Psychology, Philosophy and Confirmation Bias: Evolutionary Denial?

Is there anything in our evolutionary history that makes us more likely to accept or reject the Anthropogenic Global Warming Hypothesis? Paul Biegler thinks so, and so does Sage (a bit), but for some evolutionary reason they have different interpretations…

It is a bit late in the day, but I’m raising a few points regarding “Climate of Disbelief” an article by Paul Biegler in the July/August edition of ‘Philosophy Now’ (£).

Biegler, a bioethicist at Monash University, Melbourne, applies some psychological ideas to the issue of the rejection of the anthropogenic global warming hypothesis by many members of the public.

A Big Assumption

Biegler assumes at the outset that those people who do not agree that global warming is happening, or that it is anthropogenic in origin (he doesn’t distinguish, but we know what he means), do not do so because of scientific evidence. He believes that there is an “overrepresented toehold [for scepticism] in the popular media”, which he suggests means that non-specialists have a misguided view of “the science”. While he concedes that the climate experts are themselves still somewhat baffled on the details, it is clear that he himself has little doubt. His argument is therefore premised on the “truth”, in the general sense, of the Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) hypothesis. In other words, he believes that human-generated atmospheric carbon dioxide is/will be the cause of catastrophic damage to the world’s climate, and all that is said to entail. As a result, his argument is constructed very much in one direction. Assuming the sceptics are wrong, he seeks to find out why they should ‘want’ to be wrong. For Biegler, this is the only possible reason why sceptics should reject the views of scientific authorities – such as Prof Stephen Hawking who he cites as an example[i].

Make a Wish!

Basically, Biegler believes that “there is another candidate to explain our reticence to embrace the painful but credible truth of a warming planet. The idea of wishful thinking.” By starting with such a stance, he almost completely fails to see the converse to his argument – it could equally well apply in its entirety to proponents of anthropogenic climate change.

Using the ‘thought experiment’ of bad news from the doctor, he says we generally tend – initially at least – to deny worrying information. This is “a famous type of motivated reasoning: confirmation bias.” That is people prefer their own view of the world, and tend to reject or “discount data that contradict it”. Further, Biegler cites John Cook (Queensland) in “The Conversation” (06/09/12). In that article a survey showed that there was a Republican/Democrat split in belief in AGW. Biegler does accept here that this argument cuts both ways. “Those with left political leanings, are keen to see big entities pay, will be partial to warming data”, but excuses this as “the tiebreaker is that warming predictions are backed by good scientific pedigree”. Again, his own confirmation bias shows!

A Peer Review Proves What Exactly? And a Misrepresentation.

Biegler asserts that the peer-review process acts as a check on scientists’ own bias. Mischievously, he even cites Matt Ridley in the Wall Street Journal as saying “Most scientists do not try to disprove their ideas; rivals do it for them. Only when those rivals fail is the theory bomb proof” (July 27, 2012). Biegler takes the Ridley quote totally out of context. Ridley was not talking about the peer review process here. He was suggesting that science progresses when one scientist challenges the work – and sometimes the preconceptions of – another scientist or scientists. This is done by repeating experiments or observation; by framing and performing other experiments or observations that might confirm or deny the first scientist’s work. This is not the purpose of peer review. Peer review is, or should be, a sense-check on the research to be published. It is meant to ensure that other published work on the same subject is addressed, where appropriate, and to check that the underlying research methodology is basically sound. It should not be (though some may say it is) a way of disagreeing scientists to prevent publication of a competitor’s work. I wonder if Biegler understands the peer review system, or is being disingenuous? I certainly hope he doesn’t do any peer reviews himself.

Those who haven’t read the Matt Ridley piece may not be aware that it was also part of a series about confirmation bias in science generally, although he does refer to climate scientists too. Ridley was arguing for more challenge, suggesting that scientists do not challenge each other enough, either in general or specifically in climate change research. Indeed, it took pretty much the opposite line, with respect to scientists, that Biegler takes in Philosophy Now.[ii]

Where Does Wishful Thinking Come From?

Paul Biegler then proceeds to explain how such ‘wishful thinking’ arises.

