Curry: Climate scientists’ motivated reasoning

Here are the first few paragraphs of an entry on Judith Curry’s blog. Curry is a respected scientist who is criticized by some for her work and views when they don’t conform to climate-change orthodoxy. Her bio: “I am President (co-owner) of Climate Forecast Applications Network (CFAN). Previously, I was Professor and Chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology.”

This blog post isn’t about forestry or climate change specifically, but about science/research in general. She discusses an article whose authors write that “Scientists are not immune to confirmation biases and motivated reasoning.” Neither are foresters, environmentalists, and others who post on this blog, myself included, at times. Interesting insights! The entire post is worth reading and discussing.

Climate scientists’ motivated reasoning

Posted on June 19, 2019 by curryja | 99 Comments

by Judith Curry

Insights into the motivated reasoning of climate scientists, including my own efforts to sort out my own biases and motivated reasoning following publication of the Webster et al. (2005) paper

A recent twitter thread by Moshe Hoffman (h/t Larry Kummer) reminded me of a very insightful paper by Lee Jussim, Joe Duarte and others entitled Interpretations and methods: Towards a more self-correcting social psychology

Apart from the rather innocuous title, the paper provides massively important insights into scientific research in general, with substantial implications for climate science.

The Jussim et al. paper is the motivation for this blog post that addresses the motivated reasoning of individual climate scientists. And also for my next post that will address the broader ‘masking’ biases in climate science.

<begin quote>

“Getting it right” is the sine qua non of science. Science can tolerate individual mistakes and flawed theories, but only if it has reliable mechanisms for efficient self-correction. Unfortunately, science is not always self-correcting. Indeed, a series of threats to the integrity of scientific research has recently come to the fore across the sciences, including questionable research practices, failures to replicate, publication biases, and political biases.

Motivated reasoning refers to biased information processing that is driven by goals unrelated to accurate belief formation. A specific type of motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, occurs when people seek out and evaluate information in ways that confirm their pre-existing views while downplaying, ignoring, or discrediting information of equal or greater quality that opposes their views. People intensely scrutinize counter-attitudinal evidence while easily accepting information supporting their views. People generate convincing arguments to justify their automatic evaluations, producing an illusion of objectivity.

Scientists are not immune to confirmation biases and motivated reasoning. Values influence each phase of the research process, including how people interpret research findings. Reviewers’ theoretical and ideological views can influence their evaluation of research reports, leading them to judge studies that oppose their beliefs more critically than studies supporting their views. Consequently, they are then less likely to recommend publication of studies with undesired findings or funding for studies based on undesirable theories or hypotheses.

There are powerful incentives to present a strong, compelling story when describing their research. Most of us are motivated to get the science right, but we are also motivated to get the studies published and our grants funded. We want our colleagues to find our research sufficiently interesting and important to support publishing it, and then to cite it, preferably a lot. We want jobs, promotions, and tenure. We want popular media to publicize our research and to disseminate our findings beyond the confines of our lab. We might even hope to tell a story so compelling we can produce a bestselling popular book and receive lucrative consulting and speaking engagements, or have our findings influence policy decisions.

In brief, powerful incentives exist that motivate us to achieve — or, at least, appear to achieve — a “Wow Effect”. A “Wow Effect” is some novel result that comes to be seen as having far-reaching theoretical, methodological, or practical implications. It is the type of work likely to be emulated, massively cited, and highly funded.


14 thoughts on “Curry: Climate scientists’ motivated reasoning”

    • Matthew, instead of an ad hominem attack, why not tell us what you think of the Jussim et al paper’s conclusion, which has this valuable checklist:

      A checklist for increasing confidence that our empirical research is relatively free of motivated biases:

      1. What do I want to happen and why?* An honest and explicit self-assessment is a good first step towards recognizing our own tendencies towards bias, and is, therefore, a first step to building in checks and balances in our research to reduce them.

      2. Am I shooting for a “Wow Effect!”? Am I painting a weak and inconsistent result as dramatic in order to tell a compelling story? Scientific ambition is not inherently problematic, and may be a powerful constructive force for scientific advancement. But we want our literature to have true, valid, Wow Effects, not ones that cannot be replicated or ones promoted as powerful and pervasive, which upon further reflection (or evidence-gathering) are, in fact, weak, fragile, and fleeting, or which can be easily called into question under critical scrutiny.

