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

So confirmation bias, Dunning-Kruger and cognitive dissonance.

I think those shape biases and perceptions that people have about science. But then, there’s literacy and misinformation that keep us boxed in, as well.

During the hurricane season of 2017, media outlets had to actually assign reporters to dismiss fake information about the weather forecast. That’s the era that we’re in. I deal with this all the time in social media.

Someone will tweet a forecast — that’s a forecast for Hurricane Irma, but here’s the problem: it didn’t come from the Hurricane Center. But people were tweeting and sharing this; it went viral.

It didn’t come from the National Hurricane Center at all.

So I spent 12 years of my career at NASA before coming to the University of Georgia, and I chair their Earth Science Advisory Committee, I was just up there last week in DC. And I saw some really interesting things.

Here’s a NASA model and science data from satellite showing the 2017 hurricane season. You see Hurricane Harvey there? Look at all the dust coming off of Africa.

Look at the wildfires up in northwest U.S. and in western Canada. There comes Hurricane Irma. This is fascinating to me.

But admittedly, I’m a weather geek. But more importantly, it illustrates that we have the technology to not only observe the weather and climate system, but predict it.

There’s scientific understanding, so there’s no need for some of those perceptions and biases that we’ve been talking about. We have knowledge.

But think about this. This is Houston, Texas, after Hurricane Harvey. Now, I write a contribution for “Forbes” magazine periodically, and I wrote an article a week before Hurricane Harvey made landfall, saying, “There’s probably going to be 40 to 50 inches of rainfall.” I wrote that a week before it happened.

But yet, when you talk to people in Houston, people are saying, “We had no idea it was going to be this bad.” I’m just…A week before.

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But — I know, it’s amusing, but the reality is, we all struggle with perceiving something outside of our experience level. People in Houston get rain all of the time, they flood all of the time. But they’ve never experienced that Houston gets about 34 inches of rainfall for the entire year. They got 50 inches in three days. That’s an anomaly event, that’s outside of the normal.

So belief systems and biases, literacy and misinformation.

How do we step out of the boxes that are cornering our perceptions?

Well we don’t even have to go to Houston, we can come very close to home. Remember “Snowpocalypse?” Snowmageddon? Snowzilla? Whatever you want to call it. All two inches of it.

Two inches of snow shut the city of Atlanta down. But the reality is, we were in a winter storm watch, we went to a winter weather advisory, and a lot of people perceived that as being a downgrade, “Oh, it’s not going to be as bad.”

When in fact, the perception was that it was not going to be as bad, but it was actually an upgrade. Things were getting worse as the models were coming in. So that’s an example of how we get boxed in by our perceptions.

So, the question becomes, how do we expand our radius? The area of a circle is “pi r squared.” We increase the radius, we increase the area.

How do we expand our radius of understanding about science?

Here are my thoughts. You take inventory of your own biases. And I’m challenging you all to do that. Take an inventory of your own biases .Where do they come from? Your upbringing, your political perspective, your faith — what shapes your own biases? Then, evaluate your sources — where do you get your information on science? What do you read, what do you listen to, to consume your information on science? And then, it’s important to speak out.

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Talk about how you evaluated your biases and evaluated your sources. I want you to listen to this little 40-second clip from one of the top TV meteorologists in the U.S., Greg Fishel, in the Raleigh, Durham area. He’s revered in that region.

But he was a climate skeptic. But listen to what he says about speaking out.

Greg Fishel: The mistake I was making and didn’t realize until very recently, was that I was only looking for information to support what I already thought, and was not interested in listening to anything contrary.

And so I woke up one morning, and there was this question in my mind, “Greg, are you engaging in confirmation bias? Are you only looking for information to support what you already think?” And if I was honest with myself, and I tried to be, I admitted that was going on.

And so the more I talked to scientists and read peer-reviewed literature and tried to conduct myself the way I’d been taught to conduct myself at Penn State when I was a student, it became very difficult for me to make the argument that we weren’t at least having some effect.

Maybe there was still a doubt as to how much, but to say “nothing” was not a responsible thing for me to do as a scientist or a person.

JMarshall Shepherd: Greg Fishel just talked about expanding his radius of understanding of science.

And when we expand our radius, it’s not about making a better future, but it’s about preserving life as we know it.

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