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Decisions, Biases and the Creation of Knowledge

Course title: Decisions, Biases and the Creation of Knowledge
CRNs: IDS 495: 35700; ENGL 495: 35704, ENGL 595: 35708; OEAS 495: 35691, OEAS 595: 35696
Credits: 3
Course type: On campus
Instructors: Dr. Hans-Peter Plag, Michelle Heart
Listing Departments: IDS 495, ENGL 495/595, OEAS 495/595 Advanced/Special Topics
Term: Summer 2016, Session 2; Mondays and Wednesdays 17:15 - 21:00; Location: BAL 2067
Contact Information: hpplag at; mheart at

Note: Several of the articles available in the column “On the Edge” by Hans-Peter Plag, see are of interest for this course.

Science is the compass that can guide humanity through the ocean of knowledge. Modified from Heart (2015, personal communication).

June 27, 2016Introduction to Decisions, Biases, and the Creation of Knowledge

Questions for you:

  1. What do you know about cognitive biases and how do you think they impact our decision making? Give examples.
  2. Based on your understanding and today's readings, respond to: How, and by whom, has in recent decades in the U.S. a form of skepticism been used to discredit and blur scientific evidence? How does this relate to cognitive biases?
  3. Considering the example of "Coddling the American Mind," how do biases impact the interpretation of societal developments? Give examples.
Biases and preconceptions limited our deliberations, options for decision, and creation of knowledge.

Lee, S. and Lebowitz, S., 2015. 20 cognitive biases that screw up your decisions. Business Insider, August 26, 2015. See See also the Wikipedia article on cognitive distortions.

Shermer, M., 2015. What Can Be Done about Pseudoskepticism? Scientific American, March 1, 2015. See

Lukianoff, G. and Haidt, J., 2015. The Coddling of the American Mind. The Atlantic, September 2015. See

Jensen, R., 2016. The coddling of the capitalist, white-supremacist, patriarchal american mind. Available

Additional Reading:

Yam, P., 2015. A Plea for a Scientific Worldview from An Honest Liar, on Debunker James Randi. Scientific American. Published online on March 9, 2015. See html. A relevant quote: ‘Although many academics think they are too smart to be fooled, “there are things beyond their expertise,” Randi had said during our 1995 interview. “Physicists are most easily deceived, because they deal in a real world of objects,” and their natural inclination is to take anomalies as discoveries rather than as hoaxes, he noted.

Capra, F., 1996. The Web of Life. Random House Publishers. It is recommended to read chapters 1 and 2. The PDF is also available in the workspace library.

June 29, 2016Personal bias: understand how world views of neighborhood, parents, schools, etc. create a very personal bias

Questions for you: After viewing Hans Rosling's TED presentation, respond to the following:

  1. What is Rosling's main message, to your opinion?
  2. Who is/are Rosling's audience? Is he persuasive? Explain why or why not?
  3. What other examples can you think of that are similar to Rosling's?
  4. Additionally, can you give an example where your biases have impacted your perception of recent events?
View: “How Not to Be Ignorant About the World” by Hans and Ola Rosling

Christian, S.E., 2013. Cognitive Biases and Errors as Cause—and Journalistic Best Practices as Effect, Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 28, 160—174, DOI: 10.1080/08900523.2013.794674

Additional Readings:

Burke, K., 1939. Rhetoric of Hitler's Battle. The Southern Review, 5, 1-21.

Burke, K., 1941. “The Rhetoric of Hitler's Battle” in The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action. New York: Vintage. pp. 191-220. Reprinted Berkeley, California: University of California Press. (1974). ISBN 0-520-02483-4. pdf available in the workspace library. Essay by Kenneth Burke on the rhetoric of fascism (Encourages analytical thinking). Burke is essential 20th century rhetorician who based his thinking and writing on the 20th century events giving rise to fascist movements. His theories are based on language use (persuasion/identification, etc.) He sees language as symbolic action. See also wikipedia.

Pauley, G., 2009. Criticism in Context: Kenneth Burke's “The Rhetoric of Hitler's 'Battle'.” KB Journal, 6(1). See html. Provides a criticism on Burke's essay.

Oktay, Y., 2014. “You're Not Going to Try and Change My Mind?” The Dynamics of Identification in Aronofsky's Black Swan. KB Journal, 10(1). See html.

July 4, 2016No class (holiday) 
July 6, 2016Community and cultural biases: realize that communities at different levels have biases in how they see the world inside and outside the cultural context. Biases are necessary to find a way to live in the complex world and to deal with knowledge gaps. There are many ways of living in the planetary life-support system and many of them are sustainable. But if cultural biases keep a society from understanding the laws and messages of nature, then the community is doomed.

