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Confirmation bias plays a role in farm biosecurity

Growers are bombarded with information from a variety of sources and need to be conscious of confirmation bias.
Photo: Nadinne Wilkinson

It has never been easier to access information, whether it is credible or not. We are constantly bombarded by television, radio, emails, magazines, newspapers, social media and everyday conversations.

It is also very easy to surround yourself with people who agree with you and news that you want to hear.

This is confirmation bias in action: the tendency to seek out and agree with information that supports your existing beliefs and ignore or discredit information that opposes them.

The most obvious examples of confirmation bias are in areas such as politics, religion and sport. But, as growers, it could also be associated with your selection of brands, breeds and even farming practices such as biosecurity.

Science tells us that preventative measures that restrict the entry of  pests, diseases and weeds onto your property helps prevent the spread of biotic threats.

Overlooking science

However, sometimes the science may be overlooked in favour of tradition, the crowd, a neighbour, an anonymous tweet or an expert’s blog, based on unsubstantiated ‘evidence’ that supports one’s existing beliefs.

We should be cautious about overlooking unseen risks characterised by “I have nothing to worry about because there is no outbreak yet”, consider whether you would say “I don’t need to put on a seatbelt because I haven’t had an accident this week”.

Just because you think you do not have weevils, that does not mean you should stop cleaning grain spills, looking for pests, spraying desiccant dust inside empty storages and grain handling equipment, using protectants properly and fumigating in gas-tight silos.

Do not rely on opinions to make your decisions: base them on evidence.

As growers, it is important to assess and interpret information carefully. But confirmation bias rears its ugly head more often than most of us would like to admit and may lead you to make costly mistakes.

Thankfully, there are several ways to resist your in-built confirmation bias.

First, it is important to slow down. Pause and maybe even write down the reasons ‘for’ and ‘against’ your decision, do your own testing and research, and carefully consider the problem and any long-term implications.

Do not rely on opinions to make your decisions: base them on evidence.

It is also important not to ignore information simply because it conflicts with your current thinking. Instead, write down the reasons why the evidence might be true and find the smartest person who disagrees with you and listen to them.

Another way is to get out of your ‘bubble’ and avoid echo chambers. Do not limit yourself to only listening to the perspectives and insights of those in your bubble, as they may lack the necessary expertise.

Check credibility

Finally, check some of the indicators of credibility, what is the source, look at the publication date of the information, think about what the authors’ intentions were and their training or qualifications on the topic.

If you can, find other reliable sources of information to verify the claims made.

Remember these tools the next time you find yourself buying into an idea simply because it fits your ideas and ignoring information that does not.

For free biosecurity gate signs, and copies of the Grains Farm Biosecurity Manual and Monitoring Stored Grain On Farm booklet, contact Jim Moran at Agriculture Victoria on 03 5430 4479.

This article was inspired by “COVID-19: how to deal with our cognitive biases”, an article in The Conversation by Fun Man Fung and Chng Wei Heng.

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