Ep. 426: Confirmation Bias

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I hate to tell you this, but that meat computer in your skull is constantly betraying you. Don’t worry, we’ve all got the same, but fortunately, scientists have learned how this happens, and can help us make sure our science, and lives don’t suffer because of it.

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This episode is sponsored by: Casper and Barkbox

Show Notes



Transcription services provided by: GMR Transcription

Female Speaker: This episode of Astronomy Cast is proudly sponsored by Bark Box. For a free extra month of Bark Box, visit BarkBox.com/Astro. When you subscribe to a six or twelve-month plan, you’ll get a free extra month.
Fraser Cain: Astronomy Cast, Episode 426, Confirmation Bias. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly facts-based journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today, and with me is Dr. Pamela Gay, the Director of CosmoQuest. Hey, Pamela. How you doing?
Dr. Pamela Gay: I’m doing well, how are you doing, Fraser?
Fraser: Doing great. I just want to remind people that if they’re listening to this show via podcasting tools, such as iTunes or Stitcher or Sound Cloud or whatever, could you take a second and give us some kind of rating, some kind of positive rating on the podcatching application of your choice? It helps more people find our show, and we really appreciate that. So, five stars.
Pamela: This episode of Astronomy Cast is sponsored by Bark Box, and I cannot tell you how happy I am that we finally got them as a sponsor, because I’ve been seeing them sponsoring other shows, and I love Bark Box. I have a ten-month-old Australian Shepherd, and I got Bark Box because I had a puppy that would play with anything, and I wanted things to play with. And each month, Bark Box comes straight to my door with a selection of new toys, with a selection of new treats, and so far, my dog’s loved all of it. But, with Bark Box, I know that if he doesn’t love it, I can send it back. Or, if he’s allergic to it, I can send it back.
So far, that hasn’t been an issue. And what’s been really cool is that each month, we get new themed toys, and with me at least, I’m like, “Ooh, new box!” and I take all the old toys, and I throw them in the washing machine, and we have all the new toys to play with. And then I do the laundry, and now we have too many toys, which really isn’t a problem with a ten-month-old Australian Shepherd.
And in addition to the new toys we get each month, there’s also treats. And the treats are from these little, tiny companies that make super high-quality products that I probably wouldn’t have ever found before. Like, last month, I got this package of blueberry dog treats that you open them up, and they smell amazing. And I can now go to the Bark Box website and get more of these treats that smell amazing and make me hungry and make my dog sit pretty. I don’t eat the dog’s treats. But, the dog does. And it’s awesome.
So, get Bark Box if you want to help us out and you want to get a free extra month with your six-month or twelve-month subscription. Go to BarkBox.com/Astro. And you know, send me a picture of your dog and the toys, and I’ll send you pictures of mine, and we can be dog lovers together.
Anyway, BarkBox.com/Astro.
Fraser: Hi everyone, Fraser here. So, once again, I just wanted to give a big thanks to Casper Mattresses for supporting Astronomy Cast. They’ve been supporting us for well over a year now, and as you probably know, I have a Casper mattress. Well, they sent us a demo, and I had to leave that one down in the states, and so then I bought my own mattress, and then I bought another one as a guest mattress. So, I’ve been using the Casper mattress now for well over a year. I’ve gone through all the seasons now. I’ve been through summer, I’ve been through winter here on the west coast of Canada, and I’m still absolutely loving this mattress. So, they are a sponsor, and also, I really like the mattress, which is nice.
So, just in case you didn’t know, Casper mattresses are these really cool sort of memory foam/latex foam combination that they ship in this box, and it’s this weird, small box, and yet you open it up, and this thing just kind of expands to be a full-sized mattress. It’s kind of amazing that you just get this shipped to your door. If you don’t like it, then you can get it returned. In both Canada and the States, you can try it for 100 nights risk free. Mattresses, they cost – through Casper, they’re about $950.00 for a king, $850.00 for a queen, and normally mattresses can cost much more than that. So, it’s amazing that the thing comes to your door, and yet it’s a reasonably inexpensive mattress. So, I think they’re absolutely fantastic.