Questions for you:

  1. What is the main argument of Mason (2015)?
  2. Mason's (2015) position on partisan-ideological sorting does imply a community bias that is both united and divided. How do you respond to such a paradoxical point of view?
  3. Gee (2011) argues that “When major disasters strike, it isn't the disaster itself that is responsible for many of the deaths that occur. It’s the disbelief of the people in the most danger from believing that the disaster is as bad as everyone says it is.” Do you agree or disagree? Briefly explain why.
  4. Briley et al., (2000) argue that the Asian participants are more willing to compromise than the Americans when it comes to decision making processes. How do the authors come to that conclusion? Give an example from the study. Do you agree or disagree with the author's positions? Explain why.

Mason, L., 2015. “I Disrespectfully Agree”: The Differential Effects of Partisan Sorting on Social and Issue Polarization, American Journal of Political Science, 59(1), 128—145.

Briley, D.A., Morris, M., Simonson, I., 2000. Reasons as carriers of culture: Dynamic vs. Dispositional models of cultural influence on decision making, Journal of Consumer Research, 27(2), 157-178.

Kenyon, T., 2014, False polarization: debiasing as applied social epistemology, Synthese, 191, 2529—2547, DOI 10.1007/s11229-014-0438-x

Fragoso, A. D., 2016. Scientists Just Confirmed The Scientific Consensus On Climate Change. Published on APR 13, 2016 4:26 PM at /

Crociataa, A., Agovino, M., Saccoc, P.L., 2015. Recycling waste: Does culture matter? Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics, 55, 40—47.

Gee, B., 2011. Economic Crisis and the Normalcy Bias. See


Essay: “Impact of Cultural Biases on Leadership and Individuals”: Compare two public persons from different cultures and analyse the core elements in their history that may explain the personal biases in their world view. Examples could be the Pope and Donald Trump, Putin and Obama, etc. Compare this to your personal biases and their origin in your history and culture.
July 11, 2016Presentation and Discussion of Essays  
July 13, 2016Facts: realize that facts are often/always incomplete, often outdated, wrong, misinterpreted. Understand the role of paradigms and immutable truths for the interpretation of facts. Trends: understand the problems of inductions, the meaning of Black Swans, surprises, ...

Questions for you:

  1. Kirchhoff et al. (2013) mention “ approaches to the creation of knowledge involving both growing integration across disciplines and greater interaction with users” as part of their study. Briefly elaborate on that thought.
  2. Jack London explores the conflict between man and nature in “To Build a Fire.” Could the ending of the story be different? Briefly explain why or why not?
  3. In the conclusion section, William Demastes (1998) ties a natural event, the Mississippi flood, to the power of nature over human structuring, as an example. What is the lesson learned by the US government as a result, according to the author, and how can it be applied to decision making?
  4. What is the main message of Plag (2016)?
  5. Additionally, Capra (1996, see reading for June 27, 2016), states in Chapter 1, “The more we study the major problems of our time, the more we come to realize that they cannot be understood in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are interconnected and interdependent.” Discuss your interpretation of the statement while giving examples from the text. Can you apply Capra's point to a problem you are familiar with?

Trochin, W. M. K., 2006. Positivism & Post-Positivism. In Research Methods Knowledge Base, see html.

Kirchhoff, C.J., Lemos, M.C., Dessai, S., 2013. Actionable knowledge for environmental decision making: Broadening the usability of climate science, Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 38, 393-414.

Demastes, W., 1998. Theatre of Chaos: Beyond Absurdism, into Orderly Disorder. Cambridge University Press, New York.

London, J., 1908. To Build a Fire. See or A quote: “The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances. Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man's frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man's place in the universe.

Plag, H.-P., 2016. Knowledge Must Translate into Action - “They had all the Knowledge ...” Column 12 in “On The Edge.” ApoGeo, 31(2), 8-10, Spring 2016,

Additional reading:

Taleb, N. N., 2010. The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable Fragility. Random House Publishing Group.

Kilby, B., 2015. A Psychologist Explains Why People Don't Give a Shit About Climate Change. Vice, Posted on June 9, 2015, html.

McBrayer, J. P., 2015. Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts. New York Times, March 2, 2015, html.

Cock, J., 2011. How the term “scientist” came to be. Posted on February 16, 2011 at

July 18, 2016Risks: analyze how risk is managed, understood, ignored in different cultures and how natural laws are integrated in risk assessments.

