Thongchai Thailand

Superstition, Confirmation Bias, and Climate Change

Posted on: August 3, 2018

Crying Meri | Violence against women in Papua New Guinea


  1. The human instinct to identify cause and effect in nature and to manipulate natural forces for his benefit works over a wide spectrum from rational and scientific to religion, superstition, and witchcraft. Weather and climate are significant forces of nature to which man is constantly exposed and which he has overcome somewhat by adapting caves and building homes to shelter him from the weather. However, weather and climate extremes both short term weather change such as storms, temperature extremes, and precipitation extremes, and long term climate change to excessive dryness, excessive wetness, or long term transitions to warmer or colder temperatures are significant threats to man’s ability to survive and prosper.
  2. Neither weather nor climate are stable and predictable but are subjects to the random and chaotic whims of nature. The dependence of man on weather and the impact of adverse weather on man increased sharply after the Neolithic Revolution because man changed from a mobile nomadic lifestyle to a sedentary one; but more importantly because it involved dependence on agriculture such that crop failure due to adverse weather can have a devastating life or death impact on settled farmers. All references to weather also apply to the longer time scale of climate usually described as thirty years of weather (WMO, 2017).
  3. Climate science holds that Human Caused Climate Change by way of fossil fuel emissions has destabilized the natural climate system such that it is now capable of unusual and extreme weather events. Once this hypothesis is fully accepted it triggers superstitious behavior in humans such that any and all odd and unusual aspects of weather that might otherwise have been accepted as the known irregular and volatile nature of weather, are instead attributed to climate change.
  4. Such attribution serves to re-enforce the belief in the dangerous nature of climate change and the urgency of Climate Action to prevent the harm that it might otherwise cause. Yet, this superstition is actually presented by climate scientists as empirical evidence of human caused climate change in terms of what has come to be called “Event Attribution Science” (Munshi, 2017) (Trenberth, 2015) (Stott, 2016) (Hegerl, 2010). This aspect of human behavior, where an assumed theory of causation guides the interpretation of data in a way that re-enforces the theory of causation can be described in terms of superstition. Related post:  EVENT ATTRIBUTION SCIENCE
  5. Superstition in humans as well as in other creatures is well documented in numerous works in the field of superstitious beliefs, superstitious behavior and the nature of superstition as an innate characteristic of humans and other creatures that derives from adaptive learning and survival (Skinner, 1948)(Timberlake, 1985)(Burnham, 1987) (Brewton, 1930) (Vyse, 2013) (Preece, 2000) (Otis, 1982) (Maller, 1933) (Beck, 2007).
  6. A specific issue in the study of superstition is that of confirmation bias in the interpretation of data and events. For example, if one believes in the overarching power of luck in shaping our lives, and that one’s luck can be enhanced by visiting a certain shrine or wearing a special amulet, then such action will impose a confirmation bias such that unfavorable events will be overlooked and favorable events will be seen as empirical evidence of enhanced luck that can be attributed to the shrine or the amulet (Brugger, 1997) (Sterman, 2006) (MacCoun, 1998) (Tsang, 2004) (MacKay, 1841) (Tyszka, 2008) (Risen, 2016). It is this trickery of the brain that explains why superstition survives and why it plays a significant role in our lives even when what we do appears on the surface to be science. The Nickerson 1998 paper describes this phenomenon in some detail from a psychologist’s point of view with useful examples.
  7. Nickerson, Raymond S. “Confirmation bias: A ubiquitous phenomenon in many guises.” Review of general psychology2.2 (1998): 175. Confirmation bias, as the term is typically used in the psychological literature, connotes the seeking or interpreting of evidence in ways that are partial to existing beliefs, expectations, or a hypothesis in hand. The author reviews evidence of such a bias in a variety of guises and gives examples of its operation in several practical contexts. Possible explanations are considered, and the question of its utility or dis-utility is discussed.
  8. SORCERY KILLINGS IN MELANESIA: A relevant issue in the study of superstition in humans is the well documented phenomenon of sorcery accusations and sorcery killings in the highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG). These events demonstrate the application of superstition in a real life setting in the chilling context of life and death. As well, they can be used as real world examples to demonstrate the correspondence between superstition and climate science. An extensive literature exists on these practices and on the role of sorcery in PNG highland culture (Lindenbaum, 2015) (Stephen, 1987) (Eves, 2013) (Urame, 2008).
  9. Sorcery in this context has been described as “the deliberate use of magical rituals to injure, kill, or cause misfortune” (Eves, 2013) and this definition is further elaborated as a capacity to cause harm because of the ability to control extrinsic powers (Glick, 1973). This power of sorcery is believed to run in the family and so descendants of known sorcerers are readily suspected of practicing the art upon the slightest suspicion (Eves, 2013).
  10. The issue of sorcery killings is complex (Urame, 2008). It cannot be generalized across Papua New Guinea because it exists in some societies and not in others; and varies greatly in form and severity in communities where it does exist. The situation is rendered even more complex because the practice evolves and changes over time such that in recent times there has been an emergence of young men as the primary accusers and executioners in sorcery killings.
