Understanding Confirmational Bias in Science

Confirmational bias is not only a problem in modern science, it is something that has been around for a very long time. It happens when a faulty and completely or largely non-empirical supposition is made, and forms the basis for scientists to produce test or observational data that seems to support that faulty supposition. Science history is repleat in examples of confirmational bias, and not all of these are intentional.

For example, in 1877, Giovanni Schiaparelli used a telescope to observe the planet Mars. He believed that he saw black lines on the surface, which he referred to as “canali”, which actually translates to “channels”. Many other astronomers, though, took this to mean “canals”, or something purposely created by intelligent beings. More and more scientists confirmed Schiaparelli’s observations. The scientific community only learned much later that the channels do not exist.

A much more recent example occurred in the 1970’s, when some scientists claimed to have data that proved that man, through his activities, was lowering the global temperatures, and bringing on a new ice age. While quite a few other scientists pointed out that all of the information we have shows that we are simply between ice ages, that supposition was so sensational that it didn’t take long before many people came up with data that seemed to support this notion. Eventually, the support died down, but not before billions of dollars were spent, to try to figure out how we could stop the damage and undo it. Now the pendulum has swung the opposite way, and we are now hearing how man is causing global warming, with no more real evidence than we had in the 70’s. The truth is that we really don’t know, and most true scientists support the view that we just do not have the data or way of interpreting it to make a decision about whether we even have a global warming or cooling, much less what is causing it. Still, already, billions of dollars have been spent on this opposite supposition to the one proposed over 40 years ago.

The very biggest problem with confirmational bias in science is that science is not a democracy. If 999 scientists say that something is so, but 1 puts forth a different view, there is nothing at all that says that just because ‘most’ of the 1,000 scientists say that something is so, makes it so. That 1 might be the right one. The best illustration I can think of that shows this is what happened a very long time ago in regard to the thought that the Earth was the center of the universe. For hundreds of years, scientists used this bias to find collaborating evidence, and each time a scientist would disagree, that scientist was usually discredited in one way or another. The number of scientists that believed this supposition was huge, and it prevented solid advancement for a very long time. Of course, we now know that Earth isn’t the center of the universe, it isn’t even the center of the galaxy, nor is it the center of our solar system. Only the minority of scientists believed this truth.

This sort of bias slows down or halts the exchange of truths and the advancement of science. That is not only a problem, this is a travesty. Science is supposed to be empirical, based directly from data and information that is gathered, rather than on opinion. It seems, though, that many scientists are more concerned with standing and money, than they are with finding the truth.