Does science tend to confirm or refute our innate biases ?
by Owen Martin
Darwin's theory of Evolution was not accepted at first mainly because it ran counter to our intuition. People thought that man simply could not have descended from apes because of religious reasons but also because there were no apes evolving into men in the present day. It was generally assumed that humans always existed since the beginning of time. Relative to people's everyday experiences, the theory simply sounded absurd. The theory of Evolution itself helps explain why. We evolved to survive over relatively small timescales - 40 to 80 years - so this made a theory which operated (for the most part) over much longer timescales harder to grasp and harder for our intuition to accept.
Relativity, as Einstein pointed out, means that we really don't know where we are on the spatial map. If you are watching a train pass by how do you know that it's not you that's moving instead of the train ? What if it costs 1,000 lira to buy a cup of coffee ? Is this expensive or is this cheap ? We have no way of knowing unless we can compare the price relative to something else. It's the same with evolution, we don't see the incremental evolutionary changes because we live for too short a time relative to the timescales it operates over (we cannot see the bigger picture). Perhaps Methuselah who lived for 969 years might have had a better chance. Science helps us see past our natural biases and understand how nature operates over long timescales.
So what has this got to do with climate change ? Well, how do we know what is the correct temperature ? In the 1970's, we thought it was becoming too cold. Today, we think it is becoming too hot. But too hot or too cold relative to what exactly ? What we do know for sure is that we are living in an interglacial period. The timescales over which major climate events occur are over many thousands of years (like evolution). So once again, as humans, we don't notice these changes, each generation simply adapts or dies. However, there are smaller temperature changes and cycles that can occur over a person's lifetime. Take the Atlantic temperature cycle (Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation) for example, which has a 30-40 year hot and cold cycle :
This cycle has a nice fit with both observed land and satellite temperatures - see here and here.
Humans tend to think that the period they happen to live in is the norm. There are good evolutionary reasons for this. We need to adapt to the present climate to survive. Whatever happened before is irrelevant for survival. Whoever survives reproduces and passes on their survival genes to the next generation. So if you grew up in the 1970s, you probably think that the climate being a bit on the cooler side is normal. Now that things have warmed up a bit, your intuition tells you there is something wrong - let's call this climate exceptionalism. However, if you knew that the climate got warmer during the 1940s, then cooler, then warmer again, it may not seem all that alarming. If you knew that the Little Ice Age only occurred a few hundred years ago and lasted over many generations, you might become less alarmed.
So again, science should help us see past our innate biases. On a purely scientific objective basis, we are enormously lucky to have been born either side of a major or minor ice age period. We can't see this without the help of science. Without the aid of science, we would think that this is how the climate has always been and always will be (just like the innate idea that man has always existed). We can adapt so well to the present climate we find ourselves in, that we are not conscious of the possibility of a different climate as it would be surplus to evolutionary requirements. In any event, it's only very recently that man has learned to figure out what the climate of the past looked like by examining ice cores. Thanks to science.
Despite all this, mainstream science has been unable to see past human's innate bias in the case of climate change. Instead science has reinforced the unscientific public's natural bias that the climate they presently inhabit is the norm and that any sudden change in this climate (towards hot or cold) is therefore unprecedented and alarming. The media, who are mostly an unscientific bunch, then pick up on this and run with it. Many people ask why would scientists do this ? Perhaps unlike with evolution, they have been unable to overcome their own innate biases, or perhaps they've found that funding dries up when they don't reinforce the public's natural biases. After all, politicians who are successful are the ones who know how to play to the voters biases and it's the politicians who control climate funding and research. This differs from evolutionary research which is incapable of being politicized. Nobody is ever going to become elected because they could explain so wonderfully the theory of evolution, although you might become elected in religious countries or states if you deny evolution much like if you make the case for climate exceptionalism and the dangers of a changing climate.
The climate skeptics are then labelled deniers. We are faced with swimming up the intellectual current that is in the main driven by innate human biases.
So what can we learn from this ? Innate biases are good for us - most of us have a drive to succeed in life, nobody will willingly put their hand in a fire, incest is innately bad for good biological reasons, likewise hunger is good for us. Innate biases made us succeed where other homo species didn't. But when we try to understand more complex things that science often throws up our innate biases can often work against us (confirmation bias also has a role to play). Going back to relativity, the world looks flat from our perspective. Indeed humans can flourish and have flourished with the perception that the world is flat. Thinking that the world is not flat won't help you win a battle nor will it allow you to become a better hunter. Our innate bias still tells us the world we experience is flat (most of us would call a sheet of glass or a floor surface flat). Scientists had to overcome this bias when they explained that the world was most likely round. Think of the public bias that Copernicus had to overcome (in fact he was afraid of challenging it) when he came to the conclusion that the Sun was at the centre of the universe.
If the theory of man made climate change is correct, it would be unusual in that it confirms our innate bias that the climate is naturally constant and any change is therefore man-made and alarming. The history of science, like climate history, tells us that our innate bias about climate exceptionalism today is probably wrong. This doesn't mean it will turn out to be wrong, but the odds are against it as a viable theory.