It’s fall in Kansas and the climate is changing, pun intended. As I prepare to deliver my climate change lessons this year, I plan to start with a piece of science that is quite frankly alarming. Many policy makers, scientists and teachers assume that the reason there are people denying climate science, evolution, GMO foods, vaccines, and the spherical shape of the Earth is ignorance. “If only they were aware of the full body of evidence/data, these pesky arguments would disappear and we as a society could focus on REAL issues and their solutions!” Sadly, the problem is more complicated than that because greater knowledge of data and evidence alone does NOT solve the problem.
A study published in 2012 by Kahan et al describes an experiment in which people were asked to evaluate a simple data set to make a decision on an issue. This is a common setup to evaluate participants’ ability to properly interpret data. When Kahan and his colleagues changed only the labels on the data to politically polarizing issues, peoples’ interpretations of the exact same numbers shifted. The most striking thing from the experiment is that people who could properly interpret the data in a neutral context were more likely to incorrectly interpret the data to match their self-reported political views.
This problem, called confirmation bias, is nothing new to science or most peoples’ intuition. The issue is too often we as a society assume that measurements and scientific observations are immune to such a problem. The peer review process and dialogue within the scientific community do an excellent job of culling most (unfortunately not all) of these kinds of bias from most published work. In the education process we as teachers must do more to make the next generation aware of this problem in each of us.
Anyone can fall victim to confirmation bias on any issue if they are not careful to examine their own thinking and reasoning. Make confronting bias a deliberate part of your curriculum to empower your students to ensure they become capable of being intelligent citizens, voters, and consumers of science when they reach adulthood. In your next lab, discuss the role of rejecting a hypothesis instead of accepting it. Why do experimenters use a null hypothesis? What evidence would cause a shift in a particular scientific theory if found? Skepticism is a critical part of being a scientist, so give your students practice being skeptical so they can avoid becoming zombies to their own beliefs.