Cognitive bias in the climate change debate

It would be irresponsible of our team to remain silent on key social issues when we have hundreds of thousands millions of loyal fans who cry for our intellectual and ethical leadership. Who are we to ignore our responsibility to our followers? Do not fear; will be publishing editorials on issues that we find important, starting with climate change.

Each of us are, to varying degrees, prisoners of bias and heuristics. They unconsciously cloud our judgement and emotive issues such as climate change are highly prone to these distorting (yet necessary) dynamics. However, there is some hope. Metacognative awareness is a powerful tool in the pursuit of objectively understanding some of the issues surrounding climate change and the related matter of media ownership in Australia. Let’s explore some of the key issues in the debate.

First, it is only natural to concurrently overestimate the prevalence of our personal opinions in society while underestimating the prevalence of beliefs that conflict with our own. It’s called the false-consensus effect. Look at this excellent 2011 paper on public perceptions of climate change by the CSIRO, which reveals that just over 7% of Australians believe that climate change isn’t happening at all. Yet that same 7% believe that almost 48% of the population agree with them. This is the false-consensus effect in action. Now comes the interesting part. You would subsequently think that climate change believers would also overestimate how many people agree with them, right?

Wrong. They actually underestimated how prevalent their own views were, while grossly overestimating the prevalence of the disbelievers by a factor of three. Why?

The answer: The media and its effect on public discourse.

The problem with ‘balanced’ media coverage is that it generates a false debate, giving both believers and disbelievers an undeserved equality of legitimacy and perception of prevalence. While acknowledging that the free flow of information is a fundamental prerequisite of participatory democracy, putting both sides of the debate on an equal footing is simply bias masquerading as balance. Andrew Bolt and Christopher Monckton are obvious examples, with both garnering attention that far exceeds that of the 97% of the scientific community who disagree with them, or of the probability of their contributing anything rationally or empirically meaningful to the debate. Worrying about the ability of special interest groups to peddle demonstrably flawed and potentially harmful opinion (which seeks to impersonate scientific fact) is hardly 1984.

Free-speech proponents and disbelievers alike will cry foul over this claim. In response, I would argue that the potential for a Rinehart/Murdoch media duopoly forces a fundamental re-examination of the underlying checks and balances of free speech theory. Journalistic and editorial impartiality is clearly threatened by special interest control of the “volume” at which voices are heard, which in turn undermines any chance of an informed citizenry. Besides which, not one country on earth guarantees unlimited free speech; the ICCPR states that “exercise of the rights…carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions…”

Political cynics smugly dismiss the very notion of an informed electorate, citing the effectiveness of the lowest common denominator approach to public education as proof of the voters taste for simplicity over understanding. At the risk of idealism, their cynicism conceals their finite future. The democratisation of information, courtesy of the internet, continues to generate an awakening of public consciousness, supported by highly agile information-delivery entrepreneurs. Market forces work quickly online, with Google analytics acting as the ultimate Darwinian arbitrator of the internet. Increased global computer literacy and access makes information consumers similarly agile, allowing near instantaneous uptake and rejection of online sources in a close-to-true market environment. Tasks that were once the sole domain of the state or business are being taken up by individuals or outcome/task focused groups, co-ordinated via message boards. In a different but relevant sphere, look at this to see how open-source information is being collectively analysed by hives of non-state experts for the purpose of defence transparency.

In spite of this, poor science literacy remains the single greatest impediment to rational opinion formation in this debate (note: rational in a evidence based empirical sense, as disconnected from the political as is possible). The greatest risk to a informed citizenry is a failure of the state in providing the basic education needed to frame and analyse problems of the commons. History presents countless examples of the clear relationship between withholding education and future political agency of citizens, with women being the most common victim of this powerful tactic. The state of Australian science education subsequently plays an unfortunately critical role in the debate, hampering the capacity of citizens to conduct critical analysis of media coverage. To further exacerbate this issue, the repetitive publication of a specific belief in the media can shift public thought, regardless of the relative merit of the information. This is known as an availability cascade: a self-reinforcing loop where the more a simple belief is discussed in public, the more people will adopt it as their own.  Combining these education and availability factors with the free-rider problem creates the perfect environment for behavioural paralysis; is it any wonder that this is now the normal posture of the electorate?

Another prejudice that influences the debate is confirmation bias, which describes how we are more likely to search for or accept information that supports our preconceived beliefs. The way in which we use Google illustrates this inclination: believers will tend to use search terms such as “climate change proof” and disbelievers terms such as “climate change myth”. Since the internet can always provide information that supports a particular view, and because Google will provide information regardless of its voracity, both believers and disbelievers are presented with search results that support their original belief.

A final bias that influences how we view the response to climate change is hyperbolic discounting, also referred to by economists as dynamic inconsistency. Humans tend to irrationally discount large future rewards in favour of small short term gains, even if their future-self would prefer the later reward. As the effects of climate change are dislocated in space and time, we prefer next month’s electricity bill to remain stable rather than see it increase to ensure clean air in twenty years time.

If we are aware of our cognitive prejudices, we can to some to some extent limit their effect on our thinking. Consider your knowledge of bias the next time you see information on climate change and try to apply it to your interpretation of the data. You may surprise yourself!*

*Your bias blind spot and illusory superiority prevents you (and me) from actually doing this. Hence the ferocity and excruciating repetition of the climate change debate 🙂


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