Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise has been watching the climate world since 2009. What she sees isn't pretty.

How Climate Scientists Think

Nobel-winning work about self-delusion and flawed judgment applies to all of us – even climatologists.

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman has spent his life studying human judgment and decision-making. At 79, he is the author of the 2011 award-winning, best-selling book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Since we hear so much about the 2007 Peace Prize that recognized the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it’s worth mentioning that Kahneman received the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002.

When his book first appeared, Kahneman wrote a long essay (3,400 words) for the New York Times magazine. Subtitled The Hazards of Confidence, it’s a fascinating read that doesn’t mention climate change, global warming, or scientists even once. But its insights are highly relevant to the climate debate.

Kahneman begins by talking about evaluations that he, as a young man with an undergraduate degree in psychology, was asked to conduct regarding the leadership abilities of soldiers in the armed forces.

This involved watching how a group of eight collectively solved a problem that involved lifting a log over a wall. By observing the contributions made by each person, and how they interacted with one another, Kahneman attempted to predict the future. Which of these soldiers possessed qualities that would lead them to excel at officer training school?

Later, these predictions were checked against real world results. Kahneman explains:

Because our impressions of how well each soldier performed were generally coherent and clear, our formal predictions were just as definite. We rarely experienced doubt…We were quite willing to declare: “This one will never make it,”…or “He will be a star.”

…as it turned out, despite our certainty…our forecasts were largely useless… [bold added]

Now here’s where it gets especially interesting:

But this was the army. Useful or not, there was a routine to be followed, and there were orders to be obeyed…The dismal truth about the quality of our predictions had…very little effect on the confidence we had in our judgments… [bold added]

Even in a situation where people knew that their predictions were invalid, no course correction occurred. Not only did the evaluations continue to take place, Kahneman and his colleagues continued to feel a sense of confidence about what they were doing.

He calls this the “illusion of skill” – and says it illustrates something important about how the human brain works. Similar behaviour has been observed on the part of private individuals who buy and sell investment stocks – as well as on the part of professional investors. In Kahneman’s words:

Mutual funds are run by highly experienced and hard-working  professionals who buy and sell stocks to achieve the best possible results for their clients. Nevertheless, the evidence from more than 50 years of research is conclusive: for a large majority of fund managers, the selection of stocks is more like rolling dice…At least two out of every three mutual funds underperform the overall market in any given year…The funds that were successful in any given year year were mostly lucky; they had a good roll of the dice.

Kahneman relates an experience in which he was invited “to speak to a group of investment advisers in a firm that provided financial advice…to very wealthy clients.” Beforehand, the firm gave him access to anonymized data detailing the investment outcomes of 25 of its employees over an eight-year period.

These employees all “felt they were competent professionals performing a task that was difficult but not impossible, and their superiors agreed.” But after crunching the numbers (the same ones that were used to determine the size of year-end bonuses), Kahneman was surprised to discover that the results once again “resembled what you would expect from a dice-rolling contest.”

So what happened next?

What we told the directors of the firm was that…the firm was rewarding luck as if it were skill. This should have been shocking news to them…There was no sign that they disbelieved us…After all, we had analyzed their own results, and they were certainly sophisticated enough to appreciate their implications…I am quite sure that both our findings and their implications were quickly swept under the rug and that life in the firm went on just as before. The illusion of deeply ingrained in the culture of the industry. Facts that challenge such basic assumptions – and thereby threaten people’s livelihood and self-esteem – are simply not absorbed. The mind does not digest them. [bold added]

Climate science involves making predictions about what’s going to happen decades or centuries from now. We have no ability to compare those predictions with real world results like the ones produced by the officer training program. We have no ability to crunch hard data of the sort provided by the investment firm.

But even if that data existed – and even if it demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that predictions regarding future climate change are worthless – this evidence would likely be ignored.

The illusion of skill is deeply ingrained in the culture of climate science. Climatologists are human beings. Facts that challenge basic assumptions are simply not absorbed by the human brain.

People sometimes accuse climate scientists of being liars, of perpetrating a deliberate hoax or scam. Kahneman, though, talks about “the sincere overconfidence of professionals who do not know they are out of their depth.”

Individuals, he says, “come up with coherent stories and confident predictions even when they know little or nothing.” This is because:

We are prone to think that the world is more regular and predictable than it really is….The confidence we experience as we make a judgment is not a reasoned evaluation…Confidence is a feeling, one determined mostly by the coherence of the story and by the ease with which it comes to mind, even when the evidence for the story is sparse and unreliable. [bold added]

Confidence is a feeling. Remember the InterAcademy Council investigation into the IPCC? The one that concluded that IPCC “authors reported high confidence in some statements for which there is little evidence” (see p. 4 here)?

The IPCC invites its authors to express their level of confidence on a range of matters. A body that claims to be scientific relies heavily on the judgment of human beings. It invites those human beings to tell us about their feelings – their confidence level with respect to a variety of conclusions.

But Kahneman’s Nobel-winning work demonstrates that confidence levels have no connection to the truth. In his words:

overconfident professionals sincerely believe they have expertise, act as experts and look like experts. You will have to struggle to remind yourself that they may be in the grip of an illusion.

Until we are presented with compelling evidence that the dynamics at work in climate science are fundamentally different and distinct from those observed elsewhere, we’d all be fools to take climate predictions seriously.


Read Kahneman’s essay here. It’s a treat.



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