So, if you want to get $50.00 off your own mattress purchase, just go to Casper.com/Astro, and use the promo code Astro, and various terms and conditions apply, but you get $50.00 off your mattress purchase. So, give that a try. Once again, thanks to Casper Mattresses for supporting Astronomy Cast. I’m looking forward to many more years of using the mattresses, and a great partnership with Astronomy Cast.
So, any other news in the Cosmoverse?
Pamela: So, there are like, 30 seats left for our Astronomy Eclipse tour next August, and so if you want to go, sign up now. But, you’re gonna have to be in an overflow hotel, because the hotel was completely sold out already. So, we are looking to arrange an overflow. There is a Hampton Inn down the street. Go to Hotels.com, find something nearby. It’s a great section of St. Louis, you will be fine. And yeah, only 33 seats left, guys.
Fraser: And what are we gonna do if we get those 33 seats filled? Are we done?
Pamela: Susie is looking to see what is the largest group the hotel can accommodate in their meeting rooms. So, I think given that that would give us 100 people plus our crew, so you, me, families, Susie, Nancy, we may cap it at those 100, but we’re gonna talk to the hotel.
Fraser: Okay. All right, so stay tuned. But, if this is a thing you’re kind of sitting on the fence, just commit now, and then just sell your ticket to someone else. Okay, here we go. So, I hate to tell you this, but that meat computer in your skull is constantly betraying you. But, don’t worry; we’ve all got the same problem. Fortunately, scientists have learned that this happens and can help us make sure that our science and our lives don’t suffer too badly because of it.
So, this was suggested last week. I think David Joseph Wesley suggested this topic, and we both just latched onto it right away, because cognitive bias, biases, is an awesome topic, and it is such a big part of every scientist’s toolkit. It’s like the thing you’ve always got to be aware of. So, let’s talk about cognitive biases. Do you have an anecdote? I didn’t prep you beforehand, but do you have an anecdote where a cognitive bias sort of messed you up in the process of doing some kind of science?
Pamela: Not so much messed me up in science, but actually caused me to un-logically change my behavior. For a while, it seemed like every time I ordered a strawberry margarita, the Emergency Broadcast System went off to tell me there was either a tornado or a thunderstorm bearing down upon my location. And having actually had my husband drive my Jeep through a tornado, which was not on purpose, it just kind of formed and rolled over us going home from drinking said red margarita. I stopped ordering red margaritas for a while, and you know what? The storms stopped, too.
Fraser: Whoa.
Pamela: Yeah. But the thing is, I live in Illinois, and there was actually a seasonal shift involved, so yeah, confirmation bias is totally a thing. Superstition is totally a thing. But, me drinking red margaritas does not cause the Emergency Broadcasting Network to go off.
Fraser: It does not summon tornados looking to stop you from drinking said margarita.
Pamela: Exactly. Exactly.
Fraser: The Universe is not only trying to kill you, but trying to specifically stop you from drinking these margaritas.
Pamela: It’s true. It’s true, yeah.
Fraser: Absolutely.
Pamela: What about you? Do you have any of these things?
Fraser: I can’t think of anything offhand, and I apologize for asking you the question and not having a response of my own. But, I have – have you ever had that situation where your brain has kind of disconnected and you’re using one program or one piece of software or one device, and you’re expecting it to behave in a certain way, like the direction that you turn on the tap, but for some reason, it’s opposite or you’re not even turning on the tap, you’re actually doing something else. And your brain just freaks out, because you’re like, I was expecting this output, and this is not what happened.
Then you’re like, “Whoa, wait a second.” Right, of course. I’m actually using this completely different program, and it was just – because my brain was so expecting it to have a certain outcome. I was in complete autopilot until I realized that I wasn’t. Yeah, you get it enough. And as you look through, we’re gonna talk about the different kinds of cognitive biases that we suffer from. A lot of those are gonna hit pretty close to home, and I’m sure a lot of people will then use this as a chance to sit back and deeply reevaluate their entire lives.
