by Judith Curry
“He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.” – John Stuart Mill
Well, my recent post Is the road to scientific hell paved with good moral intentions has stirred up a bit of a hornets nest. That post was motivated by reading a paper send to me by Joe Duarte, which referenced the Tetlock paper. I figured the Tetlock paper would be a good introduction to the Duarte et al. paper, which drives the topic for this post:
Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science, by José L. Duarte, Jarret T. Crawford, Charlotta Stern, Jonathan Haidt, Lee Jussim, Philip E. Tetlock.[link] to preprint. Excerpts (JC bold):
The lack of diversity causes problems for the scientific process primarily in areas related to the political concerns of the left—areas such as race, gender, stereotyping, environmentalism, power, and inequality—as well as in areas where conservatives themselves are studied, such as in moral and political psychology. And even in those areas, we are not suggesting that most of the studies are flawed or erroneous. Rather, we argue that the collective efforts of researchers in politically charged areas may fail to converge upon the truth when there are few or no non-liberal researchers to raise questions and frame hypotheses in alternative ways.
If left unchecked, an academic field can become a cohesive moral community, creating a shared reality that subsequently blinds its members to morally or ideologically undesirable hypotheses and unanswered but important scientific questions.
Political values can become embedded into research questions in ways that make some constructs unobservable and unmeasurable, thereby invalidating attempts at hypothesis testing. The embedding of values occurs when value statements or ideological claims are wrongly treated as objective truth, and observed deviation from that truth is treated as error.
It is not just that people have different environmental attitudes; the problem is the presumption that one set of attitudes is right and those who disagree are in denial. This conversion of a widely shared political ideology into “reality,” and its concomitant treatment of dissent as denial, testifies to the power of embedded values to distort science within a cohesive moral community.
Since the enlightenment, scientists have thought of themselves as spreading light and pushing back the darkness. The metaphor is apt, but in a politically homogeneous field, a larger-than-optimal number of scientists shine their flashlights on ideologically important regions of the terrain. Doing so leaves many areas unexplored. Even worse, some areas become walled off, and inquisitive researchers risk ostracism if they venture in.
Political diversity is likely to have a variety of positive effects by reducing the impact of confirmation bias and groupthink/majority consensus. Even research communities of highly intelligent and well-meaning individuals can fall prey to confirmation bias.
Confirmation bias can become even stronger when people confront questions that trigger moral emotions and concerns about group identity. Further, group polarization often exacerbates extremism in echo chambers. Indeed, people are far better at identifying the flaws in other people’s evidence-gathering than in their own, especially if those other people have dissimilar beliefs. Although such processes may be beneficial for communities whose goal is social cohesion (e.g., a religious or activist movement), they can be devastating for scientific communities by leading to widely-accepted claims that reflect the scientific community’s blind spots more than they reflect justified scientific conclusions.
The peer review process likely offers much less protection against error when the community of peers is politically homogeneous. Confirmation biases would lead reviewers to work extra hard to find flaws with papers whose conclusions they dislike, and to be more permissive about methodological issues when they endorse the conclusions. In this way, certain assumptions, theories, and findings can become the entrenched wisdom in a field, not because they are correct but because they have consistently undergone less critical scrutiny. When most people in a field share the same confirmation bias, that field is at a higher risk of reaching unjustified conclusions. The most obvious cure for this problem is to increase the viewpoint diversity of the field. Nobody has found a way to eradicate confirmation bias in individuals, but we can diversify the field to the point where individual viewpoint biases begin to cancel each other out.
Minority influence research has focused on the processes by which minorities influence majority members’ (and thus the groups’) reasoning. Majorities influence decision-making by producing conformity pressure that creates cohesion and community, but they do little to enhance judgmental depth or quality. They also risk creating the type of groupthink that has long been a target of criticism by social psychologists.
In contrast, a dissenting minority can undermine group-cohesion norms. Such norms can become dysfunctional for scientific communities, especially when they lead those communities to sacrifice scientific skepticism for the sake of advancing a political agenda. For a scientific community, discord may be beneficial as it motivates majority members to think more deeply about the issues at stake.
Interview with Benny Peiser
So how is all this playing out with regards to climate science, and the public debate on climate change? Some insights into the public pressure on those that are skeptical of consensus climate change science or the UNFCCC policies are provided by a recent iaiTV interview of Benny Peiser, Director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF). The title of the interview is Climate Change: a Rhetoric of Risk, with subtitle Are climate change sceptics unfairly ignored by mainstream media? Excerpts:
So do you think that, when it comes to the media, it is a one-sided kind of alarmist perception of risk that comes into question?
