The UVA Emails and Confirmation Bias: Seek and Ye Shall Find

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You have to hand it to the American Tradition Institute. Unlike Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, they’ve found a way to get the University of Virginia to release at least some emails and other documents from climate researcher Michael Mann’s time working there–by using freedom of information requests for “public” documents. (News here, scathing Washington Post editorial here.)

The University of Virginia is complying, although its president says they will take advantage of every exemption allowed by the law. Still, though, it sounds as though a lot of documents are going to be released. So what will happen next?

For an answer, we can look to an important new book, Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies, How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. In it, Shermer discusses the phenomenon of confirmation bias, invoking the biblical line “seek and ye shall find” to describe this pervasive cognitive flaw. 

The American Tradition Institute–and indeed, conservative climate skeptics across the board–have gone seeking scandal among the ranks of climate scientists. That’s what Ken Cuccinelli did. That’s what happened in “ClimateGate.” That has been the strategy for some time.

So does anyone think that that, whatever these documents say, they are not going to be treated as a scandal by those who went searching for them?

Confirmation bias tells us what will happen. Those who went seeking went in with a theory–that wrongdoing has been done. They all believe “ClimateGate,” shown by multiple investigations to be a fake scandal, was actually a real one. So that is their premise.

They will therefore read whatever emails they receive and find wrongdoing in them. They will find politics. They will find closed-mindedness and bias. And who knows what else they will find–but it will all be made to look bad.

Will any of the charges be valid? I don’t know, although I seriously doubt it. One thing we can be sure of, though, is that things will be taken out of context and used selectively. That’s what happened in “ClimateGate” and that’s what will happen again.

Conservatives, in short, are targeting Mann and expecting to find another ClimateGate scandal. And I am watching conservatives and also predicting that they will find another ClimateGate “scandal.” There’s only the slightest difference between our views: The quotation marks.

Which one of us do you think is going to be right? 

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