Pamela: And this gets us to the whole idea of confirmation bias, which was actually coined by a British psychologist named Peter Wason back in 1960. And this is the idea that when we see some sort of evidence that matches our already existing ideas, we’re like, “Why yes, of course this is true,” and we add it to the pile of things that confirm that it is we already believe.
But, when we see something that doesn’t line up with our preconceived ideas, we either fail to notice it, or we completely disregard it. And this is essentially our brain going, “Too much information. Too much information. Filter. Filter. Filter.” And as human beings though, we pretend that we’re logical creatures, and we’re not. And confirmation bias is our brain filtering out information that we should use, should we chose to actually be logical human beings.
Fraser: Right. And I think I can give one more example, which is that if you’re driving in a car and you’re completely lost, but you don’t know that you’re lost, you think you’re fine. And you’re driving along, and the streets that are going past and the number of streets that you know you’re gonna go past and the directions that you’re turning, it all feels right, until suddenly you realize you’re completely lost, and it’s gone horribly wrong.
But for that whole time, up until the moment that you finally realize that you’re lost, every turn that you made fit perfectly into this world view that you had of where you were going. And it’s kind of that snapping at the end where your brain goes, “Wait a minute. I’m on the wrong side of town.”
Pamela: Well, and this also works for how we justify things. So in science, this crops up with the most obvious examples in animal science. You and I both grew up learning that what makes humans humans is we use tools, and we’re the only animals that use tools. This is what we learned. Now, humans have been watching animals since before humans had language, and you know what? Animals use tools.
We have found tool usage in everything ranging from octopi to crows to chimpanzees. Tools are common things. But, it turned out that we had the ability, thanks to confirmation bias, to completely disregard all examples of tool usage, until recently when we started to – it was finally okayed to acknowledge that crows use tools.
Fraser: Okay, so from that initial inception, the initial idea of confirmation bias, how do scientists think about confirmation bias as their sort of in the process of putting together their work?
Pamela: When we’re teaching our students, we tell them, students, scientists are people that know how to throw out our ideas when we encounter evidence that proves us wrong. And then, when we actually do our research, we throw out the data that doesn’t support our ideas.
And this is to the point of people refereeing journal articles will throw out papers that are based on perfectly good observations, perfectly good data, because they don’t support the canonical way of thinking about things. There was actually a really cool paper about gamma ray busts several years ago that brought up this concern that it appeared the only papers being published about gamma ray burst models supported one model. And that one model didn’t actually explain all the kinds of gamma ray bursts that were being seen. So there’s this disconnect between all the observations and one model.
And this was something that was pointed out by David Coward, who was actually being the opposite of a coward, when he basically said, “Look, we need to start looking at all these other models that actually start to step in and explain some of these other kinds of gamma ray burst observations.” And the reality is we have to, as scientists, acknowledge, “I’m gonna screw this up, and hopefully peer review is what’s going to actually fix this. Because I have one set of biases, one set of things that in the lack of knowing the absolute truth I’m going to go with.”
And someone coming from another school of thought, coming from another educational system, is going to have another set of biases that play into how they judge the work that they’re reading. And hopefully, as a group, we have enough different and competing forms of confirmation bias that the truth makes it to publication.
Fraser: So, what are some examples of some of the biases that we can suffer? Because you know, I think someone had identified that there are literally more than 100 different, specifically-identified, cognitive biases that we can hit.
Pamela: Confirmation bias is just one of many different forms of cognitive bias. There’s everything from the basic overconfidence of fact where you were biased that, of course the outcomes will work out the way I want them to. Brexit is kind of an example of that. I don’t need to vote. Everyone –
Fraser: Everyone’s gonna vote for it to stay, and then they’re surprised when it didn’t.
