Wretchard on “confirmation bias” in science

“Wretchard” of yore, a.k.a. Richard Fernandez, has a priceless article on “confirmation bias” in science, with special reference to ClimateGate He heavily quotes a piece in The Atlantic by “Jane Galt” of yore, a.k.a. Megan McArdle. The article is named “rocket man”, after the Elton John song that includes the lyrics “And all this science I don’t understand/It’s just my job eight days a week”.

Confirmation bias “is a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions, leading to statistical errors.” A classic example of confirmation bias was described by Richard Feynman:

Millikan measured the charge on an electron by an experiment with falling oil drops, and got an answer which we now know not to be quite right. It’s a little bit off, because he had the incorrect value for the viscosity of air. It’s interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of the electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bigger than Millikan’s, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher.

Why didn’t they discover that the new number was higher right away? It’s a thing that scientists are ashamed of–this history–because it’s apparent that people did things like this: When they got a number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something must be wrong–and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number closer to Millikan’s value they didn’t look so hard. And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that.

The following Feynman quote should be above the desk of every applied scientist, engineer, or R&D manager: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

Megan McArdle got the following Email that speaks for itself (quoted in full in Wretchard’s piece):


With respect, you’re setting up a strawman. None of the scientists who have “come out” as climate skeptics allege a massive conspiracy by scientists, any more than there is a massive liberal conspiracy in Hollywood. What you have is a self-emergent, self-organizing bias. I hope I can illustrate it briefly.

I work in academic science (check my IP address if you wish). Scientists are, in general, uncompromising idealists for objective, physical truth. But occasionally, politics encroaches. Most of my work is funded by DoE, DoD, ONR, and a few big companies. We get the grants, because we are simply the best in the field. But we don’t work in isolation. We work as part of a department, which has equipment, lab space, and maintenance staff, IT, et cetera. We have a system for the strict partition of unclassified/classified research through collaboration with government labs. The department had set a research policy and infrastructure goal to attract defense funding, and it worked.

The same is true in climate science. Universities and departments have set policies to attract climate science funding. Climate science centers don’t spontaneously spring into existence – they were created, in increasingly rapid numbers, to partake in the funding bonanza that is AGW. This by itself is not political – currently, universities are scrambling to set up “clean energy” and “sustainable technology” centers. Before it was bio-tech and nanotechnology. But because AGW-funding is politically motivated, departments have adroitly set their research goals to match the political goals of their funding sources. Just look at the mission statements of these climate research institutes – they don’t seek to investigate the scientific validity or soundness of AGW-theory, they assume that it is true, and seek to research the implications or consequences of it.

This filters through every level. Having created such a department, they must fill it with faculty that will carry out their mission statement. The department will hire professors who already believe in AGW and conduct research based on that premise. Those professors will hire students that will conduct their research without much fuss about AGW. And honestly, if you know anything about my generation, we will do or say whatever it is we think we’re supposed to do or say. There is no conspiracy, just a slightly cozy, unthinking myopia. Don’t rock the boat.

The former editor of the New Scientist, Nigel Calder, said it best – if you want funding to study the feeding habits of squirrels, you won’t get it. If you wants to study the effects of climate change on the feeding habits of squirrels, you will. [Emphasis mine — NCT] And so in these subtle ways, there is a gravitational pull towards the AGW monolith.

I think it the most damning evidence for this soft tyranny is in the work of climate scientists whose scientific integrity has led them to publish results that clearly contradict basic assumptions in AGW modeling. Yet, in their papers, they are very careful to skirt around the issue, keeping their heads down, describing their results in a way obfuscates the contradiction. They will describe their results as an individual case, with no greater implications, and issue reassuring boilerplate statements about how AGW is true anyways.

For the field as a whole, it’s not a conspiracy. It’s the unfortunate consequence of having a field totally dominated by politically-motivated, strings-attached money. In the case of the CRU email group, well, the emails speak for themselves. Call it whatever you want.

I call it scientists being “human, all too human”.


2 thoughts on “Wretchard on “confirmation bias” in science

  1. In past decades, the exact same sort of institutional bias crept into and eventually came to dominate anthropology departments. You could only get grants and fellowships to “study” topics that confirmed the new PC bias, and would be shunned and de-funded if you rocked the boat with an inconvenient thesis or fact.

    The study of cannibalism, for example, went from being a standard anthropological topic to something that was absolutely forbidden — unless you were trying to prove that cannibalism doesn’t exist. For over a century, European and American (mostly white) anthropologists reported back field studies about cannibalism in “primitive” tribes. Starting in the ’70s, it became unkosher to call them “primitive,” and little by little it become unkosher to even admit they practiced cannibalism. By the ’80s, a new theory arose: That tales of cannibalism were merely a racist fantasy concocted by white anthropologists to reaffirm the inferiority of the “brown peoples” they were studying.

    By the ’90s, if you wanted to study cannibalism, you would necessarily be relegated to studying the racist attitude of your predecessors which led to the racist tall tale that cannibalism even existed.

    Problem is — it was all PC gobbledygook. The facts didn’t match the new theory. Because there was (and is) overwhelming evidence that cannibalism existed (at least until very recently when civilization has encroached just about everywhere and there’s no such thing as an “isolated tribe” any more).

    But somehow the “scientists” (if anthropologists classify as such) managed to live with this cognitive dissonance, because to step out of line would get you shunned, ensure you would never get published, make you lose funding for projects and graduate assistants, etc. So very few people dared to contradict the new orthodoxy.

    Like the letter-writer says, it’s not exactly a “conspiracy” per se, but rather a new paradigm which social pressures enforce.

    What’s shocking to see is that this whole framework has taken over a branch of the hard sciences as well (i.e. climatology). We expect it in the “liberal arts”; but hard science is supposed to be above the political fray.

    No longer.

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