bioephemera

There are two contradictory headlines today on Google News, both regarding someone I couldn’t care less about. However, they nicely illustrate one of my key concerns about the internet: the pervasive illusion that the “wisdom of crowds” is in fact wisdom, or in fact fact.

Both stories involve the heinous Jon Gosselin, who as far as I’m concerned is a waste of attention. You may have heard that the former reality TV star had his apartment trashed over the holidays, and that no one knows who’s responsible. But if one turns to Google News, one can see that People Magazine appears to have an answer: “Readers: Jon Gosselin Apartment Trashing Was a Stunt.” It turns out the article is simply reporting the results of a reader poll – there is no evidence whatsoever that the title is actually true. But it’s vitally important nonetheless that we learn that 70% of People readers are certain Jon Gosselin trashed his own place. Thank goodness that’s cleared up – now I don’t have to formulate my own opinion!

But wait. Directly above the People article, there’s a headline reading “Hailey Glassman Behind Jon Gosselin Break-in, PopEater Readers Say.” This article appears proud of its utter lack of factual basis:

Even though there is no evidence to tell if his ex-girlfriend Hailey Glassman actually robbed Gosselin’s pad at this point, 20,000+ readers voted and believe she’s behind the whole hoax. Over 70 percent said they were sure Glassman was responsible.

Wow. Now I have to decide if I should listen to PopEater readers or to People readers! Such a hard call! How could the “wisdom of crowds” fail me like this? (assume much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments here.)

Let’s step back for a moment just to describe the “wisdom of crowds” concept. Basically, it suggests that if you have a large group of people, and you ask them a question – the number of beans in a jar, for example – the average of their guesses is almost certainly more accurate than any one person’s guess, and likely better than experts’ guesses. (That’s why the “Ask the Audience” option on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” is so popular.) The idea has been recently popularized by James Suroweicki and discussed by many others, including Daniel Tammet and Cass Sunstein. “Collective intelligence” or crowdsourcing are related concepts. And the “wisdom of crowds” is a legitimate phenomenon – if certain criteria are met. (Not all crowds are wise.)

So what if two different crowds’ “wisdom” produces incompatible verdicts?

One way to reconcile the differences is to look at poll methodology. People’s poll gave readers three options: Jon did it, Hailey did it, or it was a random crime. (are those really the only options?) PopEater’s poll simply asked whether Hailey had anything to do with it – a leading question.

Another way to explain the difference might be to investigate the demographics of PopEater readers vs. People readers – perhaps PopEater readers are more likely to be male, and thus more likely to have sympathy for Jon Gosselin. Who knows.

But of course the best answer here is that neither group has any idea what they are talking about. The “wisdom of crowds” concept only applies if the members of the crowd are slightly more likely to be right than not. So I should give zero weight to these efforts by Big Media to generate meaningless content through polling people on topics they know nothing about. Pretty much a no-brainer, right? But the problem is that a lot of people do think that if you ask 20,000 people any question, they’re more likely to get it right than not – and more importantly, that those 20,000 people have a democratic right to have their opinions heard and weighted equally with so-called “expert opinions”. Why else are reporters always interviewing people like Bob, a hardware salesman in Nebraska, to sound off on global warming and how it’s all Obama’s fault? Remember how Joe the Plumber became a political pundit during the campaign?

Of course this “ask the common man” trope didn’t originate with the internet. But because the internet constantly aggregates opinions in obvious (polls) and nonobvious (Wikipedia) ways, the internet is constantly bombarding us with messages about what the “typical” person believes, and encouraging us to weigh in on topics we should admit we know nothing about. It takes nothing more than a click and thirty seconds of typing to announce that “vaccines cause autism, male pattern baldness, and swine flu, and I’ll be damned before I let my kids be vaccinated for some stupid disease like measles or mumps that doesn’t exist anymore!” If enough people do that, suddenly it starts to look like consensus. And given that we’ve told the public over and over that science is built on consensus, people may start to think an internet consensus of biased non-experts is a valid one.

Tim O’Reilly says, “like Wikipedia, blogging harnesses collective intelligence as a kind of filter. What James Suriowecki calls “the wisdom of crowds” comes into play, and much as PageRank produces better results than analysis of any individual document, the collective attention of the blogosphere selects for value.” I’m willing to grant that process works pretty well for posts – because bloggers, like traditional editors, have reputations that they place on the line when they recommend a link. The good bloggers invest a great deal of time in their work, and bloggers often have subject matter expertise of some relevant kind – like the science bloggers here at Scienceblogs. (The people who are most highly motivated to blog on science are probably scientists themselves, for whom science seems disproportionately central to their lives.)

