Scientific Heresy

Bishop Hill has a transcript of the Agnus Miller lecture recently delivered by Matt Ridley at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh. His primary focus is on confirmation bias and how it affects everyone while generally only visible in those who we disagree with. In particular, he discusses how it drives the most destructive of the current pseudoscientific dogmas–Anthropomorphic  (i.e. man-made) Global Warming (AGW).

What sustains pseudoscience is confirmation bias. We look for and welcome the evidence that fits our pet theory; we ignore or question the evidence that contradicts it. We all do this all the time. It’s not, as we often assume, something that only our opponents indulge in. I do it, you do it, it takes a superhuman effort not to do it. That is what keeps myths alive, sustains conspiracy theories and keeps whole populations in thrall to strange superstitions.

I especially liked this:

There have been some very good books on this recently. Michael Shermer’s “The Believing Brain”, Dan Gardner’s “Future Babble” and Tim Harford’s “Adapt”* are explorations of the power of confirmation bias. And what I find most unsettling of all is Gardner’s conclusion that knowledge is no defence against it; indeed, the more you know, the more you fall for confirmation bias. Expertise gives you the tools to seek out the confirmations you need to buttress your beliefs.

…Philip Tetlock did the definitive experiment. He gathered a sample of 284 experts – political scientists, economists and journalists – and harvested 27,450 different specific judgments from them about the future then waited to see if they came true. The results were terrible. The experts were no better than “a dart-throwing chimpanzee”.

…”Science is the belief in the ignorance of the experts”, said Richard Feynman.

…Lesson 6. Never rely on the consensus of experts about the future. Experts are worth listening to about the past, but not the future. Futurology is pseudoscience.

He does, unfortunately, take a couple rhetorical jabs at the caricature of Christianity he holds in his mind; in doing so, he, quite unintentionally, demonstrates an example of his own confirmation bias.

Even so, it is a very informative lecture and well worth reading.

At the Bishop Hill blog, you can also find a pdf version on his site that includes several of the slides references by Mr Ridley in his lecture.

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