First, he answers the question how does wishful thinking work? He suggests that: “the logic is as follows. Imagining that our cherished projects will actually materialised makes us feel good. When someone suggests the contrary… [this] makes us feel bad. We are left with two options. We can give up our aspirations, which is a big ask. Far better to downgrade the credibility of the objector.” Biegler’s lack of awareness that this applies to both ‘warmists’ and ‘sceptics’ is extraordinary enough. That he doesn’t notice that it applies a fortiori to those activist climate scientists, whose reputation is at stake, is unforgivable. It is those such as Michael Mann, Kevin Trenberth, and many others in the ‘warmist’ sphere who have the “cherished projects” that are under threat. And they do “downgrade the credibility of the objector” too.

Darwin, Stone Age Man and Actions

But why do we as human beings react this way at all? But why do we use feelings rather than evidence for belief? Biegler recognises that there are competing “theories” (he means hypotheses, of course).

Biegler cites two “time honoured neo-Darwinist lines” to explain “why would we use our feelings rather than, say, the evidence as a basis for belief?” Biegler takes an evolutionary approach. In the state of nature (my phrase) what made us feel good was, usually, actually good for us. “Your emotions are your genes’ insurance that your behaviour tilts in their favour”, and as emotions precede, in evolutionary terms, the intellect, we decide stuff on emotional level, then rationalise. We use emotions as decision-making shortcuts, and usually, says Biegler, they work.

So the first argument is that it’s just ‘common sense’ to run away from a charging rhino, using ‘state of nature’ argument again. Clearly, there’s an evolutionary advantage in running away, or dodging the rhino. To pretend it’s not charging won’t work. So emotionally generated beliefs shouldn’t be ignored. However, I would argue that avoiding injury is not the same as “reward, and so feeling good” which Biegler suggests. Anyone who has ever run away from a dangerous situation, like the charging rhino, will know that there’s no good feeling about it. The sense of relief comes after the escape is complete, not when one starts to run away.

Out of date thinking

But now, citing George Ainslie (Behavioural and Brain Sciences, 32, 2009) he states that “how our beliefs feel is no longer a consistent guide to their accuracy” since there “was an increasing disconnect between beliefs and survival outcomes”, especially where it is only possible to see if belief is true or false at some time in the future. “Good feelings were a reward for beliefs whose falsity might never be exposed on the battlefield of natural selection”. I am reminded how so much of the warnings about the future bad consequences of ‘global warming’ are set so far in the future that the scientist or journalist, and most likely the reader, will be dead before ‘the truth’ really comes out. In 50 to 200 years?

Always Look on the Brightside of Life…

The above argument, Biegler denotes as the “‘by-product theory”. Biegler then looks at another idea: looking on the ‘the bright-side’ might not just make us feel fuzzy and warm. It might actually be good for us too. As he is a medical person, it is no surprise that Biegler mentions that lower stress of the optimist – or in this case someone who contemplates “a palatable rather than perilous future” – is better in health terms than the ‘chronic stress’ of the worrier.

It is true that some believers in the AGW hypothesis do worry. I can often detect feelings of abject despair in George Monbiot’s writing on the subject, and I have no reason to doubt his sincerity. As a sceptic, I can also get myself quite upset and annoyed when I read just how much money governments, including the EU spend on simply propagandising the AGW hypothesis, or subsidising wind farms. It doesn’t do my blood pressure much good, I can tell you.

The New Stone Age

Biegler suggests that a Neolithic optimist may therefore have survived better than his pessimistic brethren in the prehistoric past. Those who are optimistic in other situations do seem to do better than pessimists he says. He cites ‘optimistic’ HIV-positive men living longer than more pessimistic victims of AIDS. Of course, if optimism is significantly better than pessimism as a survival strategy, why are there any pessimists left nowadays? Perhaps there’s no difference in survival to the point of reproduction between optimists and pessimists in which case natural selection can’t work, and the argument must fail. Or more likely, it’s a very weak selective force.

Optimism, Pessimism, and the Future

Anyway, given either or both of these reasons for an evolutionary ‘preference’ for optimism, then Biegler suggests that “the somewhat startling upshot is that motivated reasoning [wishful thinking] may confer advantage upon those it drives to reject the climate science conclusions”. Also, outside the immediate future, we still look forward to good, not bad, things. He says we “project our feelings into the future”, such that we seek “outcomes that earn positive sentiments…”, and that we also attach feelings to beliefs.”…we embrace those [beliefs] imbued with positive feeling, and shun those that accrue disdain”. So thoughts about the future are as affected by our ‘emotions’ as thoughts about the present.

