Is it a result of climate change or something else? Part 1.
This week, the Web is abuzz with climate-related news: An astronaut commented that humankind's impact on Earth was visible from space; the UN climate chief visited Mongolia, a semiarid country undergoing rapid desertification, to talk about climate change; and the New Scientist magazine reported that the Fertile Crescent "will disappear this century."Skip to next paragraph
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Maybe it's worth stepping back for a second to ask: How many of the changes we see happening around us are really attributable to climate change?
To preface: I'm not denying that human-released greenhouse gases are changing Earth's climate. At this point, the science points overwhelmingly in that direction.
But climate change is, by definition, a long-term trend, and, as scientists are often at pains to explain, while long-term trends are derived from multiple data points, it's hard to attribute any single data point to the trend itself.
In other words, the climate may be warming and the cherry blossoms may have come early this year, but it's impossible to say with certainty that this year's early cherry blossoms are due to human-induced climate change. There are too many other confounding factors.
And yet, that's often what happens. There are myriad possible reasons why, but in the end, the "blame climate change" tendency may simply be the result of how our minds work.
Climate change is weighing heavily on the collective mind right now, and with good reason: We've got one planet; better not mess it up. But the saturation of our awareness by climate change may also cause certain errors of judgment. Psychologists call it a "confirmation bias." They've repeatedly documented that people tend to see what they expect to see.
In psychology and cognitive science, confirmation bias (or confirmatory bias) is a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions, leading to statistical errors.
So, do some of those who accept climate change as a reality have a climate-change confirmation bias, a tendency to attribute too much of what they observe to a warming world?
As an informal test, I did some cursory fact-checking on the stories mentioned at the outset. First, the astronaut. His name is Bob Thirsk. He's at the international space station. The Reuters story begins: "A Canadian astronaut aboard the International Space Station said on Sunday it looks like Earth's ice caps have melted a bit since he was last in orbit 12 years ago."
Mr. Thirsk says, "Most of the time when I look out the window, I'm in awe. But there are some effects of the human destruction of the Earth as well."