But such factors don’t regulate the outcomes of polls, or even comment threads. When people without any expertise on a subject are invited to respond, and the effort necessary to do so is very low, there is no reason to expect their responses to be more accurate than a random guess. Expertise matters. Obviously, if you want to know the total volume of raindrops that will hit you as you dash from your door to the car during a thunderstorm, it would be better to poll a classroom of physics or math students than a classroom of English majors. If you want to know the odds of getting sick from eating holiday ham left out on the buffet overnight, poll microbiologists, not lawyers. I’m not sure who you should poll about Jon Gosselin’s apartment – ideally no one, because who cares? The point is that subject matter expertise matters. Your opinion on the physics of a banana flung out of the space shuttle is simply not as good as an expert’s (present company who are space banana physicists excepted, of course), because they have analytical tools you don’t and are familiar with peer-reviewed literature on the topic.

People hate to hear that experts know more than nonexperts, because it smacks of elitism. Yet we all abide by that principle in daily life: we routinely seek out professionals for their training and experience. Few among us would be brave enough to diagnose our own illnesses AND repair our own cars AND brew our own whiskey AND rewire our houses – although I know one or two people who certainly could! But the point is that expertise is perceived as valuable, or we wouldn’t pay for it. (Of course when it comes to choosing professionals, we’re likely to go to Yelp or some other site reflecting the opinion of crowds – but whose reviews do you give weight to: the reviews written by people who’ve actually hired the professional in question, or those written by people who haven’t? Not all opinions are valid or useful.)

So I leave you with this question, which I recently brought up in a meeting at NSF and got absolutely no traction with at all. When we strive to encourage public participation in science, as in “citizen science” outreach efforts, how do we guard against the misperception that the scientific consensus should reflect the opinions of nonexperts? Telling nonscientists that their input is valuable is good – it gets them invested in the process of doing science, and helps them learn. We should make it clear that science is democratic, because it’s something everyone can learn, not matter their gender or ethnicity or socioeconomic background. Scientists are incredibly diverse people. But we also need to differentiate between the way science works – consensus among experts who are actively testing hypotheses – and the popular conception of a democratic “wisdom of crowds” process for determining the “truth.”

Anti-global warming, anti-vaccine and anti-evolution advocacy groups are already using arguments based in democratic principles: if so many people doubt global warming, or vaccine safety, they say, and if science is really based in consensus, then why won’t scientists listen to the public and admit they might be wrong? The answer, we know, is that scientists have been studying these ideas for a long time, and the popular misconceptions about them do not reflect a significant divide among the subject matter experts on interpreting the data. The scientific consensus is not always right, but it’s more likely to be right than a poll of People readers, and it’s almost certainly what we should rely on in making public policy.* The question is, how do we make that clear, while still welcoming everyone to participate in science?

*Just to clarify: the average citizen’s opinions about what kinds of policies our nation should have, how we should allocate tax dollars, what values and cultural mores our government should reflect, or who the President should be, are legitimate expressions of preferences in a democracy like ours. Many (most?) public policies aren’t based on science. But polls show the public holds science in high regard, and politicians frequently use science to support their political positions. And if a policy decision is supposedly based on science – whether it’s the efficacy of vaccines, or the existence of global warming, or the existence of stem cell lines – it should be based on the actual scientific consensus on the issue, not what the public mistakenly believes, or what they would prefer the scientific consensus to be.

Comments

  1. #1 David S
    December 29, 2009

    Science is not the consensus of expert’s opinion, rather it is the consensus of evidence/experiment.

    The role of citizen scientist isn’t one of voicing one’s preferences or opinions, but as evidence gatherers.

  2. #2 Space banana physicist
    December 29, 2009

    Coming from an anthropological perspective the U.S. has spent decades cultivating a cultural dynamic that prides itself on the belief that consensus equals truth. What else is the ridiculous ritual of voting then essentially a consensus of the ignorant? (That’s not to say we shouldn’t vote, or that it’s ineffective, but that no one votes from a position of certainty)

  3. #3 Jessica Palmer
    December 29, 2009

    David, In the real world, the way the public and politicians perceive science is absolutely as expressions of expert opinion. When a patient goes to a doctor, he doesn’t leave with a stack of JAMA articles to read and evaluate for himself. He leaves with the doctor’s expert opinion, based on her training, experience, and reading of the scientific literature. Ditto for when a physicist testifies about radiation safety in front of Congress: Congress gets the physicist’s opinion of what the scientific consensus is.