Questions for you:

  1. In Simonetta (2016), the principles of “thermodynamics” are used as an example to explain cyclic “Collapse of Civilizations.” After studying, discuss your interpretation of the article's main point. Do you agree with the analogy? Give an example.
  2. Rusbridger (2015) raises the following questions: “Even when the overwhelming majority of scientists wave a big red flag in the air, they tend to be ignored. Is this new warning too similar to the last? Is it all too frightening to contemplate? Is a collective shrug of fatalism the only rational response?” How do Rusbridger's questions relate to biases and their impacts on risk perception? Discuss your point of view with an example.
  3. Compare the main messages of Oliver (2016) and Lewandowsky (2016). How do they relate to our discussions of biases and their impacts on risk analysis? Give one or more examples. Do you agree with their points?

The threat of Unsustainability:

Simonetta, J., 2016. The Other Side of the Global Crisis: Entropy and the Collapse of Civilizations. See here

Figueroa-Helland, L.E/. Lindgren, L., Pfaeffle, T., 2016. Civilization on a crash course? Imperialism, subimperialism and the political-ecological breaking point of the modern/colonial world-system, Perspectives on Global Development and Technology, 14, 257-289.

Berger, A., Brown, C., Kousky, C., Zeckhauser, R., 2011. The Challenge of degraded environments: How common biases impair effective, Risk Analysis, 31(9) 1423-1433.

Rusbridger, A., 2015. Climate change: why the Guardian is putting threat to Earth front and centre. The Guardian. March 6, 2015, see html

The threat of terrorism:

Bouzar, D., Escaping Radicalism. Scientific American Mind, May/June 2016, 41-43.

Dutton, K., Abrams, D., 2016. Extinguishing the threat. Scientific American Mind, May/June 2016, 44-49.

Reicher, S. D., Haslam, S. A., 2016. Fueling Extremes. Scientific American Mind, May/June 2016, 35-39.


Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Brexit (HBO) (June 19, 2016),

Lewandowsky, S., June 21, 2016. Why is populism popular? A psychologist explains.

Essay: “Climate Change: Understanding the Causes and Preparing for Tomorrow”: Compare approaches to the emerging threat of climate change in two different cultures with a focus on how cultural and community biases impact these approaches.
July 20, 2016Presentation and Discussion of Essays  
July 25, 2016Decisions: biases and decisions, lessons learned, slow and fast thinking; decision making under uncertainty versus decision making under foresight.

Questions for you:

  1. Apply the Kahneman et al. (2011) methodology to reduce the impact of cognitive biases to a recommendation you have recently heard of, e.g. related to the discussions on climate change, terrorism, or the shooting events in the U.S. Use the comment tool in the workspace to briefly summarize the review of the recommendation and your decision.
  2. Provide two examples of decisions based on fast and slow thinking (see Kahneman, 2011) and comment on the quality of the decisions made.
  3. What do you think about the main conclusions in Glantz and Kelman (2013)? Please, use the comment tool to provide your thoughts on this paper.

Kahneman, D., Lovallo, D., Sibony, O., 2011. Before you make that decision. Harvard Business Review, June 2011, 51-60

Kahnemann, D., 2011. Thinking, Fast and Slow. Farrar, Staus, and Girrow.

Glantz, M. H., 2015. The Letter and the Spirit of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (a.k.a. HFA2). Int. J. Disaster Risk Sci., 6, 205—206. DOI 10.1007/s13753-015-0049-2. pdf.

Glantz, M. H., Baudoin, M.-A., de la Poterie, A. T., Naranjo, L., Pierce, G., Pradhananga, D., Wolde-Georgis, T., Fakhruddin, B., Ahmed, A. K., Chapsoporn, N., Usher, P. E. O., Ramirez, I. J., 2014. Working with a Changing Climate, Not Against It — Hydro-meteorological Disaster Risk Reduction: A Survey of Lessons Learned for Resilient Adaptation to a Changing Climate. Consortium for Capacity Building INSTAAR, University of Boulder, Boulder, CO, USA. U.S. AID Report. pdf.

Glantz, M. H., Kelman, I. 2013. Thoughts on dealing with climate if the future matters. International Journal of Disaster Risk Science, 4(1), 1 — 8. DOI: 10.1007/s13753-013-0002-1. html.

