Tell Me What I Believe: What you Need to Know About Confirmation Bias

Through these past few months, I have been exploring and discovering barriers scientists/science enthusiasts face while communicating science.  Of all I’ve learned about science communication, the theory of Confirmation Bias seems to play a large role in the divide between scientists and the general public.  Really, a lot of miscommunication and pseudoscience spreads so quickly and is so readily accepted because of confirmation bias.

  • What is confirmation bias?

Confirmation bias is “a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions, leading to statistical errors.” Basically, if I think I’m right about something, I can Google my point of view and will most likely find information out that that confirms what I already believe, making me that much more sure of my bias.  I had my students test this out by doing a Google search on abortion.  Have the class Googled “abortion is wrong” and half Googled “abortion should be legal.”  We discussed their web results, which were reflective of the way they searched for abortion.  This simple experiment shows that unless you use very neutral terms, the way you Google a controversial issue can skew the web results you get.

  • Why should we care about confirmation bias?

With the Internet readily accessible, it is easier than ever to search for information that supports your preconceived notions.  As a science communicator, you can find yourself talking in circles to someone who did their “research” and thus knows that GMOs are evil and anyone who tells you different is a Monsanto shill.  It doesn’t matter if their are hundreds of articles out there that confirm the safety of GMOs, people who are skeptical of them will find an article that supports their beliefs and hang on to that.

  • What can science communicators do about confirmation bias?

Obviously, you can’t control people’s Googling search terms or how they seek out information.  What you can do though is be aware of current scientific issues, especially those that are tied with politics or moral issues.  As I’ve mentioned before, see a scientific argument as a partnership.  And finally, use tips from my previous posts to build trust with your audience so you can fairly recognize confirmation bias and refute with evidence.

Have you ever met someone who struggled with confirmation bias?  Share your stories in the comments section below.

As always, thanks for stopping by my blog. In my next post, I’ll be wrapping up this series with a reflection on what I’ve learned during the last two years in my Master’s degree program.  I will soon graduate and then hopefully apply my knowledge to a career utilizing science communication.  Make sure to subscribe to my blog and follow me on Twitter or Facebook for the latest updates.



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