It is said, by those who believe in the devil, that his greatest achievement was convincing the rest of the world that he did not exist. There are two biases that play a similar role in our search for objective knowledge and our goal of making better decisions. These are optimism bias and skepticism bias. Their true threat come from the fact that many people are unaware of their existence. And yet once recognized, you’ll see these biases everywhere.
Optimism is not only infectious but effective. Enthusiasm is often a requirement for success. During World War II, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers adopted as a motto an aphorism from a French novelist: “The difficult we do quickly. The impossible takes a little longer.”
Consider optimism and skepticism bias in the field of energy. Some say solar power is too expensive or too intermittent. Rather than address these directly, we can substitute optimism: let’s let loose American can-do and solve those challenges! (In the world today there are no longer any problems, only challenges.) Electric cars charge too slowly? Look at the computer revolution and lose your confining pessimism! Moore’s law will eventually apply to batteries for energy storage, just as it worked for electronics. Remember the Manhattan Project! Remember the Apollo mission! We can do anything if we put our minds to it. Yes we can!
While renewables are often treated with optimism, nuclear power is attacked with skepticism and pessimism. The problems are too tricky, too technical, too unknown. We can’t trust either industry or the U.S. government with accident safety. Nuclear energy is dangerous and intractable. And we’ll never solve the nuclear waste issue. But is nuclear power truly more intractable than solar, or is there a hidden bias choosing which arguments we bring forth?
Optimism bias describes the optimism that derives, not from objective assessment, but from a strong like or from a deeply felt hope. The opposite of optimism bias, pessimism bias, derives from dislike or fear. Closely related to pessimism bias, but sounding more thoughtful and positive and harder to counter, is skepticism bias. It is remarkably easy to be skeptical, about anything. Try it. The words will come trippingly to your tongue. The skeptic typically sounds more intelligent, more knowing, more experienced than does the pessimist. If you aren’t skeptical, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn I would like to sell you.
Closely related to optimism and skepticism bias is confirmation bias. This usually refers to the cherry picking of confirmatory facts, and the discarding of those inconvenient to the desired conclusion. Optimism bias is different. It is not the facts that are important, but the attitude, the positivism, the enthusiasm. If the technology is appealing, then of course we can do it! But if we are suspicious, then bring in all the arguments that were ignored for the appealing technology: the cost, the difficulty, the lack of trust in industry and authority. Be skeptical.
Skepticism bias is currently affecting discussions of fracking, in particular, the danger of leaked “fugitive” methane with its potent greenhouse warming potential. The bias takes the form of skepticism that we can fix the leaky pipes and machines; that task is portrayed as too difficult, and would require trust. And trust is a tricky and elusive concept, and also be applied with bias. If you don’t like a solution, state that you don’t trust that it will be implemented properly.
Optimism bias is strong on the issue of electric cars. We hope they will work, so we support them. Yet skepticism/pessimism is used against their competitor: 100 mpg conventional autos. Are such vehicles truly as difficult as some argue? We learn in physics that, in principle, horizontal transport need not take any energy. But the same people who are optimistic about batteries are often pessimistic about high mileage gasoline autos. Is that justified?
Both optimism and skepticism bias can be hidden under conviction, an easy substitute for objective analysis. “I just don’t believe that ____ (fill in the blank)”. Biases often invoke trust or lack of it. Conviction can be psychologically compelling. Optimism bias drove the original flight to the Moon, but also the largely useless and in my mind failed space station. Optimism bias gave rise to the U.S. government wars on both cancer and poverty.
In science, skepticism bias infects referee reports for proposed experimental work in science. Luis Alvarez’s major projects were all begun before he had solutions to all the technical issues. He was optimistic, but his optimism was based on his own evaluation of what lay within his capabilities. It could be said that he had earned the right to be optimistic by dint of his past successes. His optimism was not a bias; it was based on capability of addressing new issues as they arise. Optimism can be realistic. And so can pessimism. And skepticism.
The heart of science is in overcoming bias. The difference between a scientist and layman can be summarized as follows: a layman is easily fooled and is particularly susceptible to self-deception. In contrast, a scientist is easily fooled and is particularly susceptible to self-deception, and knows it. The “scientific method” consists almost exclusively in techniques used to overcome self-deception. The first step in accomplishing this is to recognize that biases exist. The danger of optimism and skepticism bias (like the danger of the devil—for people who believe in such things) is that so many people are unaware of its existence.