I agree with the general observation that human beings do, generally, discount the long term too much, preferring jam today. This is most obvious when the long term is beyond a lifetime. But Biegler says that nowadays humans can reasonably foresee certain events in the longer term, and given this we should react accordingly. He suggests that we don’t take action over anthropogenic climate change because the future is perceived to be uncertain.

But Biegler – again injecting his own wishful thinking – says “but concerning climate change, our prospects are increasingly certain”, and we (as a species) should “act now”. Of course, as Biegler says, “feeling good about beliefs say little about their veracity…”. This is easily restated as “feeling bad about beliefs say little about their veracity…”. I could be terrified by a firmly held belief that one day the zombies will come and get me. It doesn’t make it true either[iii].


Biegler are now turns from psychology and epistemology to ask the political question “how then to persuade the dissenters?” I won’t spend much electronic ink here. Basically he suggests that “climate communicators must appeal to emotion”, citing Hume (I think out of context, but I’m not going to quibble here) by saying that reason becomes slave to the passions. Basically, the argument is that ‘warmist’ propaganda should set out to appeal more than it does to the ‘Republican’ worldview. For example, advocating nuclear power as a low carbon energy source rather than ‘green’ solutions like windmills; or adopting pro-business solutions rather than socialist ones. I’ll leave that to US commentators to discuss.


In summary, Biegler says that those that ignore climate change because we have “a hardwired predilection for good news even if it departs from the facts”. Clearly, it can’t be ‘hard wired’, or there wouldn’t be a debate, if that was all there was to it. It wouldn’t matter what scientists said, if it was ‘bad news’, and not in-front-of-your-face obvious, like the charging rhino. At best, Biegler should only be saying that there was a proclivity to reject the bad – which I would accept. He should not imply there’s no alternative. It is not an either/or dichotomy.

Even if ‘good news’ dominates ‘bad’, what is good news? No one could argue that if polar bears were becoming extinct due to AGW (or any other reason)[iv] that it would be good news. As a climate scientist, losing one’s grant funding would be bad news. Having one’s pet project, promoting belief in AGW, shown to be based on mistaken science, would not be wishful thinking. Losing an opportunity to lambast ‘big oil’; and the Koch Brothers; and Capitalism: that might be bad news too, for some folks.

Biegler brings his own bias to the debate. It works both ways.

Who Cares? Another Bias.

Speaking for myself, I am a sceptic on the AGW front. This is based on my studies of Earth sciences and especially the way the world has behaved in response to warmer conditions in the geological past. However, if I’m wrong, it doesn’t really matter to me. I have no children, no scientific reputation other than a blog that few people read. So why should I be ‘wishful thinking’ in dismissing the AGW hypothesis? Yes, I will get a ‘warm feeling’ if AGW is sometime proved wrong, or climate change is shown to be so minimal as to be irrelevant, sure, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world for me (so to speak) as I will be dead anyway in 70 years (on the very optimistic side – I’d be a record holder by today’s standard! Wishful thinking again?). No, it’s the ‘warmists’, proved wrong in their predictions time and time again, who have got it all to lose. No wonder they’re so stressed out!

Or is this my own confirmation bias speaking for me? Who can say?

Authors Note

It should be noted that the above was written before I saw any letters or any other reaction to Paul Biegler’s article that might be published in the Sept/Oct 2014 edition of ‘Philosophy Now’. If you have written a letter to the magazine and it sounds like any of the above, I truly haven’t read it, and I’m not plagiarising.

I may return to any matters raised in those letters, if there are any.

Sage Vals 07 September 2014

[i] I’m tempted to get into the argument from authority debate, which is fascinating – can’t do with it, can’t do without it – but not today.

[ii] You can see the other Matt Ridley articles on the subject here Look for July 2012 posts down the page.

[iii] A potentially controversial footnote! As well as not paying so much attention to a possible future, could someone refuse to believe some well documented incident in the near-historical past just because it’s too horrible to contemplate?

[iv] They aren’t currently endangered. See I suppose some Alaskans might take a different view about polar bear extinction, so might those hurt by the polar bears, or the relatives of those killed by bears. I’m generalising, I don’t mean any offense.