story. Fascinating experience.

I use BH as one of my news stops each morning as I sit by my computer wandering from place to place. I find blogs a great source of information, but information that needs to be carefully screened for reality. Generally, with a few notable exceptions, people posting here try to be objective, or at least as objective as possible.

Jun 8, 2011 at 3:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterDon Pablo de la Sierra

@j "I don't e.g. agree with Turning Tide that the fact that CO2 concentrations are low means ipso facto that it is irrelevant."

Sorry: I wasn't clear - that wasn't what I meant to imply.

I meant to say that the warmist side appears to try to keep the actual amount of CO2 (a small fraction of an already small fraction) quiet precisely BECAUSE laypeople would go "huh? It's only a little bit. It can't possibly be causing a problem."

That is to say, rather than attempting to educate and inform the public, warmists have opted to scare people with lurid tales of humankind "pumping out" "megatons" of carbon, making the temperature "soar", which makes it sound as though human CO2 emissions dwarf natural ones when in reality the opposite is the case. Even that recent TV programme with Nurse had a NASA scientist suggesting that humans produce seven times as much CO2 as natural sources. This is at best misleading and at worst downright dishonest. The fact that warmists resort to this sort of tricksy behaviour makes me believe they have less confidence in their case than they'd like us to think.

Jun 8, 2011 at 3:11 PM | Unregistered CommenterTurning Tide

I think there is much truth in this.

It is, I believe, evident in the UEA enquiries which failed (no doubt intentionally) to examine any witnesses who submitted evidence that challenged the conclusions they (the UEA) wished to reach or indeed to consider the many points made in written evidence. Lord Oxburgh openly stated that his enquiry did not examine the science behind the global warming hypothesis - effectively dodging the real issue.

I also find that dodging the question posed is an established practice of Mr Huhne. It is clearly evident in the non replies (waffle would be a better description) he makes in response to my questions put to him via my MP.

Jun 8, 2011 at 3:22 PM | Unregistered Commenteroldtimer

I'm with James P in his admiration of His Grace's remarkable "Caspar and the Jesus Paper". I cannot now recall what led me to read it as I was not in any way a sceptic looking for confirmation of any existing biasses, and simply stumbled on the Bishop Hill blog while wandering blindly around the 'net. I am, however, something of an argumentative auld phart with a long-standing weakness of being compelled to search for any "on the other hand" arguments whenever I'm confronted with religious dogma. So, being heartily sickened by the irrational rants of the likes of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, I was pleasantly surprised to see that there were sane people out there with the courage to challenge such BS with rational analysis.

"Caspar and the Jesus Paper" was the beginning of my conversion to full on CAGW scepticism.

Jun 8, 2011 at 3:27 PM | Unregistered CommenterMique

I assume this book builds on Tetlock's work on the pathetic record of expert's making predictions -- i.e. they are as good as a chimp throwing darts. Anyone who regularly deals with "experts" knows this or should.

I can't say I ever believed in the Algore doom and gloom. World history is full to the brim with similar idiocies. Well-educated experts enamored with their own IQ, bereft of wisdom, overwhelmed by hubris, and determined to visit their pretentiousness on the rest of the world have been a curse for eons.

I have no doubt that I am as guilty of confirmation bias as most. The key is how we handle it. Wisdom teaches us to be vigilant to our potential for error, shy about making declarations of certainty, and even more careful about imposing "solutions" on others.

I look forward to the day when alarmists approach science with the same attitude.

Jun 8, 2011 at 4:31 PM | Unregistered Commenterstan

I am reading Future Babble now, and have a couple of other passages that resonated with IPCC scientists' behavior-

page 62- On historian Arnold Toynbee-

"In fact, wherever we look, it is the same. Theories are stated- often interesting and suggestive theories; then facts are selected to illustrate them (for there is no theory which some chosen facts cannot illustrate); then the magician waves his wand, our minds are dazed with a mass of learned detail, and we are told that the theories are 'empirically' proved by the facts and we can now go on to the next stage in the argument. But in truth this is neither empiricism nor proof, nor even argument; it is a game anyone can play, a confusion of logic with speculation."

page 111- On 'Scenarios'