      3. Do I have a long track record of research that systematically validates a particular political or social narrative or agenda? This is not about one’s intentions but rather one’s results. If one’s results consistently validate a particular set of beliefs, values or ideology, one has failed this check, and suggests that attempts at falsification may be in order.

      4. Am I receiving remuneration (e.g., speaking or consulting fees) for reaching a particular conclusion? Conflicts of interest, though they do not invalidate one’s conclusions, plausibly place one at greater risk of dubious research and interpretation practices more generally.

      5. Have I generated theoretical arguments for competing and alternative hypotheses and designed studies to incorporate and test them?* Honest tests of alternatives can go a long way to reducing personal bias.

      6. Have I read some of the literature highlighting the invidious ways our motivated biases, morals, and politics can creep into our scientific scholarship (e.g., Duarte et al., 2015; MacCoun, 1998)? Doing so can alert one to ways in which our preferences might distort our science. After having done so, have I made a good faith attempt to eliminate such biases from my scholarship?

      7. Have I sought feedback from colleagues with very different preferences and perspectives than mine or with track records of scholarship that often contest my preferred narratives?

      • Howdy Steve. Looks like a fine checklist. The information I shared about Judith Curry’s background was written by others, and may provide some important context. I see you, Sharon and others do that on this site all the time. Seems like we’re fine if such sharing agrees with what we already think, but not fine if it doesn’t.

        • I think it’s important to know about people’s backgrounds and past interests, that’s why I think it’s relevant. I’m especially interested in watching who gets interested in things they’re not usually interested in, and wonder “why?”. Like Science, for example, not being particularly interested in forest research, except for publishing the Donato science op-ed/paper.

          Curry tells her own story in the same blog post:

          So, how did I end up taking a different path and ending up in a different place than say Michael Mann, Katherine Hayhoe, or whoever?

          First, as a female scientist of my generation, I wasn’t really entrained into the ‘power’ community surrounding climate science, although in the 2000’s I was named to some National Academy and other advisory committees. So my career path wasn’t invested in this kind of ‘power’ climb to influence climate science or public policy. I wasn’t editor of any journals, a lead author for the IPCC, etc. I was more interested in doing my own research. When I went to Georgia Tech in 2002, my main objective was in building a faculty and mentoring them and developing a good educational, professional and personal environment for students. So my career objectives were not really tied up in the ‘AGW enterprise.’

          My generation of scientists (60+) have mostly identified as atmospheric scientists (meteorologists), oceanographers, geologists, geographers. By contrast, younger scientists (particularly those receiving Ph.D. since 2000) studying any topic related to climate pretty much have their careers defined by the AGW enterprise. As a percentage, I suspect that a far lower number of 60+ climate scientists are activists (and are more ‘skeptical’), relative to a large percentage of under 50’s (who don’t seem skeptical at all). Somebody outa do a survey.

          Second, politically I’m an independent with libertarian leanings, and I have never been particularly aligned with environmental movement (while I highly value clean air and water and species diversity, the environmental movement seems motivated by other issues). I simply don’t have the soul of an ‘activist.’

          Third, since my days as a graduate student I have had an abiding interest in philosophy and the social sciences, particularly as related to science.

          Fourth, I care more about whether my publications will stand the test of time and contribute to deep understanding, than I care about the ‘wow’ factor, which I regard as transient and leading to nothing but trouble (e.g. Webster et al. 2005).

          Fifth, at this stage of my life I can afford to buck the ‘system.’ 20 years ago, when I had a mortgage payment and college tuition to pay, there is no way I would have put myself out on such a controversial limb. There is only so much personal and professional integrity that you can afford, if your job might be at stake.

          So that summarizes my personal journey, over the past 14 years, to fight against my own personal biases. Through Climate Etc. I provide resources that I hope others can use to think about, understand and challenge their own biases. Apparently trying to fight against bias in climate science gets you labeled as a ‘denier’, ‘anti-science,’ ‘serial climate disinformer.’ There seems to be no end to the perversions of ‘motivated’ climate science.

