Trust the (research) process

We all have some inclination to cherry-pick information that supports our existing beliefs. 


Aerial phot of research plot and researchers

Most everyone reading this article learned something growing up that you found out later was not true or, at the very least, not accurate. Many times it happened when you went to college or moved to a different part of the country. You heard new ideas coming from a different perspective that may have rattled you a little. Perhaps it made you question if what you had learned was not true and maybe even misleading. These periods of “enlightenment” are often met with anger, fear, remorse or maybe embarrassment.

The environment we were raised in and the company we keep go a long way toward shaping our beliefs and biases. As we grow older, we often seek out individuals as friends who share many similarities in worldview. This helps encourage our own biases and makes us feel more comfortable about our beliefs.

Confirmation bias is a term that has been thrown around a lot over the past few years. One definition for confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret and recall information in a way that supports what we already believe. None of us ever do that, correct? No, we all are guilty of it. This has been made easier through the internet; we all can search Google until we find what supports our opinion. Many sites then use algorithms to feed us even more biased information based on previous searches. So it becomes a never-ending cycle of information coming our way that makes us smile. While this may seem like a great thing for us individually, it typically leads us down a fairly off-center road to the truth.

We all have some inclination to cherry-pick information that supports our existing beliefs. Two people with opposing viewpoints on a topic can look at the same information and feel like their perspective has been reinforced. Confirmation bias is typically most easily observed when our thoughts and beliefs are deeply ingrained or emotionally charged. For each and every one of us, the ability to interpret data in the absence of any biases is difficult, if not impossible. The result can be very serious errors in our judgment and perspective. Any time we see data or information that supports our existing beliefs, we need to be cautious and, perhaps, even suspicious.

We all want to be right, and our egos push us to always be right and appear well-educated, intelligent, well-rounded and well-traveled. But we also have a desire to always have been right. Those are two different things. The desire to be right means we seek the truth to make sure we understand. This is always a good thing.

The desire to always have been right, however, is about our ego. It is about our pride, and it stands in the way of the truth and prevents us from seeing, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that we indeed were/are wrong. It’s hard to grow when we won’t let go of that flaw. Warren Buffett said it best: “What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”

Another component to consider is the tribes we find ourselves in and the associated tribal behavior. Sports fans often represent a great example of tribal behavior. Like-minded people will gather together to support “their” team.

We commonly see confirmation bias in people claiming “their” favorite college team is the best, and it may or may not be based on fact but rather the perspective that comes from confirmation bias. That can be fun and it can be fine, but in topics that matter, confirmation bias can cause you to seek information that reinforces your beliefs while you ignore facts that perhaps challenge your perspective. We see it in Ford vs. Chevy, Earnhardt vs. Petty, Red Sox vs. Yankees, paper vs. plastic ... you get the point.

The most common issue in disagreeing with science and/or scientists is that at times, their research will produce findings that are counter to our mindset. The only correction to this is to actively seek the truth rather than seek what supports your existing perspective on the topic. Scientists around the world spend their careers solving problems and giving us a better understanding of the world around us. Many of those who disagree with them have never read a single peer-reviewed research paper on the topic, but somehow feel they have better insight into the topic than the experts. We can all do better.

Rick Brandenburg is a turfgrass entomology professor at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, a post he’s held since 1985. The 26-year GCSAA member is also a frequent presenter for GCSAA, both in webinars and at the annual GCSAA Conference and Trade Show.