  11. However, the complex and changing situation in PNG with respect to sorcery accusations and sorcery killings contains a common logical structure in terms of the superstition that drives this practice. Sorcery related violence derives from a superstitious belief system that is common to most PNG communities. It is the belief that bad things don’t just happen by chance but that they have a cause (Beck, 2007) (Brewton, 1930); and that the cause is most likely to be the work of evil people in the community who can cause bad things by manipulating the spirits (Lindenbaum, 2015) (Urame, 2008). In this belief system, the more unusual the bad thing appears to be the more likely its evil cause (Vyse, 2013) (Urame, 2008).
  12. Once a tragic event occurs and evil cause is suspected, a logical and well developed investigation procedure, not unlike Event Attribution Science, is activated, first to verify that it is a sorcery event, and second, if the event is verified to be a sorcery event, to identify the sorcerer that manipulated the forces of evil to cause the tragic event. The suspect event may be a sudden and unexpected death, an accidental death, a deathly sickness, a fire, death or loss of farm animals, or it may be a weather event such as temperature extremes, a drought, a flood, or a destructive storm. In all such cases, sorcery experts are brought in to study the situation for telltale signs of sorcery well known to them. Once it has been determined that the suspect event is a sorcery event, the investigation moves to the next stage – that of identifying the sorcerer.
  13. Sorcerer identification, also known as “sorcery accusation”, follows a well-developed methodology based on well understood relationships developed over many generations (Urame, 2008) (Stephen, 1987). Sorcery tends to run in the family such that descendants of known sorcerers are more likely to be sorcerers than descendants of non-sorcerers. Another consideration is that sorcerers often use inanimate objects that are spiritually connected to the suspect by physical or other means. For example, body hair, finger nails, and even feces that are thought to contain the spiritual signature of the subject may be used in casting the magical spell to cause harm to the selected subject. Even objects that were in close contact with the subject may be used for this purpose as for example, clothing or even a footprint carved into the mud by his or her bare feet. Therefore, possession of such items by persons in the community serves as evidence to identify them as potential sorcerers. Family members of the victim are also prime suspects because of the belief that “the blood of the relatives is hot” meaning that sorcery power is more effective when there is a blood connection (Urame, 2008).
  14. Other methods of identifying the sorcerer include past interpersonal history between the victim and members of the community that can reveal the motivation of the sorcerer in terms of prior confrontation, unresolved disputes, or interpersonal or inter-family stress. Also relevant in identifying the sorcerer is the practical matter of making the accusation stick which requires the general approval of the community. This consideration creates a bias in the investigation that targets weaker members of the community less able to defend themselves and without much community support “such as old people and women” (Urame, 2008). The family connection at times results in a sorcery accusations against not just one individual but against an entire family thought to be a sorcery family.
  15. Once the sorcery experts make their determination, “the science is settled” so to speak and it is not possible for “sorcery science deniers” to defend the accused. Once an accusation is made, no community member will come forward to defend the accused for fear of being accused of “protecting a sorcerer”, a crime that also carries the death penalty. The suspected sorcerer is seen as a present danger and a threat to the harmony and well-being of the community. Capital punishment is mandatory in this case for the greater good of the community.
  16. THE PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE: The methodology for identifying the sorcerer contains uncertainties and there is of course a chance that the identification may have been in error but it is not reasonable to demand 100% certainty and let a person go free when he or she could be a sorcerer with an acceptable degree of certainty. That risk to the community at large cannot be taken under these circumstances. The precautionary principle is thus invoked and immediate capital punishment is ordered. The judgement is defended and celebrated by the community because the accusers are considered defenders of the community who are providing protection from the power of evil (Lindenbaum, 2015) (Urame, 2008).
  17. Just as the killing of dogs for consumption in China needs to be painful and cruel to the dogs for a practical matter, that of the secretion of enzymes to enhance meat quality (Kerr, 2015), so it is that capital punishment for sorcerers must be a horrific and painful event not only for the sorcerer to bear but also for the community to see, because these horrific events serve as a deterrent against sorcery in the community. This practice is facilitated by a culture of violence in Melanesia particularly in the highlands of PNG but also welcomed by the community as an assurance of protection from sorcery in the future. The torture and killing take various forms with the target of the killing being either an individual sorcerer or a family that has been identified as a family of sorcerers.
  18. Some documented killings recorded by (Urame, 2008) are as follows: (1) tortured for hours with dismemberment and disembowelment, their house burnt down, and then put to death; (2) held at gunpoint, slowly tortured for hours, and eventually killed; (3) the accused was able to escape by running away from the community but his wife was captured and chopped into pieces with bush knives; (4) the accused, a mother, trying to run away with her baby in her arms, ducked a bush knife but the baby was taken from her and cut in half before putting the mother to death (Urame, 2008).
