Confirmation Bias « You Are Not So Smart

Confirmation bias is seeing the world through a filter, thinking selectively.

The examples above are a sort of passive version of the phenomenon. The real trouble begins when confirmation bias distorts your active pursuit of facts.

Punditry is a whole industry built on confirmation bias.

Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann, Glenn Beck and Arianna Huffington, Rachel Maddow and Ann Coulter – these people provide fuel for beliefs, they pre-filter the world to match existing world-views.

If their filter is like your filter, you love them. If it isn’t, you hate them.

Whether or not pundits are telling the truth, or vetting their opinions, or thoroughly researching their topics is all beside the point. You watch them not for information, but for confirmation.

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Les Murray’s New Shed

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Mainly the steady show of recalcitrant realism – not the purpose of his total effort, but nearly always its undertone – springs from the fact that the poet, like all the people mentioned in his poems, works for a living. Luckily for his box office figures, he doesn’t make the business of observation sound always like hard yakka. Even when close to home in the bush, you can sometimes, as in “The Cowladder Stanzas”, just look.

Not from a weather direction
Black cockatoos come crying over
Unflapping as Bleriot monoplanes
To crash in pine tops for the cones.

The monoplanes were in at the start of the transportation revolution that would give the Australian poets the world for an oyster. Famous for having never left home, Murray has left home over and over, piling up the languages and the air-miles in a quietly successful quest for world citizenship.

Collaborating with Citizen Scientists

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So when Hutten — who is seeking a Ph.D. in forest ecology at Oregon State University, Corvallis — and his fellow park rangers needed help surveying the park’s lichen, they enlisted experienced rock climbers. Over 2 weeks in 2007 and 2008, those volunteer climbers helped collect 394 lichen specimens. This year, the researchers are asking volunteers to help with other parts of their biodiversity survey, such as counting birds from the valley floor.

Hutten’s project is one of many worldwide in which volunteers help scientists collect data in ways that range from mundane to vital. Such help, although voluntary, is not free. Recruiting volunteers, finding appropriate ways for them to contribute, training them, keeping them motivated, and ensuring the quality of the data they collect requires time, money, and management expertise.

One of the keys is to communicate well and keep the volunteers plugged in to the scientific big picture, says Chris Lintott, an astronomer at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and a coordinator of the Galaxy Zoo project which uses volunteers to catalog a database of galaxies. “You really need to treat the volunteers as collaborators,” he says.