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Environmental evidence b(i)ased decision making….which one are you doing?

By evidentiary in  
October 10, 2016

What’s the difference between evidence based decision making and evidence biased decision making…. well the “i” of course but the important answer is your eye! The consequences of this difference are however a serious matter. They can mean the difference between the success or failure of a multi-million dollar investment, an action to save a threatened species that works or doesn’t or an organizational or personal reputation that is enhanced or is destroyed.

So how do you know if the evidence you are using to assist in your decision making is improving your decision (reducing risk) or actually making your decision worse?  What type of biases can influence your decision, how can you reduce the risk of these biases in your decision making and how accountable are we for our decisions in environmental management?

In this three part series I will discuss these questions and provide some practical guidance to assist you to understand, assess and reduce your risk of poor decision making due to the selection and use of inadequate or inappropriate evidence. The aim is to enable you to make more informed decisions about when you should invest in collecting new evidence.

Part 1 – Bias in decision making

The whole point of evidence based practice is to make decisions that are informed with a big advantage …. and that is an understanding of what we already know. It seems like a pretty sensible thing to do, to capitalize on the existing investment (time, knowledge, money) that humans have already made in building a collective wisdom. 
One problem is however, that there is often so much information on any given topic that it is difficult to know where to start making sense of it all. But if we are not using a process to get a picture of the ‘state of existing knowledge’ …..to tap into this collective wisdom, then what are the risks that the information that we select is going to reflect the factuality of what we already know? What if the pieces of information you have selected don’t represent the truth? How will this bias be reflected in your decision …..and worse in the outcomes derived from that decision?

We cannot escape bias in human decision making. Bias is a part of our make-up. The biases that we exhibit can be conscious or unconscious. Our own personal biases can even have a positive side in enabling us to make rapid decisions when we need to. That ‘gut feel’ about a potentially dangerous situation, trusting a stranger, a business deal or even a product advertisement are all opportunities for impulsive bias to influence our decision making abilities.  In many cases bias in our personal decisions may not matter, but when our personal biases impact on others through our professional judgment this becomes a problem, particularly when we are entrusted by the public to make decisions on their behalf. This raises a question of when do we need to be aware of biases in our decision making? What type of decisions or what type of decision consequences are those where processes should be used to ensure that we are basing them on a representation of our collective wisdom and not gut feel?

Common biases in finding and using evidence

There are biases involved in the processes of how and where we select information such as familiarity bias where there is comfort in going back to the same sources to find information. This may be a select number of internet sites, continual reference to your favourite experts, the office library or group of colleagues. A favorable experience with a friendly expert may influence your choice in seeking future information on a related topic.   Another important related bias in the selection of information is publication bias. Published material such as journals rely on readership and citations hence there is a bias towards the publication of positive or exciting findings ….who wants to read that $5M was spent on a trial that yielded inconclusive results or was flawed due to poor experimental design.

There are a range of other well know cognitive biases that influence how we interpret information such as confirmation bias. This bias refers to the conscious or unconscious selectivity and use of evidence to support the existing beliefs or hypotheses that we hold. Additionally facts may be moulded to fit these beliefs. Essentially we see what we want to see. If it is not agreeable to us and not what we want to see then, to various extents we ignore it or mould things to support our beliefs. We may place greater emphasis on information that supports our beliefs and less on disconfirming evidence.

In being confident with the information we are using to make decisions it is important to also consider whether the information is from a primary (first hand)or secondary (reported by someone else) source, awareness of how recent the information is, the credibility of the person/organization reporting it and whether information is presented to support all sides rather than just to support the author’s view.

In the next part I will consider how we can be aware of and reduce these biases in our decision making.


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