  19. Yet, even after such exhibitions of heinous horror, the community remains pliant and compliant and thankful to the accusers and executioners for saving the community from sorcery. This relationship among the accused sorcerer family, the sorcery accusers, the executioners, and the community derives from a shared superstition about sorcery in which the sorcerer is evil and the cause of tragic evil events. In this context, the grotesque anti sorcery action taken by the accusers and executioners is a service rendered to the community for its continued protection from sorcery and therefore of its continued well-being. However horrific the procedure, it is a necessary evil for the best interests of the community at large.
  20. WITCH BURNINGS IN MEDIEVAL EUROPE: Another example of socially accepted violence carried out ostensibly on behalf of the community and rationalized by superstition is described by Dr. Sallie Baliunas (Baliunas, 2018). The issue arises in the context of bad weather and a culture of witch burning in medieval Europe.
  21. The climate history of Europe records the so called Medieval Warm Period (MWP) that peaked in the period 900-1200 AD at about 0.6C warmer than the average for the millennium that preceded it. Soon thereafter, Europe plunged into a period of cooling that bottomed out in 1600-1800 AD at about 0.8C cooler than the high of the Medieval Warm Period. This cold period, known as the Little Ice Age (LIA), was a period of great hardship for Europeans.
  22. Canals and rivers were frozen, growth of sea ice around Iceland closed down harbors and shipping, hailstorms and snowstorms were heavy and frequent, and road and water transport was made difficult or impossible. Agricultural failure and consequent starvation and death devastated Europe. The Scandinavian colonies in Greenland starved to death and disappeared (Matthews/Briffa, 2005) (Soon/Baliunas, 2003).
  23. To the Europeans of the time used to relative warmth and agricultural wealth, these extreme weather events seemed abnormal, unusual and bizarre and therefore likely to have evil other-worldly causes and explanations. The human tendency to look for cause and effect relationships in extreme weather predicament and their usual solutions (Maller, 1933), drove the LIA Europeans to measures not unlike the sorcery killings of Melanesia.
  24. Europeans of the time were mostly Christians but their version of religion carried with it superstitions and cultural norms that included sorcery and witchcraft (BenYehuda, 1980). Since the 13th century and through the ages since then, whenever Europeans faced hardship from extreme weather or disease epidemics or other natural calamities, they attributed their suffering to the forces of evil personified by witches – individuals thought to possess evil supernatural powers.
  25. In this belief system, the danger and suffering the community faces from what is deemed to be “witch caused” unnatural events can be controlled and moderated by identifying the witch or witches responsible for these events in a “witch hunt” and trial, torturing them to extract a confession, and then burning them at the stake (Summers, 2014) (Behringer, 1995) (Monter, 2002) (Levack, 2015) (Behringer, 2004).
  26. The specific case of the effort to take “climate action” against what is assumed to be unnatural witch-caused climate change, extreme weather, and agricultural collapse of the LIA proceeded by identifying the responsible witches and putting them to death at the stake is described by Christian Pfister and Sallie Baliunas (Pfister, 2006) (Baliunas, 2018) in terms of classic works on witch hunts and witch trials by Wolfgang Behringer and William Monter. (Soon/Baliunas, 2003, Climatic extremes, recurrent crises and witch hunts: strategies of European societies in coping with exogenous shocks in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries)
  27. In addition to objective climatic data, subjective or social reactions can also serve as indicators in the assessment of climatic changes. Concerning the Little Ice Age the conception of witchcraft is of enormous importance. Weather-making counts among the traditional abilities of witches. During the late 14th and 15th centuries the traditional conception of witchcraft was transformed into the idea of a great conspiracy of witches, to explain “unnatural” climatic phenomena.
  28. Because of their unpredictable and dangerous nature, particularly so with regard to their ability to generate hailstorms, the very idea of witches was the subject of controversial discussion around 1500. The beginnings of meteorology and its emphasis of “natural” reasons in relationship to the development of weather must be seen against the background of this demoniacal discussion.
  29. The resurgence of witch hunts in the Little Ice Age revealed the susceptibility of society. Scapegoat reactions may be observed by the early 1560s even though climatologists, thus far, have been of the opinion that the cooling period did not begin until 1565. Despite attempts of containment, such as the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination, extended witch-hunts took place at the various peaks of the Little Ice Age because a part of society held the witches directly responsible for the high frequency of climatic anomalies and the impacts thereof.
  30. The enormous tensions created in society as a result of the persecution of witches demonstrate how dangerous it is to discuss climatic change under the aspects of morality.

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8 Responses to "Superstition, Confirmation Bias, and Climate Change"

[…] Sorcery Killings, Witch Hunts, & Climate Action […]

Reblogged this on 4TimesAYear's Blog.

Fantastic. You have written a highly organized and insightful review on this disturbing idea.
The recent declarations by climate extremists blaming President Trump for hurricane Florence made me realize how unhinged and irrational the “climate consensus” truly is.
You gave given a great deal of thought to this and have well documented how dangerous yet pathetic climate extremism is.
Thank you.


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