Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Bias Within: How Confirmation Bias Affects WTE

Earlier this month, The Wall Street Journal ran a three-part series on confirmation bias by Matt Ridley. The final installment, entitled “How Bias Heats Up the Warming Debate” discusses announcements of two preliminary new papers on climate by opposing schools of thought and how each uses confirmation bias to support its findings.

Courtesy: The Wall Street Journal. 
Confirmation bias is the art of “if-then modeling”- using data and models to prove what you already believe to be true. This is used in every facet of life, sometimes unknowingly. Not only does this affect our ability to accurately predict the future of global warming, but it colors our view of the present facts as well. Ridley points out that oftentimes unusually warm and wet summers in the U.S. and U.K. are interpreted as proof of a rise in global warming while overly cold winters are written off as “weather.”

Protesting a proposed wood-burning plant in Michigan.
Photo by Earth Melzer. 
Just as biases exist on both sides of the climate change issue, they are also present in arguments for and against waste-to-energy technology. The tendency among certain environmental organizations to use vocal and aggressive campaigns against prospective WTE projects is common and sometimes the speed at which these are put together begs the question of whether time has been given to adequately research the new technology and consider it with an open mind.

Representatives from the other side can be just as guilty of confirmation bias in their efforts to promote the benefits of WTE technology. While radical environmentalists like to zero in on the failures of past attempts by different technologies, proponents of WTE prefer to sweep them under the rug, assuring residents that something like that could never happen with newer technologies. While these proponents may be correct and have ample information to back their claims, it is still a form of confirmation bias.

Supporters of Biomass Projects. Courtesy:
Forbes contributor Larry Bell acknowledges his bias as an opinion writer and notes that these biases have a place in pushing discourse of controversial topics forward. He also remarks that while opinion pieces aren’t subject to the same peer review processes as research papers, “accountability for factual accuracy is a paramount priority.” In today’s world where readers are invited to share opinions through comment sections online and in print, reporting inaccuracies will be quickly and – as he notes, frequently impolitely – pointed out.

While we at the Better BTU strive to be as objective as possible when presenting arguments, we can’t ignore that we too are guilty of a confirmation bias. As steadfast believers in the biomass WTE movement, articles we pick and topics we present are often designed to illustrate our thoughts on the benefits of WTE technology as well as to create debate on highly controversial topics. We try to account for bias by also reporting on projects that don’t always have happy endings, such as the cancelled plans for a plant in Missoula, Mont. or the chaos that has ensued in Ada County as Dynamis tries to install its first commercial plant stateside.

Bias is inherent in all of us, but recognizing the bias and having multiple centers for scientific research to avoid a monopoly are the best ways to deal with it.

Further Reading:

How Bias Heats Up the Warming Debate – By Matt Ridley, The Wall Street Journal (Aug. 3, 2012).

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