Which college students think they know better?

A student at the University of Texas at Austin recently asked his professors whether they know more about climate change than he does. 

“I think they don’t know anything,” said George Fergus, a computer science major. 

The professor then asked the student, “Which of your colleagues do you trust more to know the truth?” 

“It depends,” Fergus said. 

In this case, Fergus’ answer is that his fellow professors might know more. 

As a group, scientists and scholars, the University at Austin is generally pretty good at telling the truth. 

When asked, for example, whether they were willing to “trust the consensus” about climate, nearly a third of the students at the university said yes. 

At Columbia University, which is located in the United States, less than half the students said they trusted climate scientists. 

But when asked, in a separate survey, whether climate change was “real,” fewer than half said yes, and more than a quarter said they were unsure. 

And when asked to assess the credibility of the scientists themselves, about a third said yes and more said they didn’t trust them. 

It’s a phenomenon called “confidence bias,” where students tend to overestimate the degree to which they understand something and underestimate the degree they can predict what that something might be. 

If scientists and academics are telling the public the truth, it might not be because they know the answer. 

Scientists are also more likely to be able to detect evidence of a bias in their answers. 

For instance, in an effort to better understand the science behind the “global warming” phenomenon, scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies have been studying what they call “the bias” of their answers to scientific questions. 

A 2014 study, for instance, found that when they asked scientists how well they understood a scientific question, they had a tendency to overestimating how well the answers were correct. 

That study showed that scientists’ “cognitive biases” were associated with a better understanding of climate science. 

Now, as we’ve seen in other studies, some of these biases are pretty hard to detect. 

According to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, for every 10 percent of the respondents who say they know less than they think they do, they may be in the minority. 

Not to mention that when you find a scientist who has an answer you think is incorrect, you have to ask them what the correct answer is, even though it’s not true. 

To be sure, when you are asked to trust your colleagues and trust that your questions are answered correctly, that may help to explain the findings of this new study. 

However, the new study is just the latest to point to a bias at work when it comes to climate science, and it may help explain why a majority of scientists think climate change is real. 

Even as climate scientists and climate change skeptics alike continue to argue about the reality of the problem, the vast majority of the scientific community still agrees that it is happening. 

More than half of climate scientists say the planet is warming, according to the American Meteorological Society. 

Despite this, a 2016 survey of climate change experts in the American Psychological Association found that most of the people surveyed were confident that climate change does not pose a significant threat to human health. 

So, maybe there is a little truth to the question that climate scientists are saying that they are “very confident” about. 

[Image via Shutterstock.com]

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