    We expect as professional scientists that the doctor and physicist will restrain their testimony to what replicated experimental evidence will support. We know the scientific community will call the physicist out if he doesn’t do so, since he’s representing “science” in a public forum. But the way the information is conveyed to decisionmakers is through the filter of an expert, or a panel of experts. And that looks very much like “opinion” to the public at large, doesn’t it?

  4. #4 Jessica Palmer
    December 29, 2009

    Space banana physicist, I totally agree that the fetishization of “democracy” as “public consensus equals truth” is a big part of the problem. Democracy really means “we’ve agreed public consensus equals public consensus, no matter how dumb that consensus is.” But as a mode of government, I’m not sure I’m behind any of the alternatives. Ideally, I’d like to keep a democracy, but have the voters be a lot better educated.

  5. #5 Thomas Soderqvist
    December 29, 2009

    Just read the (very updated) article about Gosselin on Wikipedia. Fascinating story — seen from the point of view that reality TV is a major current social phenomenon.

  6. #6 Esmeralda M Rupp-Spangle
    December 29, 2009

    I think perhaps in this and many other cases of poor public judgement- that the problem is incomplete disclosure. Information that we (the public) have *not* been provided with, and are therefore prone to make unreasonable assesments of a situation (without).

    For instance- was his ex mad at him? Does she have a reason to do this? Was anything stolen? What sort of evidence was left behind? Where was Jon that evening? Can someone vouch for him?

    Without these peices of crucial information, a correct answer is impossible, especially when coupled with leading questions.

    Scientific consensus is the agreement by experts about conclusions they’ve reached after being given all the relevant information that is available about a particular subject. If the general population is missing important facts (or they’re being left out) it’s no wonder people’s opinions are absurdly innacurate or disagree with one another so vastly.

    This was actually a great read- thanks again for making me think, even if it is about Jon Gosselin, lol.

  7. #7 David L Morris
    December 29, 2009

    I see a difference between anthropogenic global warming scepticism on the one hand, and anti-vaccine and anti-evolution advocacy groups on the other. Ignoring the global warming advocacy on both extremes (of which there are plenty), there is a science debate in progress, and neither democracy or even expert opinion should count for anything. It is about a testable or falsifiable hypothesis, and the evidence. I think this is why phrases such as ‘the science is done’ or ‘the scientific consensus’ annoy me so much.

    Anti-vaccine and anti-evolution advocacy groups are coming from outside science, where the ‘wisdom’ of the crowds tested against the wisdom of the experts, is clearly found wanting.

    Science is not a democracy, not is it a belief system and it should not try to behave like either.

  8. #8 Robert L.
    December 29, 2009

    Scientific consensus is just as prone to crowd bias as any other consensus: from the earth being flat to Newtons rigid time and space universe and on to today, scientific consensus often ignores glaring contradictions to the consensus until finally the consensus is overturned. True science is based on reproducible experiments that compare theories with results and with phenomena, not on sticking to a pre-approved consensus.

    For the perils of acting on “scientific consensus” as fact, you would be well advised to review Piltdown Man and what “consensus” means when scientists bring there politics and biases to the table. In Piltdown Man there was scientific consensus based on evidence that was absurdly poor but which validated the preconceived notions of the scientists. The evidence turned out to be faked but contrary evidence was ignored for years. Here’s a shortened quote from wikipedia: “It has also been thought that . . . cultural prejudice also played a role in the less-than-critical acceptance of the fossil as genuine . . . It satisfied European expectations . . . and the British, it has been claimed, also wanted a first Briton to set against fossil hominids found elsewhere in Europe . . .”

    Why is Piltdown man such a relevant example? Because you bemoan public mistrust in “scientific consensus” and then go on to equate anyone skeptical about Anthropomorphic Global Warming (AGW) with creationists and anti-vaccine whack jobs.

    While evolution and vaccines have been proved with rigorous scientific method and testing over many years, with the hypotheses and results freely available for discussion, AGW scientists have hidden their data, destroyed emails to avoid Freedom of Information Act Requests, cherry picked data, and relied on non-reproducible and non-testable computer models that, among other things, have hidden files called “fudge factor” that manipulate temperatures to produce the infamous hockey stick.