Pamela: Yeah. My favorite form of bias is actually one that I didn’t even know the name of, but I had encountered multiple times. I’m a knitter. I’m not a great knitter, but I’m a knitter, and one of the first things I learned as a knitter is I can buy a sweater of much higher quality, made by probably a little old grandma in Scotland that is listed as hand-knitted and made out of wool for like, $150.00. And I was like, that is stupidly expensive. I can make my own sweater. But, to buy just the wool as me, human, instead of as giant corporation, is gonna cost me $100.00 to $150.00, and then it’s gonna take me like, 40 hours to knit that sweater, at a minimum.
And even at minimum wage, I have now put more personal money, and time is money, money into that sweater that isn’t as good, but because I made it, I’m going to somehow like it more. And that doesn’t make any sense, because what I made is kinda crappy. I know this. And this is what’s called Ikea Bias. People will buy furniture from Ikea that comes in the box with the hex wrenches and you curse and you yell at your spouse and you fight, and eventually you end up with bookcases, or in our case, a bedroom set.
Fraser: With one part that’s installed backwards.
Pamela: Exactly.
Fraser: Yeah.
Pamela: And the thing is, people love their Ikea furniture, and they rarely admit that it’s just not necessarily as good as some of the other stuff you can buy out there. And this is because they sunk their own time into building it.
Fraser: They built it. I built that.
Pamela: Right. So there’s this cognitive bias that causes us to put greater value on something we built ourselves than we would put on something that we purchased that might actually be of better quality, lower cost, and thus greater actual value.
Fraser: Right. And of course, the whole trick with this term of a bias is that you don’t realize, really, that your brain is gonna default to these types of things. You do a search for Google, it turns up one of the results confirms your beliefs. Therefore, your beliefs are doubly confirmed.
Pamela: Right.
Fraser: But, they don’t see that the other nine entries that are saying that your beliefs are flawed. You notice that one, and then that gives you the ammunition you need to go forward, right?
Pamela: And this kind of bias is actually something that leads to a lot of people sharing things on Facebook that they think are real that are not, because we see things that we want to be true, that we hope are true, and we share them believing that they are true, because all of the, “I want this, I hope for this, oh, it must be,” happens subconsciously, and logically we simply share it as true.
And I know a lot of people probably got sucked in by various either Joe Biden said this or Trump said that or superstar such-and-such behaved in this kind of way. Satire, as being real, during this particular election season. And so this is where websites like Snopes becomes super information, because it’s easy for all of us to get sucked into this kind of, this story supports my preexisting belief system, therefore I’m going to share it as if it were real, even if it’s completely not.
Fraser: Yes, Snopes is the best. I think I’ve mentioned this in a show previously, that I used to play this game with my kids called Snopes, and we would – I would bring up the Snopes window. I would then read out the myth, and then they would try to guess whether it was real or fake. And then we would go from there. Because Snopes does a great job of showing whether this is real and confirmed or whether it’s just a myth and they got pretty good at being skeptical. I think I’ve released these hardened skeptics into the world at this point, no question.
So, let’s go back to the science thing about this confirmation bias about this sort of preconceived notion that you’re expecting a certain outcome, therefore, when the outcome or when that is one of the possibilities in the research that comes out, you are prepared, you are gonna jump on that outcome before any of the others.
Pamela: Oh, yeah.
Fraser: That is a gigantic problem in science.
Pamela: Yes. Yes, it is. I’m getting notes that my mic is overdriven. I’m sorry. Trying to move my mic further away from my face. I had a good day. I’m talking louder than normal.
Fraser: Well, maybe. Who knows, because it’s the mix on the live stream as well? I’ve got you turned down a couple of decibels. I can turn you down a few more. But, at the end of the day, it’s the final mix that Chad’s gonna do for the editing.
Pamela: Okay.
Fraser: He’s listening to this right now, so I wouldn’t – by all means, let us know if our audio levels are roughly equivalent, and I’ll keep trying to turn Pamela down. But the final mix for Astronomy Cast itself, that’ll be done by Chad, and he can adjust the levels independently on his own. So, please continue. Gigantic problem in science.
Pamela: In science, it really comes down to how it can sometimes take so long for a new idea to take hold. Literally, some science problems we haven’t been able to get the community to generally accept a new idea until the loudest voice in the old idea died. And that sounds ridiculous, but it’s true.
