Convenient Bias Theories

The movie An Inconvenient Truth contains a bias theory in its title:

There are good people who are in politics who hold this at arm’s length because they acknowledge it and recognize it as a moral imperative to make big changes.

Later the movie offers another bias theory:

If a frog jumps into a pot of boiling water, it jumps right out again, because it senses the danger. But the very same frog if it jumps into a pot of luke warm water that is slowly brought to a boil, will just sit there and it won’t move. It will just sit there even as the temperature continues to go up and up. It will stay there until.. until.. it is rescued. It is important to rescue the frog. The point is this: Our collective nervous system is like that frog’s nervous system. It takes a sudden jolt sometimes before we become aware of a danger.

Notice:  Each side in a controversy feels a need to offer bias theories to explain why the other side disagrees.  Without such bias theories, observers will wonder why they should side with one side against the other, if both sides have reasonable people with good reasons for their positions. 

The problem is that we are not critical enough about these bias theories.   What concrete evidence is there that people refuse to acknowledge facts that morally imply action?  Are jurors biased against believing the accused is guilty, because that might imply sending the accused to prison?   Similarly, would real humans boil to death in water whose temperature rose slowly?   Did people trapped in Katrina flood waters drown because the water rose too slowly for they, or their government, to realize there was a problem?  I’m not saying we have no biases, just that we should not accept bias accusations uncritically.

Added: Apparently, even real frogs will jump out of slowly heated water.   Now the whole point of the movie is that it shows a talk Gore supposedly gave over and over and over.   What are the odds no one ever told him or his staff the frog story was wrong?  What does that tell you about how well the rest of the movie was fact-checked?

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  • The frog story presented as fact in the film is an urban legend. Never mind real people: real /frogs/ jump out when the water gets too hot.

  • Glen, thanks for the eye-opener.

  • TGGP

    I detect some sarcasm there.

    I have never understood why anyone brings up the frog in a boiling pot analogy. It has always seemed ridiculous on the face of it.

  • TGGP, having seen the film, I can assure you it was not presented with not a hint of sarcasm.

  • Giant Step

    I recently saw the film, and I second Robin on this. The frog story was presented factually.

  • Wikipedia refers to which quotes Victor Hutchison at the University of Oklahoma as stating the frog story is definitely incorrect; this appears to be a real person.

    Heh. Rather amusing.

  • Regardless of the physiological truth of the story, it is a widely quoted and seemingly useful metaphor. There have been many cases where drastic changes were opposed by human societies, only to be accepted when advanced piecemeal. It’s easy to come up with evolutionary stories to justify this. Our perceptions tend to be based on differentials, and slowing down the rate of change can make it unnoticeable.

    I do think the larger point is interesting, that people tend to point to biases in their opponents. Of course this is probably mostly just tactical, but I wonder if it suggests an implicit understanding and acceptance of the no-disagreement theorem. If rational people can’t disagree, then perhaps it is necessary to paint one’s opponents as irrational in order to explain or justify a disagreement. It’s odd because most people reject Aumann’s result out of hand and resist it at every turn, but I wonder if this suggests that we have an intuitive understanding of it at some level.

  • Hal yes, sometimes people react too slowly to changes, but other times they react too fast. The rhetorical power of the story is the idea that there is a *bias*, that on average people react too slowly. If there is no such bias, then it is a mistake to conclude we must react now, just because there is a change to which we have not yet reacted.

  • For me, I have a hunch that the consequences and probability of a decrease in global temperature are greater than the likelyhood and consequences of stable or increasing natural global temperature + AGW continuing. People claiming to want to reduce greenhouse gas to error on the side of caution seem to be biased against the cost of warming over potential natural cooling. To truely error on the side of caution we would reduce greenhouse gas production and also develope the means to quickly and greatly increase greenhouse gas production to mitigate the effects of declining global temps.