Additional Readings:

Moon, W. L. H., 1982. Blue Highways: A Journey Into America. William Heat Least Moon's &ldqu;Blue Highways” is an American literary classic, written on a journey the author took after traveling all around the US only through the secondary roads. It is a symbolic act of leaving all known things behind to discover the new. The first chapter is available online and can be a pleasant short reading experience while prompting to think about the biases as artificially developed perceptions when we travel too fast (highways) and miss all the details and the complexities of reality. His story behind the book is also very interesting: He was let go of his teaching position while at the same time his wife left him. He had little in terms of material wealth. Got a van, packed it with what he needed, lots of pens and papers for writing plus less than $500 and he hit the road. The resulting book became a phenomenon. pdf.

July 27, 2016Linkage between knowledge and wisdom: Modern man's challenge.

This week's questions focus mainly on Binswanger (1998). We may wrap them with the thoughts of Klein and Oreskes which relate to “modern man's challenge.” Here are the questions for you:

  1. Binswanger (1998) states, “With great insight Goethe tells us that the intervention into the natural environment that this demands may have unforeseen consequences because nature reacts according to its own laws, which humans can never entirely predict. Unintended or unanticipated consequences may wipe out wholly or in part the successes gained by earlier interventions or cast retrospective doubt upon them.” In this statement, we are reminded of (at least) two topics we have studied and discussed during the past weeks: Butterfly Effect and he true story of Mississippi delta flooding told by Demastes (1998, see July 13, 2016). Based on what you have learned about these topics, how do you see them as related to Binswanger's statement?
  2. Binswanger (1998), in the face of the challenges “modern man” is facing, argues that “Instead of continuing our attempt to dominate nature with linear thinking, we must cultivate an intuitive sensitivity and responsiveness to her complexities. Science must respond to this reorientation by developing the corresponding technology. We need to develop products—consumer goods, machines, buildings—that produce less waste, last longer, are recyclable, consume less energy, and fit gracefully into the landscape and/or model themselves on natural forms (bionics).” Based on your interpretation of Binswanger's article, do you think Binswanger is hopeful about humanity's ability to rise up to the challenge it is facing?
  3. Do you see connections between “the man” in Jack London's short story “To Build a Fire” and Goethe's “Faust, the modern man,” based on what you have read in Binswanger's article? Explain briefly how they may connect.

Binswanger, H. C., 1998. The Challenge of Faust. Science, 281(5377), 640-641, DOI: 10.1126/science.281.5377.640, html. See also pdf.

Goethe, J. W. v., Faust. Part I and Part II. Published between 1808 and 1831. Translated to English by Kline, A.S., 2003:

Oreskes, N. and Conway, 2014. The Collapse of the Western Culture. pdf.

Naomi Klein: This changes everything.

August 1, 2016Linkage between knowledge and wisdom: Developing Foresight and Options.

Questions for you:

  1. Comment on the use of models for the development of foresight and options.
  2. What is Rosenzeig (106) main message and how does her approach related to the one by Kahneman et al. (2011) discussed on July 25, 2016?
  3. Comment on the use of the term Foresight in agriculture as evidenced by the web page of the CCAFS and by “Foresight for Development”. How does this relate to the methodolgy proposed by the Convention on Biodiversity?
  4. What are the main concerns of Felli and Castree (2012) concerning the Foresight report published in 2011?

Epstein, J., 2008. Why Models? JASSS, 11(4), paper 12, see

Rosenzweig, E., 2016. We're All Biased, but That Doesn't Keep Us from Making Valid Decisions. Scientific American Mind, Blog published on July 5, 2016. See html.

CCAFS. Foresight and Priority Setting. html.

Foresight for Development. html.

Convention on Biodiversity. Identifying and Evaluating Adaptation Options. html.

Felli, R., Castree, N., 2012. Neoliberalising adaptation to environmental change: foresight or foreclosure? Environment and Planning A: international journal of urban and regional research, 44(1), 1-4. Available at Research Online, University of Wollongong. pdf.

Foresight, 2011. Migration and Global Environmental Change. Final Project Report, The Government Office for Science, London. See

Essay: “A Visit to the Blue Planet”: Define yourself as an alien and come to this small, blue planet in the solar system with the goal to find out whether there are “intelligent” species on that planet. What are the criteria you would use to identify the “intelligent” species on the planet and who would likely be this species?
August 3, 2016Presentation and Discussion of Essays 

1) Reading assignments are expected to be completed before the class where they are listed. This will enable answering the questions, which directly relate to the readings.
2) Essays are expected to be submitted on the date they are shown (before 6:00 PM EST) and presented during the following class.