You are biased!

Community member post by Matthew Welsh

matthew-welsh
Matthew Welsh (biography)

Complex, real-world problems require cooperation or agreement amongst people of diverse backgrounds and, often, opinions. Our ability to trust in the goodwill of other stakeholders, however, is being eroded by constant accusations of ‘bias’. These are made by commentators about scientists, politicians about media outlets and people of differing political viewpoints about one another. Against this cacophony of accusation, it is worthwhile stepping back and asking “what do we mean when we say ‘bias’ and what does it say about us and about others?”.

When used in this accusatory manner, bias is a loaded word. It comes with an assumption of deliberate, motivated deceit. When we make an accusation of bias, we are accusing our targets of being bad people. We assume that they know better but continue to deliberately misrepresent the truth.

While this may be true in some instances, deliberate deceit is often not the case. If you examine people’s cognition – how they make decisions, interpret information or search for options – something becomes increasingly apparent: many biases arise without any need for us to posit conscious motivations. That is, biases occur not because people are bad or dishonest but simply because they are people – and have cognitive limitations that impact how they interpret and understand the world.

To take a well-known example from decision making research, confirmation bias is often described as people’s tendency to seek out and preferentially accept evidence that conforms to their pre-existing beliefs (see, eg., Nickerson 1998). Reading this description, it sounds like the result of a person’s conscious decision to deliberately avoid information they know is relevant. Discussed in terms of how people process information, however, it becomes less sinister.

For example, to assist their understanding and reduce cognitive effort, people simplify the complex world by constructing interconnected, causal explanations and categories – so-called schema. The entire point of such schema is that when a new piece of information is presented, if it fits within a schema, it can be uncritically accepted. If, however, new information contradicts existing beliefs, it triggers cognitive processes designed to see whether the new information should be disregarded or the schema changed. Obviously, changing a schema involves significantly more effort and, so, makes sense only in exceptional circumstances. Thus, we subject ‘surprising’ information to critical examination, which results in it being subjected to greater scrutiny and being regarded as more doubtful than unsurprising evidence. This holds true whether a scientist is reviewing a paper that presents evidence that runs contrary to their own theories or a non-scientist is scanning the internet for information about the efficacy/dangers of vaccines – their initial beliefs will, unconsciously, bias how plausible data seem.

Similarly, when we need to select among sources of information, we do not know which sources are reliable across all areas of knowledge. Instead, we select sources that we trust to provide plausible information – and, for exactly the reason outlined above, these tend to be ones that present information that accords with our pre-existing beliefs. This is because such information is easier to digest and our minds use ‘fluency’ (the ease with which we understand something) as a marker for truth. Thus, without any motivation beyond seeking information, our cognitive limitations result in us preferring evidence that reinforces what we already believe – producing the confirmation bias and potentially amplifying any initial errors in our beliefs.

So, when you are next inclined to bemoan other people’s bias, remember that ‘biased’ is the natural state of people – resulting from our attempts to grapple with a complex world using limited cognitive abilities. Rather than assuming malfeasance, a better use of your time may be trying to understand which limitations might be causing biases and considering how to present information to assist others in overcoming our shared cognitive limitations.

That is, if everyone is biased, what can we do about it? Just explaining that someone’s belief is false does not work – just think of how difficult it has been to displace the idea that vaccinations cause autism once it took hold. There is no evidence for this relationship but removing it leaves a ‘hole’ in the person’s schema. That is, because the actual cause of autism is unknown, removing vaccines as the cause results in an incomplete and thus incoherent account and people revert to their simple, coherent, false explanation as this is, subjectively, superior (remembering that ‘easy = true’ so a simple explanation is seen as more likely to be true).

This, then, illuminates a key for debiasing effects like confirmation bias. Rather than trying to insert facts into pre-existing schema they are at odds with, we need to focus on creating alternative accounts that are complete in and of themselves – building on a person’s existing beliefs. Imagine a process like a Socratic dialogue, where you start with simple, readily agreeable, facts and then build on these towards your final conclusion. Another cognitive limitation assists in this – knowledge partitioning: the observation that people construct different schema to explain different parts of the world and can be unconscious of discrepancies between these. For example, rather than repeating evidence for climate change from various scientific sources (which a sceptic may regard as unreliable when interpreted through their political schema), you could attempt to build on their potentially separate schema for basic science (the physics of the greenhouse effect, etc) towards the scientific consensus opinion that human activity is driving climate change.

The process described above is, of course, time consuming and difficult – requiring deep thought about how and why a person might be displaying biased thinking and about what other aspects of their knowledge you might be able to leverage in assisting them avoid this bias. It is, however, far more likely to work than standing at ten paces shouting “bias!” at one another.

Are there any strategies you have found useful for identifying and countering your own or other people’s cognitive biases? Do you have examples of ways to present information that might assist a recipient in avoiding confirmation (or other) biases?

