Confirmation Bias in Science Media

Democracy, it might be said, is about people making informed decisions for themselves. This premise believes that people are rational in their decision-making; if we have all the facts, then we will come to the proper, intelligent, balanced, sensible conclusions. If that’s really the case, then why does controversy exist?

One reason: people may only be researching one side of the story –the side they already agree with- no matter whether or not other views are available.

 

Media Consumption

Researchers Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick and Jingo Meng at Ohio State University studied how much time and attention people give to news articles that are already in line with what they believe (“attitude-consistent”) and articles that describe an opinion opposite to their own (“counterattitudinal”). The researchers created a fake online news magazine with a variety of articles, including some on four controversial “target issues”: gun control, abortion, minimum wage, and universal healthcare.

By measuring how much time subjects read either the pro and/or con articles on controversial subjects, the researchers were able to determine how much people “exposed” themselves to differing opinions. Perhaps unsurprisingly, researchers found that people are more likely to pursue articles that confirm their beliefs (36% more time on attitude-consistent articles than on counterattidudinal articles). This is more commonly known as confirmation bias.

From the popular webcomic: http://xkcd.com/258/

But what does this mean for science media?

While this democratic-rational-mind-informative-media concept usually makes us think of political issues, the fact is, political issues often are science: science becomes the realm of politics when the results affect everyone.

For example, climate change is an international debate between equally respectable, reasonable people who have looked at what the science has reported, and come to entirely different conclusions. Other examples include stem cell research, GMOs, and pollution. Even issues like gun control and poverty need statistical data to support any argument.

So what do we do about it?

If people are more likely to skip articles which contradict their already-established opinions, how are we, as a public and as a democracy, supposed to make informed decisions about science?   

…… This is where things get difficult.

Largely, it’s probably up to each individual to recognize the reality of confirmation bias and personally strive to correct for this psychological tendency by (open-mindedly) seeking out both sides of a debate. Creators of media, like journalists, can try to minimize their own biases and own up to any mistakes.

These aren’t exactly thrilling solutions though. Can you think of any better strategies for dealing with confirmation bias as Science Communicators?

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Reference: Knobloch-Westerwick, S., & Meng, J. (2009). Looking the other way: Selective exposure to attitude-consistent and counterattitudinal political information. Communication Research, 36(3), 426-448.

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12 comments on “Confirmation Bias in Science Media

  1. Great blog, I love this topic. It is so fascinating how people unconsciously do what rationally they actually dislike. And it appears that confirmation bias may get even worse.

    I read an article in the New Scientist recently, in which the author Ananthaswamy cautions for even more unwanted bias through customised internet searches without consent. As scary as this sounds, it seems to be the next step. The more you use the internet, the more information on your search habits and preferred topics, previously visited sites and your field of expertise and interest can be tagged and tracked. This can then determine which sites related to the keywords of a new search will appear at the top of your list in Google for example.

    The author argues that the internet originally reflected openness, more democracy and freedom. The world of information would be open to everyone. With this new trend serving confirmation bias, the age of the ‘splinternet’ has started with the internet fragmenting into spaces highly controlled by the big software giants to enhance the provision of tailor fitted but therefore biased information.

    Such developments will make it harder to inform yourself in a balanced manner and instead of coming up with a better strategy for dealing with confirmation bias as(science)communicators, this kind of news seems to make the problem even bigger.

    Ananthaswamy, A. (2011).Welcome to the Age of the Splinternet. New Scientist, issue 2821,16 July, pp 42-45.
    Available from http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21128211.900-welcome-to-the-age-of-the-splinternet.html

  2. I think people need to be made aware that they often surround themselves with like-minded people. We discussed in class that with the internet and blogs, people with the same opinions or conspiracy theories tend to communicate with each other and lose that ability to recognize and value the other side of the argument. Their beliefs are continually reinforced with no exposure to opposing ideas that may even be supported by fact.
    Even google will give you results similar to what you’ve previously searched for, which contributes to this idea.
    People need to be aware of this effect so they can keep an open mind. However I think it can always be helpful and useful to have opposing ideas. It encourages us to search for facts and results to try and rebut those ideas.

  3. Anke and Aisling, you both raise very important points about confirmation bias on the internet! I find it interesting that, in this context of confirmation bias, we are very worried about the segmentation of the internet, but in the first few weeks of class I recall praising how we can find very specific communities for anything on the internet. When we are looking for a podcast, following narrow interests was a good thing.

    In relation to the search software tailoring, do you think that it would be better if the search engines purposely showed you counterattitudinal information, or would that just be biased in a different way? Are there any good reasons for creating person-specific searches? If all search-tailoring is bad, what is the alternative?

  4. I think for the most part, search tailoring on the internet is a good thing because it saves me a lot of time scrolling pasted irrelevant websites. Most of the time I am looking for very specific things and don’t want to waste my time being exposed to new things, no matter how good it would be for my overall well-roundedness. To me a bigger problem than ‘splinternet’ is peoples’ closed-mindedness.

