Confirmation bias – why my research might just be proving my point

It’s a pretty awkward moment when you realise you might have inadvertently dictated the findings of your research before it’s even begun. I’m not talking about selecting a biased sample, rigging statistics or adding a whole bunch of loaded questions to a questionnaire. I’m talking about the innate ability for all people to find and absorb information that they already agree with. It’s called confirmation bias and it’s behind a number of today’s science-communication issues, including attitudes towards particular diets, the anti-vaxxer movement and all those climate deniers out there.

With a growing volume of information available via the Web, and much of it providing contradictory advice, it’s easy for people to pick and choose that which confirms their existing beliefs. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that most people don’t have capacity (that is skills and knowledge, rather than intelligence) to analyse the information they receive for accuracy. Throw in a few vested interests pushing a particular agenda, particularly if it has significant financial backing, and you’ve got a recipe for a bunch of people believing very strange things indeed. The strangest thing about the phenomenon, however, is the extent to which people are passionate about their chosen stance, which is influenced by the extent to which they have sought, and been able to access, information that supports their preconceived point of view. You’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever tried to explain the medical merits of vaccination, the pitfalls of a paleo diet or the existence of climate change to those with alternative views.

So how does this relate to my own research? I’ve found that I have the capacity to doggedly stick to the arguments that have underpinned much of my initial research design, rather than evolve my thinking with new data available. In particular, in the public service we talked a lot about the extent to which people who had installed domestic solar energy systems were avoiding paying their full access to the electricity network, with those still using grid-based electricity subsidising their access. This simple idea, combined with the generous subsidies available to people installing systems, inspired my research into perceptions of equity in the redistribution of funds from all electricity consumers to those installing solar systems. This idea has continued to be in favour by governments and electricity utilities as a reason to change tariff structures. The problem is that advocates for renewable energy have been telling a different story.

Those promoting solar have talked about how the reduced demand for electricity driven by solar, particularly during peak periods, had resulted in excess capacity on the network, meaning electricity retailers don’t have to upgrade the network. They’ve also talked about the extent to which domestic solar installations have reduced demand for electricity from the grid, which has in turn reduced wholesale electricity prices for all consumers. Not to mention that we all benefit from reduced fossil fuel emissions!

It’s hard for me to balance these two perspectives. I’m inherently drawn to the first, as social equity is something I’m passionate about. But as someone interested in renewable energy shouldn’t I be promoting the benefits of solar energy?

The truth is when I present my research I concentrate on the first because it is the argument which underpins the value of my research. And at its essence my research should be considered in a vacuum – it’s an examination of community based preferences for social equity or environmental support, with solar energy used as an example framing that people will be familiar with. In an academic context it will be compared with a raft of other equity analyses including water, waste, industrial siting issues etc. The specific financial implications of the costs versus benefits of domestic solar energy aren’t that important to the development of the ideas behind this research.

But when I talk to people about my research they frame it in their own interest in solar energy. So to support my stance I prioritise references that support my framing, noting opposing views and suggesting why they might not be accurate. Unlike the anti-vaxxers out there, this is always based on rich data, expert analysis and is generally peer reviewed. However, it is still chosen to represent my position.

So am I engaging with confirmation bias? To an extent I think I probably am. The move from a centralised to an embedded electricity system is new, exciting and unknown territory. The effect of solar panels on the grid is still being determined. And while that’s the case it’s easy to be selective about information and data. However, as time goes on I will evolve my own perceptions as theories become more certain.

Luckily, I know that I’ll be honest with myself about these changing frames. Another area of my research has seen my ideas change already!

But in the mean time I’ll ponder the greatest confirmation bias around – religion. Someone once told me that Mark Twain, a famous agnostic, was asked what he would do if he died, went to heaven and met God. Apparently he responded with “I hope that I would be man enough to admit that I was wrong”.

(NB: I have never been able to find a reference that provides the quote. Also, this post was inspired by an article in The Conversation.)

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