To find out more about confirmation and other biases and how they can be countered:
Welsh, M. (2018). Bias in science and communication: A field guide. IOP Press: Bristol, United Kingdom; http://iopscience.iop.org/book/978-0-7503-1311-7

Reference:
Nickerson, R. S. (1998). Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises. Review of General Psychology, 2, 2: 175-220.

Biography: Matthew Welsh PhD is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian School of Petroleum, University of Adelaide, Australia. His research and teaching focus on how people’s inherent cognitive processes affect their judgements, estimates and decisions and the implications of this for real-world decision making.

Ten steps to strengthen the environmental humanities

Community member post by Christoph Kueffer and Marcus Hall

Christoph Kueffer (biography)

How might the environmental humanities complement insights offered by the environmental sciences, while also remaining faithful to their goal of addressing complexity in analysis and searching for solutions that are context-dependent and pluralistic?

There is a long and rich tradition of scholarship in the humanities addressing environmental problems. Included under the term ‘environmental studies’ until recently, fields such as the arts, design, history, literary studies, and philosophy are now gathering under the new umbrella of the ‘environmental humanities’.

Marcus Hall (biography)

Environmental problems are seen by environmental humanists as inherently human problems. The environmental humanities cultivate methodologies and epistemologies that value context-dependence, multiperspectivity, relativism, and subjectivity. Thus different research themes are relevant, for instance, in questions of environmental justice that require us to focus on multiple meanings and values. Such insights complement the environmental sciences that are often rooted in the natural sciences and the scientific method.

Here we list ten ways to make the voice of the environmental humanities stronger, based on a report of a survey we distributed to environmental humanists working worldwide about how their field can add crucial tools to problem-oriented environmental research.

1. Resetting the agenda in science policy to emphasize human needs
Alternative themes and ways of doing research provided by the environmental humanities must be moved to the top of scientific and science policy agendas at national and international levels. For example, humanists and artists must sit on steering committees and expert panels, such as those that advise the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), or Future Earth. They must join expert groups at national and local levels which examine issues that transcend the natural sciences, such as biodiversity loss, climate change, energy transition, urban and spatial planning, and the green economy.

2. Challenging dominant scientific paradigms and science-policy institutions
Changing the academic agenda can also mean that certain dominant scientific approaches or institutions at the science-policy nexus are challenged. This can involve criticizing particular aspects of existing research paradigms, such as anthropocentrism and human exceptionalism, a simplistic systems analysis approach, or biased problem framings (eg., in invasion biology, or of the Anthropocene concept). It can also mean making unheard voices heard (eg., those of indigenous people). Further, it can involve critically analysing existing science-policy bodies (eg., IPCC or IPBES).

3. Strengthening the voice of the environmental humanities
The environmental humanities have developed a rich body of conceptual ideas, and build on an even richer tradition of environmental studies ranging from political ecology and post-colonial studies, to critiques of capitalism, and feminist perspectives on eco-criticism. However, in comparison to the very influential theoretical paradigms from the environmental sciences or economics, a more visible integration of pluralistic environmental humanities perspectives remains to be developed and appreciated. A promising strategy might be that environmental humanists ask themselves how their perspectives might alter, complement, or replace existing and emerging bodies of environmental theory, for instance in visions of sustainability or in societal transformation.

4. Experimenting with new epistemologies and methodologies
Many scholars in the environmental humanities are experimenting with new epistemologies and methodologies, or with integrating existing ones in new ways. Environmental humanists emphasize aspects such as contextualization of knowledge and studies, relational and situated knowledge, connecting themes that are conceptually disparate, providing qualitative data, or including participation of indigenous and affected peoples, marginalized scientific views, or else non-human living beings and non-living actors. The environmental humanities are an opportunity for the confluence of multiple epistemologies and methodologies ranging from the arts to the natural sciences.

5. Up-scaling local case studies to regional and global scales
Scholarship in the environmental humanities often focuses on case studies to ensure that research leads to thick descriptions and holistic integration of multiple themes, perspectives and ways of representation. A growing number of programs endeavour to connect local case studies at regional and global scales. This up-scales local research enabling international exchange of knowledge and strengthening multiples voices; often through virtual platforms.

6. New forums for knowledge exchange
It is essential to have diverse conversations within the humanities, across the humanities-science cultural divide, and between academics and people of all walks of life. There is a need for forums that are open to experimentation, free from the pressure of producing immediate results, and that occupy respectful and neutral ground, while allowing sufficient time and energy for intensive engagement. Examples are workshops embedded in real-world cases, longer-term internships of artists in scientific laboratories, public events bringing together artists and scientists, and interactive formats employed by museums.

7. New research teams and institutional structures
There is a need for both long-term interdisciplinary research teams and institutions, as well as short-term multi-talented teams oriented toward offering immediate recommendations. Indeed, there are now many environmental humanities centres worldwide that are experimenting with different institutional forms for facilitating teamwork across a diversity of thinkers, styles, and attitudes.

