When Education Doesn’t Help

In reading over the backgrounds of various would-be candidates for president, I came across one with an apparently outstanding educational background – college degree, followed by two different law degrees, government service, and later, election to Congress.  So how can such an outstanding individual, at least on paper, claim that global warming is a hoax?  I’m well aware that there are still some reputable climate scientists who have doubts about the human contribution to global warming, but the vast, vast majority of reputable scientists in the field have virtually all come to the conclusion that global warming is real and indisputable, even if they don’t all agree on the cause or causes. Every glacier in the northern hemisphere is melting away, as well as most in the southern hemisphere.  The northern polar ice is at its smallest dimension since records have been kept.


So how can a clearly well-educated individual dispute global warming?  Isn’t education supposed to allow one to look at all the facts and come to a wiser conclusion?


Not exactly.  A wide array of analyses and tests on brain and mental functions over the past decade has established that education usually doesn’t work that way because the majority of human beings are subject to a mental process called “confirmation bias.”  In the simplest terms, this means that virtually all of us tend to form our opinions first and then seek confirmation of those opinions afterward.  In practice, recent studies show it gets worse than that, because more highly educated individuals have access and exposure to a far wider range of facts and information – and then pick and choose the facts necessary to support their view.  In dealing with global warming, for example, they’ll pick the three studies out of a thousand that dispute global warming, and claim that those studies are the ones that count.  Precisely because such individuals are more highly educated, their convictions are even more unshakable than individuals who are less highly educated, and they’re generally unresponsive even to a massive weight of evidence.


The problem is even worse when such individuals deal with issues outside their fields of expertise, because they firmly believe that their expertise applies everywhere.  This is why often noted scientists or other professionals take strange positions in fields in which their expertise is limited or non-existent, such as attorneys in politics becoming “experts” in economics or environmental or trade issues,


I have to wonder how many of these politicians ask the simple question, “Do I believe this just because I want to?”  But, even if they do ask the question, I fear that their confirmation bias will tell them that they’re just analyzing the facts accurately… and that all those who disagree with them just don’t understand the obvious.  I mean… isn’t it obvious?



6 thoughts on “When Education Doesn’t Help”

  1. Sam says:

    This raises an interesting question or two for me. Are there people who are naturally immune/wired against confirmation bias or is this something that afflicts everyone?

    If everyone is afflicted with this condition then are people only in the right because they are lucky not because they are intelligent and/or well educated?

    Is there a cure/treatment for this affliction? Apparently an education is not.

  2. Like everything else, “confirmation bias” affects different people to different degrees, probably along the standard bell shaped curve. It’s also likely affected by early learning/environment, and by the processes people in different disciplines are subjected to. For example, the scientific process of peer review, while far from perfect, does have a strong tendency over time to weed out erroneous scientific “findings.” On the other hand, from what I’ve observed, politics tends to strongly reinforce confirmation bias.

  3. Kathryn says:

    I think that climate change denial is a big issue, even here in the UK, but I don’t think we experience it here as much as you do in the US.

    Education, in my opinion, counts for very little, whether you’re a politician or otherwise. You could have a highly intelligent person who has this “confirmation bias” with regards to, say, their religion. They’ll fit their findings and so forth around their religion, and ignore or discount that which won’t agree with what they believe.

    But even in my experience at work, I find education counts for little. I work around a lot of university students, even some Masters students, and I’ve found that half of them don’t have any common sense. It’s how you apply your intellect and your knowledge that matters.

    The question the voter must ask is “If this candidate thinks this, do I want to vote for them?”. If they’re turning a blind eye to what is a very important issue in the coming decades, then what else will they turn a blind eye to? That, in my opinion, is more worrying.

  4. Robert The Addled says:

    I’m thinking it affects everyone – but WHAT is being ‘confirmed’ differs. It’s been reported occasionally in the mass media that studies prove that people judge the intelligence of others based on how much they agreed with our own thinking. Similarly there are studies (the gorilla in the basketball game) that show we tune things out while concentrating. Therefore (sloppy logic I know) when we are searching/researching – we tend to ‘find'(choose) the results that meet the search criteria. Another study reported in mass media showed that HAVING to defend a particular argument that an individual normally disagreed with (such as in a debate class) actually could and often DID bring a change to the opinions of the individual in question. SO – perhaps manditory paranoia and self doubt would be the only way to completely eliminate the confirmation bias.

  5. Bob says:

    Trust a politician to resolve any problem…confirmation bias or not. I think not! That’s how most of our messes get started.

  6. Bob Howard says:

    Goes along with the earlier discussion about the increasing fragmentation in the media and how we are increasingly limiting our exposure to sources we know to be in sync with our biases.

    In the case of global climate change, I’m constantly amazed by the certitude with which so many “deniers” scoff at the clear evidence. They’ll often compound their errors by pointing out what a cold winter we just had, thus mistakingly conflating weather and climate.

    Similarly, arguing against evolution obviously is for the most part based on religious “evidence,” yet many cloak their positions in pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo, false choice arguments and tiresome references to actual scientific principles that have little or no bearing on the process. It astounds me that people who otherwise would be considered well-educated can so easily allow themselves to fall victim to this sort of confirmation bias.

    I don’t see any practical solution, other than the real experts having the courage to speak out when politicians spout this nonsense. Unfortunately, those who most need to hear such denunciations are in turn the least likely to even hear them, much less believe. In fact, it seems the true believers are increasingly more likely to see the real specialists as suspect, as members of an elite class of eggheads and ivory tower recluses out of touch with reality. When you’ve already decided to drink the koolaid, you’re not really likely to listen to that elitist idiot telling you it’s not good for you.

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