Of course, because they are well-known for pointing out everything that is alarming and being silent on reports that show it is not as alarming. So you have a bias in favour of alarm, and a kind of ignoring any evidence that suggests that it might not be that alarming.
In the press, the argument has been put forward quite regularly that sceptics or critics are already over-represented in media coverage, which is said to be misleading the public. Is that a fact? Or do you think the BBC should give more air time to climate change critics/ sceptics?
Well they haven’t in the past. Take Lord Lawson. That was the first time ever that he’s been interviewed on climate change. And if you think about the hundreds of reports over the years by the BBC, climate sceptics are a very and increasingly rare species.
Climate sceptics are definitely not under-represented, but simply absent when it comes to the number of media outlets. However, because there is that bias in the BBC and other news organisations, they are finding their own outlets. The climate-sceptical bloggers are increasingly popular and have huge readerships, and a number of newspapers can see that there is a real market for more balanced views.
Why do you think that climate change discussion generally has divided largely along political lines? For example, some might associate scepticism about climate change with right wing politics etc.
Well in Europe this is not the case. That is the case in the U.S. and perhaps in Australia. In Europe, it is really that almost all parties have signed up to the climate agenda. There is no political divide on the climate agenda. I mean, it’s beginning to look as if more and more governments, both left and right, are becoming concerned because the costs are piling up and because Europe is becoming uncompetitive as a result. So there is a growing concern that Europe, through its climate policies, is damaging the economy and making energy costs ever more expensive, and that therefore European industries are becoming increasingly uncompetitive. But that is a general concern, not a left or right issue, though in the US it is, yes.
Benny Peiser reminds us that many of the relevant politicized issues – notably climate change – don’t break down neatly in terms of left-right, liberal-conservative outside of the U.S. Nevertheless, these issues are politicized and ignite strong passions, including among scientists (see my previous post on AGW ideology). IMO, the Duarte et al. article makes some powerful points that have serious implications for climate science.
We certainly see Duarte et al’s concerns playing out in social psychology research about climate denial, the Republican brain etc; see these previous posts for reference:
Having partisans analyze their opponents is a recipe for bias.
How do Duarte et al’s concerns play out in the context of actual climate science? Driven by the IPCC’s mandate to provide scientific support for UNFCCC policies, climate scientists have been encouraged by the IPCC and national funding agencies to shine their research light on anthropogenically forced climate change. This has resulted in a very substantial neglect of solar influences on climate and natural internal variability. The last year or so, driven by the unexplained hiatus in warming, we have seen substantially more attention being given to research on natural climate variability. The immature state of our understanding of these topics is illustrated by the publication in Nature of the relatively naive paper linking Atlantic temperatures to Pacific trade winds (discussed yesterday here). We also see endemic problems with the peer review process, I have a forthcoming post on that topic.
So, how can we overcome such bias? There is no obvious way to diversify the field of climate research. Environmental and climate scientists in the U.S. are overwhelmingly liberal; Kerry Emanuel has been identified as one of the very few consensus climate scientists that is Republican (and one of the few that will interact with skeptics, see the EconTalk interview). Attempts to get scientists with different perspectives to talk to each other have met with limited success; Climate Dialogue has made some efforts in this direction, but it has been a big challenge to get scientists from the ‘warm’ side to participate.
As an example, I have recently been invited to participate in an event that brings together climate scholars from across the spectrum. The organizers have had difficulty recruiting scientists from the ‘warm’ side. The assistant of one of the invitees responded to the invitation in this way:
” As a rule, Dr. XXX has no interest in taking part in any event that continues to perpetuate the myth that scientists don’t agree that human induced climate change is a real and serious problem. Multiple studies have shown over 97% consensus.”
So, collaboration/interaction among the different sides of the scientific debate doesn’t work. What does that leave? Well the thing that popped into my head is: balance is NOT bias. The media highlighting minority skeptical perspectives can provide much needed balance to the public debate and also provokes scientists to think outside their little box. You may recall my post The Curry factor: 30 to 1, where Victor Venema argued that For balance, for every @curryja you would need 30 from mainstream, reflecting the so-called 97% consensus. Maybe the journalistic mandate/instincts for balance is exactly what climate science needs.
And finally, I am very pleased to have made the online acquaintance of Joe Duarte and coauthor Lee Jussim, I look forward to further interactions with them.