8. New forms of engaging with the public and the world of practice
Environmental humanists emphasize that engaging with the public and with practitioners must be done in a critical and reflective way. This can mean employing ‘Socratic dialogues’ between academia and the public to focus on questions more than answers. Humanists and artists can use (and experiment with) a wide array of tools and expertise. They specialize in representing and communicating ideas, experiences, knowledge, meaning, and relationships through different media and in different settings; and they can profit from their expertise in reflecting on the semiotics and social, cultural, psychological, emotional, and aesthetic dimensions of communication. They can also draw from multiple media, ranging from film, visual art, performance art, prose, song, exhibitions, stories, design, and social interventions.

9. Consultancy, advocacy and activism
There are many good examples of successful direct application of environmental humanities insights and expertise that can be built upon. For instance, there is a need for specific expertise on environmental law and regulation, environmental ethics and the valuation of environmental goods, governance, communication and eco-media. There is also value in simplifying insights for those immediately affected, such as grassroots activists – in the form of manuals, guidelines, and toolboxes. At a more generic level, there are many examples of books and films that appeal to a general audience and provide lasting success and influence. Some environmental humanists go one step further, putting themselves forward as public intellectuals as well as advocates and activists.

10. Teaching
Humanists like all academics are also teachers, and sometimes their longest-lasting influence is through their students. There is ongoing potential for quality teaching. At many universities, students in the humanities, arts and sciences do not yet have access to coursework in environmental sciences, much less in environmental arts and humanities. Teaching can build on different formats such as films, storytelling, and theatre that is situated in social learning and activism.

Conclusion

What has been your experience working with humanists focused on the environment? Can you share an instance in which insights or methodologies from the humanities (and/or the arts and humanities-oriented social sciences) provided concrete and lasting relief to an environmental dilemmas? What are the lessons for repeating this on other problems? Does environmental humanities offer a way to justify dedicating more resources to the non-sciences?

To find out more:
Kueffer, C., Thelen Lässer, K. and Hall, M. (2017). Applying the environmental humanities: Ten steps for action and implementation. Report, Swiss Academic Society for Environmental Research and Ecology; and, Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences, Bern: Switzerland. Online (open access): https://naturalsciences.ch/service/publications/97610

Biography: Christoph Kueffer is Professor of Urban Ecology at the Department of Landscape Architecture at HSR Rapperswil (University of Applied Sciences Rapperswil) and senior lecturer at ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich) in Switzerland. He has long experience in collaborating with social scientists, scholars from the humanities and artists; amongst others as a co-chair of Environmental Humanities Switzerland. Christoph’s research focuses on urban ecology, biodiversity conservation in novel and human-dominated ecosystems, and global change impacts on island and mountain ecosystems.

Biography: Marcus Hall teaches environmental humanities courses in a science-based environmental studies program at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. He is a historian of science and the environment, recently serving as Vice-President for the European Society for Environmental History. His research focuses on restoration, biological invasion, and disease ecology.

Maximizing use of research evidence – how can funders help?

Community member post by Bev Holmes

Bev Holmes (biography)

What is the role of funders in maximizing the use of research evidence?

The Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research is actively considering this question. An important influence on the Foundation’s thinking is the 2014 Lancet special issue Research: Increasing Value, Reducing Waste, which explores roles for funders, regulators, journals, academic institutions and researchers. Funders have a part to play in each of the five recommendations made in the special issue and these are reviewed first. Also examined is an additional area where funders have a role, namely creating the conditions for effective knowledge translation. Continue reading

Assessing research contribution claims: The “what else test”

Community member post by Jess Dart

Jess Dart (biography)

In situations where multiple factors, in addition to your research, are likely to have caused an observed policy or practice change, how can you measure your contribution? How can you be sure that the changes would not have happened anyway?

In making contribution claims there are three levels of rigour, each requiring more evaluation expertise and resourcing. These are summarised in the table below. The focus in this blog post is on the basic or minimum level of evaluation and specifically on the “what else test.” Continue reading

Long-term collaboration: Beware blaming back and blaming forward

Community member post by Charles Lines

Charles Lines (biography)

How can conflict be minimised in long-term collaborations where there is the potential to change priorities over time?

Partners who contributed to creating a collaborative initiative or who joined it early might, quite naturally, prefer to look back at the times when they were most influential and able to shape priorities and contribute significantly to achievements in which they believed.

Also, quite naturally, those who joined a collaborative initiative later may prefer to look forwards towards new approaches and ways of doing things that might increase their influence and enable them to shape priorities and achieve things important to them. Continue reading

Producing evaluation and communication strategies in tandem

Community member post by Ricardo Ramírez and Dal Brodhead

ricardo-ramirez
Ricardo Ramírez (biography)

How can projects produce evaluation and communication strategies in tandem? Why should they even try? A major benefit of helping projects produce evaluation and communication strategies at the same time is that it helps projects clarify their theories of change; it helps teams be specific and explicit about their actions. Before returning to the benefits, let us begin with how we mentor projects to use this approach. Continue reading