There’s a myth out there that has gained the status of a cliché: that scientists love proving themselves wrong, that the first thing they do after constructing a hypothesis is to try to falsify it. Professors tell students that this is the essence of science.
Yet most scientists behave very differently in practice. They not only become strongly attached to their own theories; they perpetually look for evidence that supports rather than challenges their theories. Like defense attorneys building a case, they collect confirming evidence.
Matt Ridley on The perils of confirmation bias
And speaking of those who “collect confirming evidence” … I wonder if journalists such as the Guardian‘s Suzanne Goldenberg or the New York Times‘ Andrew Revkin realize (or care about!) the extent to which their green-tinted views – and confirmation bias – colour their narratives (I hesitate to call it “reporting”!) and, in the process, undermine their credibility.
When Gleickgate erupted last February, both were very quick to publish without verifying any of the material they were purveying. To Revkin’s credit, he did partially walk-back his rather gullible repetition of the unverified claims. Goldenberg, as is her wont, did not. To this day she has not explained how she came by such premature knowledge of the “findings” of the so-called independent investigation of Gleick’s appallingly unethical behaviours.
Last month, on the heels of the Gergis and Karoly paper being “put on hold”, Revkin felt obliged to “confirm the accuracy of a post by [Steve] McIntyre quoting him”. Karoly had been quite creatively ambiguous in this E-mail, and Revkin did his best to slant his article in such a way as to avoid mentioning the fact that it was at Climate Audit that the errors in this much publicized paper had been discovered.
And to add insult to injury, in this instance, Revkin chose not to “update” his post to indicate that he had subsequently received an E-mail from McIntyre, but rather to merely add the E-mail as a comment where it remains, effectively, “buried” without warranting even the distinction of an “NYT Pick” flag.
By contrast, when Revkin was alerted to a press release from the Norfolk Constabulary on their recent decision to close their “investigation” into Climategate, he was very quick to add a July 18 “update” – to a post he’d written on July 6, 2010. Here’s a screen-capture of his update (highlighting added by me) – in the context of his original post:
Let’s set aside the fact that Revkin – perhaps motivated by his confirmation bias?! – did not seem to have any interest in what any skeptics might have had to say in response to his questions of July 6, 2010. Let’s also set aside that further in this same article – as I have previously noted – Revkin unquestioningly accepted Gavin Schmidt’s very flimsy excuse for not having contacted the appropriate authorities regarding the alleged Nov. 17/09 “hack” at RealClimate.
To his credit, on March 1, 2011, Revkin had reiterated his rather minimal level of concern regarding Schmidt’s failure to notify the appropriate authorities:
Setting aside the East Anglia incident, one might note that, well, there was a clear “hack” in the intrusion at Realclimate.org in the United States, where someone planted the same folders and prepared a faux post, as described in detail by Gavin Schmidt, one of the founders of that climate blog (and which was reported by me and others at the very start of this saga).
But even there, the situation is not so simple — in part because no one involved in Realclimate.org filed a complaint with the police.
A post of mine from last summer — “Was the East Anglia Incident a Crime?” — picks up the story:
I asked Schmidt whether a criminal investigation was ever conducted into the Real Climate hack. Here’s his reply:
“It would have been up to us to report it, and I didn’t think it was worth it – If you recall, we were kind of busy. ;)”
I think it’s unfortunate that the Real Climate team did not press this case if the law in the United States is as clear-cut as Schmidt asserted. But, in his defense, he clearly did have vast challenges on his plate then…
I still think it’s unfortunate that a complaint wasn’t filed. Perhaps it might have led to an investigation that could have pulled back the curtain a bit on the chain of events leading back to that moment in 2009 when someone hit the “copy” key.[emphasis added -hro]
It is worth noting that Revkin’s July 6, 2010 post was entitled (as noted by the bolded reference above): “Was the East Anglia Incident a Crime?” Yet, it would appear that when he updated this post, he also changed the title which now reads: “Was the East Anglia Incident a Crime? Yes.”
