The Big Picture: Balancing bias


agriculture is full of scientific certainty and research-driven results. Decisions on how much fertilizer to apply, what crop protection product to use and when to sell a crop all require careful measurements. A science-based approach to farming is becoming more important every day as farmers perform their own strip trials, utilize variable rate technology and monitor their own weather systems.

But despite all this science and measurement, agriculture is still rife with emotional discussion, debate and disagreement. People, both farmers and non-farmers alike, disagree on so many aspects of farming that it is sometimes hard to find common ground. Debates over production practices are gaining a stronger foothold in both urban and farm media. Discussions on the benefits of organic versus conventional, the pros and cons of biotechnology and concerns over animal welfare are commonplace in coffee shops.

When engaging in discussion about these potentially volatile topics, many people retreat to the comfort of science-based arguments. As these topics tend to revolve around what’s best for the environment, yield and human health, a foundation in science is important.

Comparatively, Jay Ingram, host of the Discovery Channel show Daily Planet, brought up an important consideration when entering any type of discussion at Grain Farmers of Ontario’s March Conference. In his presentation, Ingram talked about something called the ‘confirmation bias’.

“When presented with evidence positive or minus of anything you strongly believe in, your natural tendency is to ignore the evidence against, or to think that the evidence for it is more important, or to criticize the evidence against more thoroughly,” explains Ingram.

This bias has been studied by many scientists. In a very famous research experiment conducted at Stanford University, scientists presented proponents and opponents with studies on both sides of the debate over the effectiveness of capital punishment. The experiment found that research subjects described the study supporting their pre-existing view as superior to those that contradicted it and set higher standards of evidence for hypotheses that went against their current expectations.

Although capital punishment has no place in an agricultural discussion, it is important to be aware of your own confirmation biases.

Next time you are reading a newspaper article, listening to a radio show or having a discussion on one of these hot topic farm issues, try to take mental note of how a confirmation bias may be at play.

Being more aware of your and others’ biases before entering into a discussion may help encourage better understanding and promote a common ground. •