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

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

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.

I often say, weather is your mood and climate is your personality. Think about that.

Weather is your mood, climate is your personality. Your mood today doesn’t necessarily tell me anything about your personality, nor does a cold day tell me anything about climate change, or a hot day, for that matter.


Two scholars from Cornell came up with the Dunning-Kruger effect. If you go look up the peer-reviewed paper for this, you will see all kinds of fancy terminology: it’s an illusory superiority complex, thinking we know things.

In other words, people think they know more than they do. Or they underestimate what they don’t know.

And then, there’s cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is interesting. We just recently had Groundhog Day, right? Now, there’s no better definition of cognitive dissonance than intelligent people asking me if a rodent’s forecast is accurate.

But I get that, all of the time. But I also hear about the Farmer’s Almanac. We grew up on the Farmer’s Almanac, people are familiar with it. The problem is, it’s only about 37% accurate, according to studies at Penn State University.

But we’re in an era of science where we actually can forecast the weather. And believe it or not, and I know some of you are like, “Yeah, right,” we’re about 90% accurate, or more, with weather forecast. You just tend to remember the occasional miss, you do.

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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.”

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