On July 19, Revkin posted his take on the Norfolk Constabulary’s decision to close the file. Again he relies on the News Release of July 18:
British Police Say Climate E-mail Case Was Crime, While Giving Up the Chase
The news release ends with a paragraph that, in essence, says users of the Internet are on their own:
Norfolk Assistant Chief Constable Charlie Hall, Protective Services lead, said: “Online crime is a global issue. While law enforcement agencies continue to develop our response to emerging threats, it falls upon individuals and organizations to be alert to this and and take steps to mitigate risk as far as is practicable.”
While unable to close in on suspects, the Norfolk police at least said they could confirm that the files were illegally extracted from outside the university:
[A]s a result of our enquiries, we can say that the data breach was the result of a sophisticated and carefully orchestrated attack on the CRU’s data files, carried out remotely via the internet. The offenders used methods common in unlawful internet activity to obstruct enquiries.
There is no evidence to suggest that anyone working at or associated with the University of East Anglia was involved in the crime.
Revkin seems to be quite taken with the claim of “sophisticated and carefully orchestrated attack” – which appears twice in the news release. He chose to feature it in both his “update” to his July 6, 2010 post, and in this one!
But again, I give Revkin credit for reiterating:
I also think it was a mistake for the administrators of the American blog Real Climate, which was clearly subjected to a computer hack at the same time back in 2009, not to file a formal complaint with the police.
Although I’m not sure how (or when) he might have arrived at the conclusion that “Real Climate … was clearly subjected to a computer hack …”
When he interviewed Schmidt circa Nov. 20 (three days after this alleged “hack”) what evidence did Revkin (and/or anyone at the NYT with the appropriate log-reading skills) examine in support of Schmidt’s ever-changing story?
Or did his confirmation bias permit him to simply take Schmidt’s word for this alleged “hack”? And is it this same confirmation bias that was operating when he failed to take into account the “screening fallacies” which permitted the Norfolk Constabulary to arrive at the far from credible conclusions in the News Release on which Revkin appears to depend?
In a comment on this July 19, 2012 post, I had written:
“There is no evidence to suggest that anyone working at or associated with the University of East Anglia was involved in the crime.”
OTOH, as the summary of their Q&A at a press conference, today, indicates, this apparent lack of “evidence” could well be the result of a “screening fallacy”:
[Q]Can you describe what investigations you undertook at the UEA and who you interviewed there?
[A]”The focus internally was on the IT infrastructure and working out from there. We also looked at people working at or with connections to the Climate Research Unit and, in simple terms, we were looking for anything obvious. All members of staff were interviewed. If someone had some obvious links or had an axe to grind, then that might have been a line of enquiry.
“Generally speaking, it was a screening exercise which did not provide any positive lines of enquiry.
“Whilst – because we have not found the perpetrators – we cannot say categorically that no-one at the UEA is involved, there is no evidence to suggest that there was. The nature and sophistication of the attack does not suggest that it was anyone at the UEA.” [emphasis (which did not come through in comment posted) added -hro]
I trust you’ll also update your http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/07/06/was-the-east-anglia-incident-a-crime/
to reflect this important additional detail from the Norfolk Constabulary.
While Revkin apparently did not deem it necessary to respond to this comment (or – as far as I’m able to determine – to add a further update to his post of July 6, 2010) someone at the NYT decided that my comment was deserving of an “NYT Pick” flag!
Revkin also appears to be oblivious to further “screening fallacies” which became evident from Leo Hickman’s July 20, 2012 interview with “Detective chief superintendent Julian Gregory, the senior investigating officer”:
Did you quickly rule out anyone from the university being involved?
It was the focus of the first few months to go through that option. But our primary line of inquiry was always the technology. We did work through everyone at UEA looking for the obvious, but once we’d achieved that that was mothballed.
Did you interview any students, as opposed to just staff at UEA?
No. As you can imagine, the university is quite significant in size. It goes back to this being a proportionate investigation and finding a line of enquiry most likely to take us somewhere. We didn’t engage on that kind of speculation. We dealt with some students within CRU, but we limited it to that. [emphasis added -hro]
So what are we to conclude from all this? That Revkin’s narratives are indicative of “confirmation bias” or that his green-tinted advocacy prevents him from conducting even minimal due diligence when presented with claims from a noble climate scientist™? At the very least, he appears to find it necessary to … uh … screen from his readers’ view that which puts his own (very shallow, IMHO) narratives in a somewhat different light.