    Also, studies on Climate history, cosmic rays, and solar heating show that there “is a clear limit to warming effect of a doubling CO2 concentrations of 1.5C”. This peer reviewed work has been dismissed from the climate change debate by pro-AGW activits on the grounds that the author says he was mis-quoted and “Cosmic Rays” are not a major contributor to contermporary GW. It’s true that the author has been misquoted, but not in the way that the activists imply. In the paper where he addresses the problem of people misquoting his work, it is clear that he maintain that doubling CO2 concentration does have a limited impact of 1.5C of warming. His complaint is that people have said he attributed modern termperature increases to “Cosmic Rays”. He actually attributes it to Solar Radiation. Cosmic Ray changes cause very slight warming and cooling trends over hundreds of millions of years, all else equal. Solar radiation is more volatile in the shortrun and has a much stronger effect on global temps. An unrelated complaint is used to dismiss the authors substantive claims.

    It’s my contention that if AGW was a serious problem, it would be much clearer. Our impact on climate, though observable through extensive analysis, seems slight compared to natural variation. I think I came up with the perfect metaphor for the AGW debate in Arnold Kling’s Optimistic Prognosis thread:

    As baby boomers look forward to the day that 90 is the new 60, I look forward to the day that I’m nastalgic for being 11 and jerking-off to scrambled cable porn, so that I too can get excited about global warming.

  • anon

    Robin – Why should the use of a factually incorrect metaphor indicate that the movie was poorly fact-checked? The metaphor may have been presented as true, but it was certainly not presented as a scientific fact with any bearing whatsoever on the thesis of the film. It’s perfectly understandable that they would only bother fact-checking the points that are actually important. Your post reveals your own bias.

  • Anon, the whole point of my post was that theories of why the other side is likely to be biased against your position *do* have an important bearing, and deservedly so, on whether people believe you.

  • The frog story is related to a similar bias which has been mentioned a few times in the comments on this blog, the claim that people are unable to perceive and anticipate future changes beyond a certain magnitude – paradigm shifts. Whether Peak Oil, Singularity, or other somewhat-fringe concept, we often see a failure of market prices, polls, and expert consensus to validate the predicted massive change in the world order.

    The straightforward conclusion is that the change will not happen, and that proponents are getting themselves worked up over an unlikely possibility. However many times I’ve seen the counter-claim that this is actually a result of this supposed human bias, that people can’t accept the possibility of radical change until it is upon them.

    While there are certainly historical cases where people failed to anticipate a change, there are many more cases of predicted changes which never occured. So it’s not clear that a generally skeptical attitude towards such predictions represents a bias. In the same way with the frog story, it might be reasonable not to hop out of the pot when the water gets warm, if most of the time it turns out to cool off again.

  • Leviathan

    “What are the odds no one ever told him or his staff the frog story was wrong? What does that tell you about how well the rest of the movie was fact-checked?”

    I do not see a conection between the frog story and the factual integrity of the rest of the movie. I presume that any fact checkers would focus their efforts on Gore’s main argument rather than on the analogies. It does not seem illogical that they would focus their efforts on what they perceived as the most important parts of the movie.

  • anon

    Robin – I understand the point of your post. Instead of looking at the frog analogy as a bias theory, I think it’s more of a device to try to explain the contradiction between what nearly everyone wants (not global warming) and the facts presented in the film (global warming). It’s simply another way of describing the problems of global warming in terms of path dependence.

  • If fact checkers did not think the frog story was an “important” fact to check, then we have to wonder what other facts presented they considered not “important” enough to be correct.

    Hal, yes, it would be interesting to check the supposed bias of failing to anticipate “paradigm shifts.”

  • Huh? I don’t understand what you’re trying to say in the previous comment anon.

  • Sierra D

    I think it’s childish to concentrate soley on the comment of the frog theory. Look at the situation as an entity, what exactly was he trying to get across? I think we’re all old enough to see right through the frog theory, nonfiction or fiction, and concentrate on the bigger picture, and we should start doing just that.