"The consultants who offer scenario-planning services are understandably bullish, but ask them for evidence and they typically point to examples of scenarios that accurately foreshadowed the future. That is silly, frankly. For one thing, it contradicts their claim that scenarios are not predictions and shouldn't be judged as predictions. Judge them as predictions and all the misses would have to be considered, and the misses vastly outnumber the hits. Its also absurd because, given the number of scenarios churned out in a planning exercise, it is inevitable that some scenarios will 'predict' the future for no reason other than chance."

page 175- On Paul Ehrlich's and John Holdren's predictions of 1980's - 2000's doom-

"It seems we take predictions very seriously, until they don't pan out. Then they're trivia."

page 164- On Ehrlich's rise to rock star status-

"Be articulate, enthusiastic, and authoritative. Be likable. See things through a single analytical lens and craft an explanatory story that is simple, clear, conclusive and compelling. Do not doubt yourself. Do not acknowledge mistakes. And never, ever say, "I don't know." People unsure of the future want to hear from confident experts who tell a good story, and Paul Ehrlich was among the very best.

The fact that his predictions were mostly wrong didn't change that in the slightest."

Future Babble is a must-read, on par with Montford's gem.

Jun 8, 2011 at 4:42 PM | Unregistered Commenterchris y

From the Ecclesiastical Uncle, an old retired bureaucrat in a field only remotely related to climate, with minimal qualifications and only half a mind.

Very interesting, let’s see:

Once we form a belief, for any reason, good or bad, rational or bonkers, we will eagerly seek out information that supports it, while not bothering to look for information that doesn’t – and if we are unavoidably confronted with information that does not fit, we will be hyper-critical of it, looking for any excuse to dismiss it as worthless. P84

Forming beliefs of the sort this quote probably wants us to think about is not good practice for a bureaucrat because the governance system (elections, etc) throws all sorts of masters with different beliefs at him and requires him to serve them all, (The virtue of an impartial civil service), so the assumption behind this question – that I form a belief – would, in the past, have implied a failure. However, of course, work habits do not entirely dominate life and I do admit that I have come by beliefs. and am aware that I hold forth on them in no uncertain terms. I think, however, that, in the bureaucrat’s way, I do so to provoke discussion as much as to impose my opinion. And recently, I bought a book guaranteed to contain views I would disagree with in order, I thought to myself, to find out what the opposition’s reasoning was.
So I am not sure.

We all enjoy having our beliefs confirmed after all. And it shows that we too are informed people. But dispute that belief and the same psychology works against you. You are risking saying goodbye to your client and your reputation. Following the herd is usually the safer bet. P 109.

Following the previous extract, I hope I aspire to confining my beliefs to very basic issues like God, integrity, life and death, but have to admit to such bigotry in respect of these matters that I avoid discussing them. But these are not issues that can be confirmed – they are matters of faith. Use of the words ‘your client’ is interesting - what does that make me, a consultant of some kind? In my experience, consultants have to balance best advice to their clients with the demands of their direct employers. They follow whichever of the two is the more powerful, rather than the herd. Also I do not remember actually following a herd since school, and I rather think it is the sort of habit people grow out of.
And, reference the first sentence, if you are wallowing in a sea of doubt, too much confirmation of weakly held beliefs is simply unhelpful.

Contrarians ... are almost always outsiders, which is not a coincidence. They don’t have a seat at the table so they aren’t subject to the social pressures identified by Asch and other psychologists. P 109.

Exactly, I think. Who is Asch? Vive le Bureaucracy!

Genuinely imaginary attempts to portray change – including scenario planning – may help pull us out of that rut but they may also cause to us to develop an unrealistic sense of how likely those imaginative futures really are. And all the while, no matter what happens, we are convinced we are right. P 115

This observation will be unrealistic for most readers of this blog who will, I imagine, aspire to a scientific approach. We will mostly be aware that scenario plans will be assailed by a host of unforeseens and not confident about them at all.

Having settled on a belief, we naturally subject evidence that contradicts the belief to harsh critical scrutiny or ignore such evidence altogether. At the same time we lower our standards when we examine supportive evidence so that even weak evidence is accepted as powerful proof. P 204.

Gosh, I hope not! However, I have to admit to difficulty in reading the book with disagreeable views. (First section above) So it is probably a little bit true that I ignore contradictory evidence. Also, I would think that for most people the severity of scrutiny of evidence depends upon the importance of the conclusion rather than the immediate appeal of the evidence.

