Beware of Biased Skepticism

Beware of Biased Skepticism
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If I told you I had proof the world was ending, would you believe me? You would probably call me crazy, but that’s what government-funded scientists are telling us is happening, barring revolutionary steps to fight the plague known as climate change.  

If you’re conservative, perhaps you’re skeptical of these claims, likely because liberals and environmentalists have been touting climate change for decades, most (in)famously with former Vice President Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. 

Conversely, if you’re liberal, you might aim your skepticism towards Monsanto and all the chemicals they’re throwing into our food supply. If so, you probably pay extra for the green, organic, sustainable stuff at the local Whole Foods, and you might even think scientists who say you’re just a little too paranoid are simply shills for Big Corporations. 

Our politics and ideologies have a massive influence on the way we think about the world. They provide a heuristic, a mental shortcut, that gives us that gut-feeling about what is right. We tend toward selective thinking, that is, we notice when we’re right much more often than when we’re wrong, and we’re prone to misinterpreting the facts, badly. We think the Weather Channel isn’t very trustworthy because of the couple of times it rained when it was supposed to be sunny, ruining that baseball game or barbeque we were planning to attend. 

This sort of thinking, known as confirmation bias, is part of what it means to be human, and countering this prejudiced thinking is precisely why science is so important to our species. It gives us a solid framework to counter all the nonsense, differentiates between scientific forecast and mystical prophecy, and helps us get closer to the truth. 

The problem, as conservatives, liberals, and others rightly point out, is that science isn’t incorruptible. Humans are the ones doing science, and so who funds it matters. This is especially problematic when faced with complex, urgent, and politically sensitive issues combined with the reality that nothing is absolutely certain. Science doesn’t give us the irrefutable truth. Nothing can. What science does give us is a best guess, and that’s much better than anything else. 

So we should continue to improve the scientific process and seek out genuine flaws where they exist. Yet liberals should take science seriously, even when it benefits the interests of Scrooge McDuck types, and conservatives should as well, even when it accords with the views of “hippy-dippy” types. A bit of skepticism is warranted when considering funding sources, conflicts of interest, or poor methodologies, but selective skepticism can also become an excuse for rejecting overwhelming evidence simply because it is contrary to your favored biases. At some point we have to let our politics and our beliefs take a back seat to the most reasonable interpretation of the data. Otherwise we risk causing great harm, as evidenced in the leftist rejection of Darwinian evolution in the Soviet Union as “bourgeois” and “reactionary” in favor of “progressive biological science” which led to the elimination of dissenting scientists and the retardation of Russian science. 

As for me, I plan to continue eating the chemical-infested fruits and veggies that science shows are perfectly safe and healthy, while advocating for public policies like an evidence- and market-based carbon tax to incentivize a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. Even if you think I’m mistaken in doing either, that’s not what is most important. Rather, it’s that you put the search for truth above all else, including your ego, your biases, and your ideology.

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