When I was coming up through the astronomy college education system, everyone was like, well, either the value for the Hubble constant is close to 50, or it’s close to 100, because there were two different schools of thought led by two different human beings who were both very dominant, loud individuals. And it turned out that you had to either believe one or believe the other, and most of my faculty who didn’t want to get involved in that would simply say, just use 100. It makes the math easier. And the reality is, the Hubble constant is between 50 and 100. It is neither 50 nor 100.
But it took both of those people dying before we could get to an accepted reality. There’s been problems like this throughout astronomy. There was poor Chandrasekhar who it was like he was bashing a head against the entire ivory tower trying to get basic ideas like white dwarfs are an actual thing accepted by the establishment, because there were loud voices who were like, “That can’t be a thing.” And he was like, “Yes, yes, these are a thing. Here, look at my math.” And cognitive bias.
Fraser: Part of it is if you’re going to do a research paper, do you, as a scientist, do most scientists take that step to examine their own cognitive biases to try and figure out what they are going to be almost like, expecting? To then try to rule that out?
Pamela: I think that they most think they do, but then reality. And this is something that research on hiring practices shows up constantly, where women are just as likely as men, if you look at standard how they rank different candidates, and various blind surveys. Women and men are equally likely to downgrade female candidates for a job because of the long-term entrenchment of the idea that women aren’t as good. And things like this crop up over and over where you can talk to someone who talks the talk, who talks about the importance of diversity, of inclusion, of everyone is equal. And then when you run the test, cognitive bias slips in.
And so I think that in general, scientists will say, “Oh, if there was some new trend in my data that didn’t match my preconceived ideas of what canonical scientific theory says must be true, I will of course explore this new idea.” But the reality is, you take someone like Penzias and Wilson, and they will go to the extremes of scrubbing pigeon poo out of a telescope to try and get their data to match their preconceived idea of reality.
Fraser: Right. And so that’s a good example, right? When they were searching for evidence – well, you know what, or the opposite, right? Is when I think about the Dark Energy back in the – when they were starting to do these supernova survey for Dark Energy and turned up all of these – the fact that the expansion of the Universe was accelerating, this was the opposite of what they were expecting. And their every instinct was to say, “This is wrong. We’ve made a mistake. This is not true.” So it went against their confirmation bias on this one.
Pamela: And for cases like Dark Energy’s discovery, you really have to have overwhelming evidence. As the folks who were working on those two surveys plowed forward, data point after data point after data point undeniably said this line is curving in the opposite direction you guys expected. It’s in that face of, “I can’t just delete one or two data points. It’s all my data points saying this,” that you have to change your opinions.
Unfortunately, science is messy, and we often have multiple data points that we’re trying to make sense of, and too few of them, and we’re trying to get to a conclusion. And this is the other side where cognitive bias jumps in. We see it both on the, “Oh, my gosh, there’s way too much data, I need to filter this somehow,” instinctual level, and we also see this on the, “There’s way too little data. I need to draw a conclusion somehow.” So, human beings are preprogrammed to limit our data and to draw early conclusions to jump to conclusions. And both of these are different sides.
Fraser: And you can see how those keep us alive from an evolutionary standpoint, right?
Pamela: Right.
Fraser: You can see how if you’re hearing a lot of noises all at the same time, you’re starting to think, well, maybe that’s a sabretooth tiger in that sound over there somewhere, and then vice versa. It’s quiet. Too quiet.
Pamela: Exactly.
Fraser: Right?
Pamela: And philosopher Francis Bacon actually said this very well back in 1620. He said, “And such is the way of all superstition, whether in astrology, dreams, omens, divine judgements, or the like; wherein men, having a delight in such vanities, marked the events where they are fulfilled. But where they failed, though this happened much oftener, neglect and passed them by.”
Fraser: We remember the hits, and we forget the misses.
Pamela: Another way of putting this… I was on Twitter last night, “All fungi are edible. Some of them just only once.”