It should be obvious that being skeptical about a prediction does not render people unable to make a decision, it just makes them cautious. This is not a bad thing, and, indeed, in some circumstances, it can be a very good thing. P 247

In the context of this blog, I would think this generality is meant to refer to the particular case of Climate Science. Here, predictions depend upon scientific matters the majority of which are not understood. So they are worthless. Caution is the only virtue in this business.

Doubt is the hallmark of the fox. P 254 [foxes, who are open to wider sources of evidence, are more accurate forecasters than hedgehogs, who adhere to one big idea.]

This, I suppose, is the definition of a ‘fox’ for the next extract.

"Foxes"’... are modest about their ability forecast the future, comfortable with uncertainty, and very self-critical. P 255.

Good Oh!

Jun 8, 2011 at 4:53 PM | Unregistered CommenterEcclesiastical Uncle

After a lifetime in the Royal Air Force and then IBM, where, in the former, sceptics were considered 'bolshie'; and in the latter, 'project managers', I learned a valuable lesson (more courtesy of IBM): Get to know the difference between 'goals', 'targets' and 'aims'.

I won't insult intelligences with the nature of the first two, but it is often the case that they are confused with the third. That is a mistake. And in order to figure out the difference, a guy called Coverdale came up with the method of how to define an 'aim': Ask 'why?' - to the seventh.

I'm a sceptic because science hasn't even answered 'why?' cubed; and the warming zealots can't get off first base (so to speak). The thing is, I figure the zealots believe CAGW no matter what the science says, they just want it to give them the excuse to control us, and that is where 'why?' to the seventh comes in: why do they want to do that, what is their 'aim'?

Jun 8, 2011 at 6:13 PM | Unregistered CommenterSnotrocket

When Al Gore's movie played at a local theatre. I became a sceptic as soon as I looked up and read the marquee stating: "An Inconvenient Truth." The title begs the question; the propaganda had begun before I could enter the theatre. I went elsewhere.

My son later directed me to Solar Cycle 24, an excellent technical blog. There, I rapidly found WUWT, Climate Audit and "Real" Climate. The latter was such a vile fen of hysterical invective and shrill repetition that I returned fewer than a half dozen times since. Climate Audit is technically excellent, WUWT very sane and open to opinion; I'm a daily visitor to both sites.

But Bishop Hill is more entertaining than all the rest, with the most incisive commenters and an amusing troll for court jester, one funnier than even Mr. Al "Million Degrees" Gore, who first made me a sceptic.

Jun 8, 2011 at 6:35 PM | Unregistered Commenterjorgekafkazar

A good discussion.

But I remembered another point, after I had shut down my computer this morning.

A trifle, by itself. But something that we need to keep pointing out. Even if only to ourselves.

Those commenting on here (with at least one exception - bless her little cotton socks) aren't the ones who want to throw cheap and reliable energy under a bus. And we aren't the ones proposing spending Billions that we don't have on "solutions" that don't work.

OK, that's no surprise to anyone.

This is not an excuse for concentrating more on opinions reinforcing our own, rather than taking the likes of Moonbat and Meltdown Mann seriously.

But it's a damned good point in mitigation.

Jun 8, 2011 at 8:17 PM | Unregistered CommenterMartin Brumby

There is a very big difference in moving from an *understanding* than from a *belief* toward a sceptical viewpoint. I have an understanding, for instance, that modern medicine has the best chance of fixing an ailment, as evidenced in part by rising life expectancy, where it is practised. I may be proved wrong but am not ill so there is no urgency to investigate.

Similarly, I had an understanding that climate could be changed by the actions of mankind until presented with a claim that was, and remains, factually incorrect. I have no belief to reinforce, no axe to grind but there is an urgency due to external (societal) pressure to believe. And I do mean believe because on this subject, I can find no understanding.

Jun 8, 2011 at 8:52 PM | Unregistered Commentersimpleseekeraftertruth


Your description of lukewarmerism gave me a good chuckle.

Jun 8, 2011 at 8:55 PM | Unregistered CommenterBart Verheggen


why do they want to do that, what is their 'aim'?

That, sir, is the important question and because I have no answer, I can only assume a totalitarian agenda, witness the 10:10 video and the WGBU report discussed a few days ago.

Jun 8, 2011 at 9:02 PM | Unregistered CommenterDon Pablo de la Sierra


Meltdown Mann: a fake originally linked to the Medieval Warm Period?

Jun 8, 2011 at 9:03 PM | Unregistered Commentersimpleseekeraftertruth

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