Last year there was a scandal dubbed “Climategate.” Some hackers broke into the computers of a key university’s climate research group, and claimed to have shown that the researchers were hiding data and being less than forthright about the true findings of global warming. The researchers were accused of lying to keep their pet theory going. The climate researchers have since come back with a defense, and at least one independent investigation vindicated the methods of the research group in question.
There have been no shortage of voices involved in the controversy, however. The disagreement over what is actually going on in the climate has not let up, with many voices on all sides of the issue. Whether it is true is not our subject today.
Of interest to me is how this applies to bias in research. The philosophical and pychological issue at hand is the problem of how preconceived theories of the observer inherently bias the data that gets observed. It’s not that the observer is intentionally biased, but rather the researcher subconsciously doesn’t see contrary data as anything meaningful……they just either don’t see the contrary data, or see it as anomalies or meaningless background noise. Of course, the scientific method is supposed to find ways to rule this out, but are we to believe that no human anywhere has ever been guilty of this? Not likely. Are we to believe that large segments of a scientific community could be guilty of unconsciously biasing a large set of condlusions? My position is that this is entirely possible.
In one example, last year there was a ‘climate summit’ in Copenhagen. The New York Times reports that an Oxford University study showed that of 400 news articles, less than ten percent dealt with climate data. This indicates that over 90% of the information coming out of a major climate summit is not dealing with the central issue at hand. Now, we know that popular news articles are not what the scientists read, but nevertheless, such an overwhelming indication shows that large numbers of intelligent adults can get their eyes off the ball.
As another example, I recently went to an underground cavern, one where you pay a few dollars and tour the caves. The tour guide told us the standard bit about the formations growing slowly over many thousands of years, with the rate of growth being about an inch per hundred years. We were then shown the beginnings of a formation that had started to grow on one of the metal handrails that had been installed on the pathway in the cave so the tourists wouldn’t fall in the wet cave. The handrail had been there about 13 years before the cave was opened to the public, and a water had formed a deposit on the handrail. It looked to me to have made about 3/4ths of an inch of growth, and that during several years of low rainfall. Same water, same cave, same mineral deposits, yet the calculation was off by a factor of about 5.
So what are we to believe? I’m not qualified to make claims about growth rate of stalactites or global warming. But I am qualified to speak of human perception, and all of us approach problems with some pre-conceived ideas and beliefs. The problem will be more acute in subjects that have religious implications, such as origins, and subjects that impact the livlihoods of the researchers. In such cases, the bias of the person is potentially greater, therefore the data that is perceived (or not perceived) is more subject to perception problems and pre-conceived bias. Such a problem is labeled the “Theory Ladenness of Observation.”
The secular scientists are quick to claim that Christian apologists are biased, but claim total objective neutrality for themselves. In reality, we’re all subject to bias and have trouble seeing our own biases. What bothers me most is not that I am susceptible to this, but that the scientists who are philosophical naturalists claim to have total objectivity, when clearly they do not, for their biases are impacting their conclusions. In reality, the only truly objective viewpoint comes from God, who gives us the only trustworthy set of conclusions about ourselves and our world.