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Confirmation bias inhibits discovery

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Humans are a funny lot. We say we’re open-minded, but most of us are only open to ideas that we agree with. Being open to ideas we disagree with is hard work. Cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable, but it can be an important part of our own personal growth.

Confirmation bias, on the other hand, is quite comfortable, easily achievable, and usually fully unconsciously embraced.

Thanks to social media, confirmation bias is rampant these days. We follow pages and people we can relate to. We like and share posts that speak to us. We spread news stories that we hope are true without checking the sources. Click-bait and parody sites are taken seriously as their false, or mostly false, stories spread across Twitter and Facebook like wildfire, proliferated by people who didn’t stop to consider they might not be true.

To some degree, everyone is guilty of confirmation bias because — like I said — it’s easy and it comes naturally to us. Scientists, politicians, and religious leaders are all included. In fact, confirmation bias is probably the most inclusive topic in existence.

Meteorologists and climatologists are as likely as anyone else to join. However, a few of us — some famous, some not — are almost obsessively aware of our own biases and we fight them as much as possible. We welcome cognitive dissonance because it means we are truly staying open-minded. Being open-minded means that we know we can’t possibly have all the answers. We acknowledge that there are likely factors in most topics that we haven’t even considered, or we may not even know they exist. We stay curious about everything because new things are being discovered every day and sometimes those new things are evidence enough to change our thinking. Closed-minded people are unlikely to entertain ideas or consider facts that could possibly prove them wrong because being wrong is uncomfortable.

One of my pet peeves when I read posts, articles and blogs by other scientists is when I see over-exaggerated confidence that they have all the answers and everyone who disagrees with them are bumbling idiots, liars or charlatans. Often those who disagree have their own confirmation biases and are coming from a different frame of reference — their own set of beliefs, lessons and values. In fact, our frames of reference are what make us unique individuals with our own ways of thinking.

Friendly conversation and competition should be the ultimate goal. Let each person run their own race to find the truth, and eventually, we’ll all be closer to truth by openly sharing ideas without fear of being called names and publicly ridiculed for our individual thought processes. When we all accept that we can’t possibly know everything, together we will move closer to knowing so much more.

Niki Morock is a meteorologist who writes for frontporchweather.com, a website owned by The Wilson Times.

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