    The post mentions how hard it is to get people exposed to both sides of an argument; however, just because people have read all the sides doesn’t mean that they actually absorbed all the information. I know from my own personal pig-headedness, if I’m reading an article by an author that shares my views then I soak up the arguments like a sponge (even the week or nonsensical arguments); however, if I’m reading an article with an opposing view then, my brain instantly clicks into defensive, obstinate, teenager mode where I actively block out all their logical arguments. The period in every sentence is followed by an internal commentary that goes “this is the stupidest thing I have ever heard. I don’t believe a word of it.” In this case I’m still reconfirming my confirmation bias because, despite exposure to alternative ideas, I am still actively ignoring them.

    I agree that confirmation bias is an individual battle that each person should fight hard to minimize, but that is much easier said than done. Depending on the issue, I have some pretty strong opinions, which have been challenged by others, but I doubt they’ve ever been challenged by me. Through challenging my ideas I could realizes that I was wrong. I don’t like being wrong. To a logical person this seems like a silly reasoning, but from an emotional point of view it can pretty scary to realized what you thought was true is actually not. So maybe a better approach is to convince people that changing core ideas is okay, and the fact that you weren’t always correct doesn’t make you any less smart.

  5. I find the search software tailoring to be a very interesting aspect of the internet. It weirds me out that google almost ‘knows’ what I want to find. As far as new ideas for dealing with confirmation bias, I think the media has a large role. Displaying both sides of the story would be great. However, this would probably lead to some very boring stories with no ‘hook’.

    Let’s face it, people love controversy, and I think human curiousity won’t be completely satisfied with bias free reporting. I personally try and explore things on my own, which is hard at times, but after four years of a science degree, I’ve come to realise how gullible I used to be, and I’m trying to change that.

  6. I tend to find the internet searching more and more frustrating, particularly with some of the most common search engines. The thought of being profiled and an attempt to predict an outcome for me is annoying.

    I would like to think I am capable of taking a balanced view of information presented on the internet. The problem is the volume presented and validity of its content. Since, the majority of us are time poor, accepting of material which alines to our beliefs is a very easy option. With regards to science, I would like to believe I take a more open minded view but, no doubt my human nature may play a more dominant role.

  7. Shortfletch, I like your comment about encouraging people to see that changing their core ideas is not a bad thing, and being wrong sometimes isn’t something we need to be ashamed of. I think, especially in science, at least some of not wanting to change comes down to ego, of not wanting to be wrong.

    Maybe there needs to be a mediating party (science communicators? :)) in science who are unbiased and can bring both sides together in a non-confrontational way to help them see both sides in any story.

  8. I agree with Shortfletch that exposure to both sides of an argument is perhaps not the solution to minimising or eliminating confirmation bias. I can identify with her sentiments and responses to reading views that are similar or different to my own. However, I think this is because confirmation bias is linked to values and attitude – things that are very difficult to change. Research has shown that providing people with more information does not necessarily result in the audience receiving the message more openly or having their understanding or attitudes changed, because they will filter the information according to their values and beliefs.

    This is where the tool of framing may come in useful. The purpose of framing is to highlight to the audience what is important for them to focus on. Framing a scientific message in accordance with your target audience’s values and beliefs may increase their receptivity to the information presented. As science communicators, I believe we are allowed to hold our own opinions, beliefs, and attitudes. But we also have the responsibility to present both sides of an argument objectively, and to respect the values and attitudes of our audience. Framing our message according to our audience’s values and attitudes may then help to reduce confirmation bias by facilitating their reception of balanced information.

    Here’s a great (and short) reading for those interested in the purpose and use of framing in science communication: Nisbet & Mooney, 2007 – http://fore.wordpress.com/2007/04/16/framing-science/

  9. I agree with the comments about internet searches. I think it is causing people to be more biased, by not ensuring they have immediate access to all relevant information on a given topic. I also agree that it’s really important for individuals to fight their own personal bias as others have said.

  10. I think the problem here is that we are dealing with a fairly fundamental tendency of the human brain, which makes it hard to use a relatively straightforward solution such as “Lets just have bias free media”. Which furthermore is especially hard to implement when the reporters themselves have that same bias.

    I think maybe the way forward lies in attempting to circumvent this confirmation bias somehow. Though there is the hazard that this just ends up with strawmanning everywhere and discredits the whole field.

  11. Pingback: Outsights #5 | Notas & Café

  12. I personally think that the idea of exposing the changing core ideas concept as ok is a good point – so I agree with Shortfletch. It can be done, with a little bit of sensibility for the biases that people feed, and a bit of sense of oportunity.

    If you can, by experience and observation, somehow measure how your audience react to some ideas, it’s possible to manage ways to show new concepts as a gain of information, which is different of directly saying people that they need to change their ideas.
    The way I see it, even if at first people do not change, within time they will value the chance of know another angle of some topic – scientific, politic or cultural, you name it.

    About seach tailoring, I observe that if, by one side it tends to make search more fast and fit to someone tastes, by another it may restrict the oportunities of seeing things through another lenses. That’s why some degree of serendipity must be kept as a refreshing air. If you login to Google, try sometimes making your search when logged out. And, why not go deliberately see what the others are saying?

    Open the mind for the new and the different is not an easy task; I even think that some skepticism must be controlled, because some of your logical/emotional defenses may be your first enemies when it comes to see things differently.

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