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Confirmation bias and its dangers

October 10, 2013
By JEREMIE FISH , Adirondack Daily Enterprise

We are all guilty of it, even yours truly. What exactly is confirmation bias? It is when you cherry-pick facts to uphold a pre-held belief. Perhaps it has become magnified by the information-rich society that we live in.

Now that we live in a time called the information revolution, it is not hard to find "facts" out there that verify what you believe. The problem is that often times these are not even facts at all, rather just stated opinions or downright lies. Unfortunately, even facts can be twisted into something that isn't true.

Take for instance the famous (or perhaps infamous) hockey-stick graph.

Article Photos

This hockey-stick graph shows a sharp rise in temperature in the last 50 years or so, from the roughly flat temperature of the last 500 to 1,000 years.
(Image from Wikipedia)

In the hockey-stick graph you can clearly see a sharp rise in temperature in the last 50 years or so, from the roughly flat temperature of the last 500 to 1000 years.

Of course, this graph has caused a lot of controversy, yet it is a very simple plot of temperature vs. time. Clearly we are going through an incredibly fast global warming, in fact the fastest rise in the average temperature ever seen, yet people who do not want to feel responsible (and, of course, oil companies and the like) find ways around drawing the conclusion that it must be humans causing the warm-up.

Scientists themselves are, of course, human as well and also suffer from confirmation bias. Take the curious case of N-rays. I am sure that probably most people have never heard of N-rays, since they don't truly exist, yet for several years French journals published on their existence. It was a time when X-rays had just been discovered and many scientific advances were being made in other countries. Prosper-Rene Blondlot, a French scientist, noted that he could see a corona of light around a crystal. It could only be seen by the human eye, but he excitedly named this new phenomena N-rays and set out to study them.

Initially there was excitement and an American scientist, Robert Wood, visited Blandlot's lab to observe the phenomenon. While watching, Wood decided to remove the crystal and the light continued, the "corona" was still there from the light source. Of course, this killed off any hope that N-rays existed, but Blandlot ignored this fact and continued his research, hoping to confirm the existence of N-rays.

Fortunately there is a sort of system of checks and balances in the science community that helps to weed out the iffy facts eventually. There is no such balance in the political community, as we have seen through recent developments. When people formulate an opinion on something, they either don't check any facts at all, or they only search for facts confirming their opinion while ignoring facts that work in the negative to their opinion.

Of course, this is to uphold a belief that many of us have in our own superior intellect. Instead of believing that other people may have a good point as well, we just view them as below us intellectually; our opinion is the one truly correct one. This is painful to say because I have found myself doing these kinds of things as well.

We have already seen the dangerous effects of confirmation bias, a government shutdown for one. Also a denial of the fact that climate change is real - instead of preparing for climate change, we pretend it is not happening and allow people to die unprepared for massive floods (such as those in Colorodo) and forest fires and heat waves, all that are occurring more frequently.

Keep this in mind the next time you are formulating an opinion. I know I sure will.


Jeremie Fish is a Wilmington resident and a Clarkson University graduate student.

(Editor's note: Jeremie Fish has said that this will be his final column due to the heavy workload of his graduate studies.)



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