Trust the experts — if they say what we want

By Ken Perrott 23/09/2010

Scientific American has a short podcast on confirmation bias.  (Download the podcast) It especially relates to trusting experts in areas like climate change.

Christie Nicholson points out (see We Only Trust Experts If They Agree With Us):

We think we trust experts. But a new study finds that what really influences our opinions, more than listening to any expert, is our own beliefs.

Researchers told study subjects about a scientific expert who accepted climate change as real. Subjects who thought that commerce can be environmentally damaging were ready to accept the scientist as an expert. But those who came into the study believing that economic activity could not hurt the environment were 70 percent less likely to accept that the scientist really was an expert.

Then the researchers flipped the situation. They told different subjects that the same hypothetical scientist, with the same accreditation, was skeptical of climate change. Now those who thought that economic activity cannot harm the environment accepted the expert, and the other group was 50 percent less likely to believe in his expertise. The study was published in the Journal of Risk Research.

The investigators found similar results for various other issues, from nuclear waste disposal to gun control. Said one of the authors, ’People tend to keep a biased score of what experts believe, counting a scientist as an ‘expert’ only when that scientist agrees with the position they find culturally congenial.”

So true. And I believe perfectly natural. Confirmation bias is a human trait that has to be overcome in science. Fortunately the requirement for validating ideas against reality and the social nature of scientific research helps this.

Why the beliefs?

The questions is – why do we have these beliefs? Perhaps we can understand their origins in areas like politics, religion and support for sport teams – often these beliefs are hereditary. But climate change is a different issue.

I think that a lot of the resistance to scientific knowledge on climate change come out of the nature of the problems and our psychological response to such situations. The problems seem so immense and long term it is tempting to adopt avoidance techniques.  Out psychological reactions to the problems caused by human influences on climate change seem to parallel our psychological handling of grief. We have reactions of anger, denial, selection of evidence, etc. Hopefully humanity as a who can reach the stages of acceptance and action before it is too late.

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