Fraser: That’s true. We’ve actually had a rash of those death cap mushrooms on the island.
Pamela: Oh, no.
Fraser: Yeah, somebody died from eating a death cap, a little child here on Vancouver Island. They’re spreading up this far north. So yeah, that’s really good. That’s a good thing on Twitter. Thanks, Twitter. Cool. So, are there any advice that you could give to people who are trying to live in this world and not fall to their biases too much? What can we do to try and protect ourselves and protect the world?
Pamela: At the end of the day, we all need to have friends that we can have open, frank discussions with where they’re like, “No, dude, have you thought this through?” And dude is a gender-free term. And it’s that friend that you can have this friendly debate with back and forth, both of you calling each other, and being able to acknowledge your bias in reflection of another person who has different ways of thinking.
Now, during this particular election cycle, I know just about everyone has had to unfriend that one person who’s utterly unexamined and has a completely different idea and is constantly being shouty on social media. We all have that one, or more, friend or relative. But we need to have the person who has the different idea that is also open and able to debate. And this is the idea behind peer review. Where if all of us work together, if we all poke fingers at each other’s thoughts and ideas –
The best example of this I’ve ever seen was back when I was in grad school, my advisor, John Kormondy, we had just finished listening to a talk on Modified Newtonian Gravity, and this was back before we had gravitational microlensing observations showing us, no, Dark Matter is actually stuff. It’s made of particles. And this was a really good talk. And I went into his office afterwards to ask him a question for my dissertation. And he was sitting there with his head in his hands, and he’s like, this could be true.
And you could see that he was thoroughly thinking through all of the evidence, all of the ideas, and we all need to have those moments of deeply questioning and struggling with our ideas because someone else called us out and showed us a different way of looking at things. It’s only through getting out of the echo chamber that we can really move thought, ideas, and science forward.
Fraser: Yeah. Yeah, it always breaks your heart when you hear about the really great, really valid scientific ideas that were kind of quashed for too long, or the wrong ideas that were held too long even though the evidence was really mounting. And a lot of people’s careers were kind of ruined because the establishment wouldn’t necessarily be open to new ideas and change their mind. So, it does go both ways. And it just shows that it is a kind of pernicious mind state that we all need to be really careful about, and we should be constantly examining our personal biases and professional as well. Especially during this political system. Wow. You know? You watch the debate, and then you watch the stream on Twitter, and it’s as if there are two different debates going on.
Pamela: Yeah.
Fraser: You know? People are watching two different kinds of debates with their opinions. And I wish there would be a way that people would just sit and just talk about the things in a way that isn’t shouty, you know? Right, here’s what you think, here’s what I think. Let’s agree. Let’s just agree. Yeah.
Pamela: And this is where perhaps the best way to move past confirmation bias, is to learn how to have articulate debates that is from a point of respect, even if you both have different ideas. And if we can somehow learn how to question without being shouty, and being open to hearing someone else’s perspective. Of course, that’s a kind of transcendent idea that we may not be ready for as actual human beings.
Fraser: Well, you know, that could just be your confirmation bias.
Pamela: That’s true. It’s true.
Fraser: All right, well, thank you, Pamela.
Pamela: Thank you.
Male Speaker: Thank you for listening to Astronomy Cast, a non-profit resource provided by Astrosphere New Media Association, Fraser Cain, and Dr. Pamela Gay. You can find show notes and transcripts for every episode at AstronomyCast.Com. You can email us at info@AstronomyCast.com, tweet us @AstronomyCast, like us on Facebook, or Circle us on Google+. We record the show live on YouTube every Friday at 1:30 p.m. Pacific/4:30 p.m. Eastern/20:30 GMT. If you missed the live event, you can always catch up over at CosmoQuest.Org, or our YouTube page. To subscribe to the show, point your podcasting software at AstronomyCast.Com/podcast.xml, or subscribe directly from iTunes. Our music is provided by Travis Earl, and the show is edited by Chad Webber.
[End of Audio]
Duration: 36 minutes

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