Confirmation bias colors our world view, including weather
We’ve seen a change recently with some of the major weather events that we’ve seen over the last few years. I think that even some of the farm groups are coming around to believe that something is happening and that we probably better think about adapting.” So said J. Arbuckle, a sociologist at Iowa State University in an interview with Harvest Media, part of a National Public Radio confederation of rural and agriculture reporters.
Arbuckle was commenting on a recent Iowa State survey of farmers and rural residents. The poll included questions about climate change. Interestingly, of those polled, just 10 percent of farmers believed climate change is caused mostly by humans, which according to the Harvest Media report is an anomaly. It noted: “even though [climate change being caused by humans] is the consensus in the scientific community.”
It isn’t surprising that the farmers among us look at weather differently than the rest of the public. The average age of those 1,000 Iowa farmers surveyed was 65. And if they are still farming, they’ve been at it a while. That means, on average, they were born in 1946, a few years ahead of the blistering droughts of the early 1950s. In their farming careers, they went on to witness crop-stunting droughts in the decades after, including that doozy of a spell between 1987 and 1988. When the tallies were rounded up, that drought was figured to cost some $39 billion in damages due to crop loss, energy and water costs and damage to ecosystems.
Farmers who remember these droughts filed them away mentally as bad years. Maybe they based the decision of future land and crop management on some of the troubles they encountered. Maybe they bought an irrigator. Adaptation, indeed. But certainly, they remember. How many farmers associate important dates with what the weather was like in a particular year? In my family, it’s too much water that is recalled on important dates. My year of birth—too wet to get the crops in. My brother’s wedding: floods on the Missouri.
Farmers have made note of extreme weather since farming began, and, even if it isn’t recorded scientifically, it’s cataloged for wisdom and helps form a world view only earned from a profession that is man-against-nature every year.
That year-to-year and daily study of weather helps insulate farmers’ opinions about climate change. Even when they can’t get a crop planted due to wet weather or corn is burning up in July, farmers remember it the other way around, too. Because they’ve seen it the other way around, they know better than to stake much certainty on what’s coming next.
Such thinking insulates them from making statements such as the reporter from Harvest Media who wrote, “Still, only 10 percent of farmers said they believe climate change is caused mostly by human activities, even though that is the consensus in the scientific community.”
For a host of reasons, scientific consensus about climate change has fractured. Or, more accurately, some voices of dissent are now being heard above the din of press releases and prognostication from groups like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
One of those voices, UK author, Matt Ridley, recently delivered a speech in which he calls himself a scientific heretic for pointing out gaps in the “consensus.” It’s worth reading in full. Find it here: http://bit.ly/shaBIE.
Ridley centers his arguments on confirmation bias. In simple terms, confirmation bias is a phenomenon where researchers, or decision makers in general, actively seek out and assign more weight to evidence that confirms their hypothesis. Or, they ignore or undervalue evidence that could disprove their hypothesis.
Ridley’s speech does a good job exposing confirmation bias among the scientists of the IPCC, where consensus spread from some questionably objective measures of historic climate right across to the reporting we hear still today about climate change.
Ridley calls himself a scientific heretic not because he doesn’t believe the climate is changing—he does. He calls himself a heretic because he doesn’t believe empirical evidence shows that climate change is dangerous to humans. He says he is a special heretic among the sort of people who make up the IPCC because he believes that a misguided (even dishonest) consensus that forms and enforces wide-ranging policy is dangerous.
Ridley catalogs a great many policies that have cost taxpayers dearly while not delivering any discernible public good.
So what does it matter if we chase policy in the wrong direction due to pseudoscience? What if it’s Ridley and his lot that have the confirmation bias?
Ridley tells us: “The alarmists have been handed power over our lives. The heretics haven’t.” Farmers know that. If it’s dry next spring, they’ll plant those crops a little deeper. It’s all they can do. Might as well adapt. No use in complaining about the weather.