          I italicized the part I found particularly interesting, also being a female scientist, from an old discipline, as well. It would be fascinating to look at some of those sociology of science questions. Let’s see should I listen to what Think Progress says about her, or her own words? Let me think…

          • I think her background is relevant and what others have written about her, good and bad is relevant and I think she’d tell us that too, if she were asked. A true scientist, as she seems to be, would not put her feelings above the evidence and how people view you is evidence. My reaction to her is the same as it is to almost all Libertarians I’ve ever known. Really fascinating and clear thinking, but lacking in social responsibility.

            I’ve had one Libertarian tell me they didn’t care about the results, they cared about legal authority / rectitude. This was on a discussion about gun control. Basically he was saying he didn’t care about the results of the law (child deaths, inner city deaths, criminals with guns) as long as the law stuck to only that which he considers “within its authority.” Excellent analytical reasoning, but devoid of soul.

            In a similar way, I enjoyed reading her article because she points out many things that are factually true about problems in science. Those problems need fixing. However, we can’t go contemplating our scientific navel while the wolf is at the door.

            As lovely as science is, the quality of life of my grandchild is more important. And many things I hear today are using the problems in science as an excuse to avoid acting prudently on important issues.

  1. It’s well known that scientists suffer from the same cognitive biases as other highly educated people, though science has institutional safeguards to buffer them.

    Moreover, the drives to achieve tenure and obtain grants undoubtedly exert significant pressure on the direction of scientific inquiries and conclusions, with climate change not being exempt.

    So I always regard the asserted statistic that 97% of scientists accept the standard global warming model with a bit of skepticism.

    At the same time, though, the evidence that anthropogenic climate change is occurring is beyond any doubt. One can ignore the scientific community entirely (not that I suggest doing that) and simply look at the geophysical evidence that continues to accumulate, whether it’s birds and crops moving north and south (depending on hemisphere), icefields melting, or whatever. Anthropogenic climate change is real and our worldwide collective reluctance to confront it is dangerous.

    • L-some would argue that data that the climate is changing does not necessarily lead to a certain proportion being anthropogenic.

      • Some do in fact argue that, but it’s hard to imagine that all of the industrial activity that more than 7 billion humans are engaging in isn’t a factor. I heard today that just the global shipping industry emits 940 million tons of carbon dioxide annually.

        It’s reasonable to be skeptical of claims that may be influenced by institutional considerations, like the desire to receive grants and tenure. But skepticism can’t be limitless, or it devolves into muleheadedness.

        Since I lack the qualifications to evaluate the science, I have to go by a combination of the actual geophysical evidence we see (it’s alarming) and the consensus of the great majority of experts that humankind is a causative factor. The scientists can’t all be corrupted, consciously or otherwise, by their own economic circumstances. Many of them presumably are tenured. Once they are, they can express their views (within very broad limits) without fear of job loss.

  2. Is it surprising that a libertarian would be against climate change science? The need for government solutions is their worst nightmare. (I like the way Angelica put it.)

  3. More to the point – she appears to be skeptical of what most climate scientists are saying. While she makes legitimate points about bias, she is choosing to use them to discourage action to address climate change (which would be consistent with her bias).

    • I think you would have to dig down to specific claims.. not “what most climate scientists are saying” because she agrees with the IPCC on many things, but perhaps the IPCC is not “most climate scientists?”.

      If you’re saying “she’s against climate science because she disagrees with some claims that are in the majority” well then, I guess I’d be against forest science if I disagree with some claims that are the majority. The great thing about forest science is that I won’t be accused of that because a) the boundaries of “forest science” are undefined (that would be the denominator of the percentage around a specific claim) and no one has ever counted the ones who agreed (with a specific claim) (the numerator).

  4. The only things I know about her are what I’ve read here. I agree that the 4th thing in this list actually represents taking action (which probably requires government intervention). However, the focus on methane sounds like it could be intended to minimize disturbance of oil and gas profits. The first two are more about “more data,” which is not action (and tends to be an excuse for inaction). The third focuses on adaptation which I’ve argued before is likely to detract from mitigation. I am maybe more risk averse than some, but this just feels like an attempt to distract from the writing on the wall. But I’m only an interested (very) observer and don’t claim to be very knowledgeable.


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