3 Kinds of Bias That Shape Your Worldview: J. Marshall Shepherd (Transcript)

J Marshall Shepherd at TED Talks

J. Marshall Shepherd is a meteorologist, professor at the University of Georgia’s Department of Geography, the director of the university’s atmospheric sciences program, and was the president of the American Meteorological Society in 2013. Below is the full transcript of this TED Talk titled: 3 Kinds of Bias That Shape Your Worldview.



I’m a meteorologist by degree, I have a bachelor’s, master’s and PhD in physical meteorology. So I’m a meteorologist, card carrying.

And so with that comes four questions, always. This is one prediction I will always get right.

And those questions are: “Marshall, what channel are you on?”

“Dr Shepherd, what’s the weather going to be tomorrow?”

And oh, I love this one: “My daughter is getting married next September, it’s an outdoor wedding. Is it going to rain?”

Not kidding, I get those, and I don’t know the answer to that, the science isn’t there.

But the one I get a lot these days is, “Dr Shepherd, do you believe in climate change?”

“Do you believe in global warming?”

Now, I have to gather myself every time I get that question. Because it’s an ill-posed question — science isn’t a belief system.

My son, he’s 10 — he believes in the tooth fairy. And he needs to get over that, because I’m losing dollars, fast. But he believes in the tooth fairy.

But consider this Bank of America building, there, in Atlanta. You never hear anyone say, “Do you believe, if you go to the top of that building and throw a ball off, it’s going to fall?” You never hear that, because gravity is a thing.

So why don’t we hear the question, “Do you believe in gravity?”

But of course, we hear the question, “Do you believe in global warming?”

Well, consider these facts. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, AAAS, one of the leading organizations in science, queried scientists and the public on different science topics.

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Here are some of them: genetically modified food, animal research, human evolution. And look at what the scientists say about those, the people that actually study those topics, in red, versus the gray, what the public thinks.

How did we get there? How did we get there? That scientists and the public are so far apart on these science issues.

Well, I’ll come a little bit closer to home for me, climate change. Eighty-seven percent of scientists believe that humans are contributing to climate change.

But only 50% of the public? How did we get there?

So it begs the question, what shapes perceptions about science? It’s an interesting question and one that I’ve been thinking about quite a bit.

I think that one thing that shapes perceptions in the public, about science, is belief systems and biases. Belief systems and biases. Go with me for a moment.

Because I want to talk about three elements of that: confirmation bias, Dunning-Kruger effect and cognitive dissonance.

Now, these sound like big, fancy, academic terms, and they are. But when I describe them, you’re going to be like, “Oh! I recognize that; I even know somebody that does that.”

Confirmation bias 

Finding evidence that supports what we already believe.

Now, we’re probably all a little bit guilty of that at times. Take a look at this. I’m on Twitter. And often, when it snows, I’ll get this tweet back to me: “Hey, Dr Shepherd, I have 20 inches of global warming in my yard, what are you guys talking about, climate change?” I get that tweet a lot, actually.

It’s a cute tweet, it makes me chuckle as well. But it’s oh, so fundamentally scientifically flawed. Because it illustrates that the person tweeting doesn’t understand the difference between weather and climate.

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