Confirmation bias - Frans-Jan W. Parmentier

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Politicians incite distrust towards experts - and allow global temperatures to rise.
Confirmation bias
Klassekampen, 15 Jul 2016
Print version of this column "People in this country have had enough of experts", said Michael Gove, the former British justice secretary who is headed for an uncertain future, earlier in June. This bizarre statement came as a reply to a question about the many (inter)national organisations that warned against the economic consequences of Brexit. Regardless of your opinion about the EU, the chaos that the United Kingdom currently is in shows that it's not particularly wise to ignore the experts.
More importantly, the statement of the conservative politician Gove represents a typical example of a broader phenomenon that also shows up in the climate debate: To cast doubt on the work of experts and to ignore the facts. Experts of the IPCC, for example, have been warning since 1990 about the consequences of climate change. But climate sceptics like to paint scientists as elitist, or worse: they accuse them of enriching themselves, and conspiracy.
If you want to become rich, I have a great tip: Don't go into science.
The suggestion that scientists are elitist taps into a broader populistic feeling, and insinuates that expert advice, for some unclear reason, would not be in the general good. Moreover, scientists are accused of claiming that climate change is man-made to attract more research funding. A weird argument. If you want to become rich, I have a great tip: Don't go into science. When I was still studying, my teacher in environmental economics regularly complained about the fact that all his old study mates had gone into business and drove nice, fast cars - while he had to make due with an old family car.
Only being in it for the money is a mild insult. Much worse was the advertisement campaign the conservative American think tank 'The Heartland Institute' released four years ago. On giant billboards along the highway they compared climate scientists with the Unabomber, a terrorist. After a lot of complaints, the campaign was quickly aborted, but apologies were never made.
That's an extreme outlier in the debate, you may think. And isn't it true that climate experts can't even agree among themselves whether we're responsible for climate change? Shouldn't they figure that out for themselves before we have to listen to them? That's a misunderstanding. About 97% of all climate scientists acknowledge that climate change is caused by humans. Besides, a study from last year, led by the Norwegian meteorological institute, showed that the few studies that go against this overwhelming consensus are often badly designed, use data selectively, and are difficult or impossible to replicate.
So the real climate experts agree with each other, but aren't listened to. Are people tired of experts? Should everything from now on be decided with a gut feeling? Let's hope not. If you're on vacation with an airplane this summer, you want the pilot to be an expert, and not someone who - following an afternoon's practice in a sports plane - thinks that he can handle a Boeing 737. We trust experts with so many things in life. Why shouldn't we do this when it comes to climate change?
Demonstrators from Oxfam, dressed as G8-leaders, protest against climate change in Sapporo, Japan
A phenomenon that plays a role here, is the so called "confirmation bias": People like to see their existing opinions confirmed, especially when it's such an abstract problem as climate change. Research has shown that historical weather changes are often misremembered, and regularly interpreted according to an already existing conviction on climate change. It's difficult for experts to break through that. Nonetheless, it's their task to inform the public as good and clear as possible.
Here's also where the politics step in. In politically divided America, belief in climate change is divided more along party lines than how well people are informed by scientists. The key role lies therefore with politicians - who may receive the most expert advice of us all. Nonetheless: despite a lot of pretty promises Norwegian emissions rose again in 2015, primarily because of an increase in the oil- and gas industry. The fact that the government is allowing oil exploration in more areas, clearly shows that the recent promise of a climate neutral Norway by 2030 can only be achieved if we compensate for it abroad. Within Norway they're going 'till the last drop. Do the people we vote into office listen to the experts at all? Or is their own political agenda more important than facts?
A significant portion of the Brexit voters regretted their choice the day after the referendum. They thought their vote wouldn't matter, or that no consequences would be attached to the result. Let's not make the same mistake with climate change - to think that it's not that dangerous - but vote for those politicians that do listen to the experts and are willing to do the right thing.
This text first appeared in Klassekampen on 15 Jul 2016