    Instead of encouraging open debate and experimentation to validate or invalidate their ideas, these same scientists then go on to attempt to ostracize and marginalize anyone who disagrees and, in the case of James Hansen, call for the legal prosecution of people who disagree with them.

    In short, what we are seeing with global warming “science” has everything to do with the wisdom of crowds and nothing to do with the scientific method. Glossing over this so you can take cheap shots at AGW skeptics using “scientific consensus” as your stalking horse doesn’t encourage people to roll over for you or have any more faith.

  9. #9 Jessica Palmer
    December 29, 2009

    Ooh, look: anti-global warming troops show up to fill the comment thread with their prefabricated condemnations of anyone who doesn’t agree with them. I’m shocked. Really.

  10. #10 David L morris
    December 29, 2009

    I actually agree with most of your argument, and I commented on the only part I happens to disagree about.

    I’m assuming (comment 9) you included me in ‘anti-global warming troops’? If so then “prefabricated condemnations of anyone who doesn’t agree with them” is not correct.

    I’m sceptical, but not a campaigner if that is what you think. My comments are my own and as it happens crafted exclusively for you blog. You can tell that by my error “NOT is it a belief system”, when I meant “NOR is it a belief system”.

    Science is about rationality, not belief.

  11. #11 Jessica Palmer
    December 29, 2009

    I was actually mainly referring to the more recent commenter, David. Your comment just had the bad luck to appear about the same time. Perhaps my usage of the plural “troops” was overhasty, although generally when someone shows up and starts lecturing condescendingly about Piltdown Man, Tuskegee, or something else totally OT, I assume it’s the tip of the iceberg.

    As for the “scientific consensus,” I don’t actually get why it annoys you so much. It’s simply a phrase describing the current dominant scientific worldview, and generally speaking there is one, until it’s supplanted by a model with more explanatory power. It doesn’t mean it’s correct. And I don’t know where you heard “the science is done,” but hopefully it wasn’t from a scientist, since the statement is nonsensical on its face. Science is never “done.” We must agree on that!

  12. #12 doug carver
    December 29, 2009

    This article is horse hockey!! 100% of the people i asked (me) thought you were insulting their intelligence and didn’t value the common man’s opinion. 100% is a lot and that many people can’t be wrong!! :)

  13. #13 mdvlist
    December 29, 2009

    This made me smile for so many reasons.

  14. #14 David L Morris
    December 29, 2009

    (re: 11) A quick google suggests: “The science is done.” Sir David King, UK Government’s Chief Scientist, giving evidence to House of Lords select committee (March 2004), though I had thought it was Al Gore, originally.

    “Scientific consensus” annoys me because it implies group think. It suggests that is is NOT OK to doubt or be sceptical of the consensus, and worse suggests that it is OK to rail polemic against those who might, calling them offensive terms such as ‘deniers’.

    As you title says, ‘Science is not a democracy. I think it would have been possible to be sceptical even of Theory of Relativity, until the orbit of Mercury was accurately measured (but not after). On the other hand, Einstein was totally wrong not to have been sceptical of ‘earth crust displacement”.

    Until, we have a falsifiable theory for AGW, and a way to indisputably measure it (and measurements that matches the theory), it is not only reasonable to be sceptical, but also healthy.

  15. #15 Keith
    December 29, 2009

    Perhaps the most ignored fact of “scientific consensus” is that scientists are people too, subject to all of the internal debates over the interpretation of data, further exacerbated by the ideology of the person holding the purse strings i.e. “consensus science” in the 21st century has become a function of agendized political wills and as such is neither scientific nor fact.

  16. #16 Linux geek
    December 29, 2009

    So, let’s see. On the one hand, you have the “climatologists”, you know, people who, without the whole global warming hysteria, would be regarded with the same respect as “Assistant Nail Polisher” and “Aquarium Feng Shui Expert”, and who’d invariably be greeted with “oh, so you’re a weather man, eh? What station do you work for?” after introducing themselves as a member of their field of study.

    On the other hand, you have people with forty years of experience working with computers, who have programmed everything with a microchip and a mind-boggling amount of things without them, who, upon examining the source code leaked with Climategate, invariably conclude that whoever wrote that garbage (let alone anyone who wants to modify human behavior based on the results generated by those programs) should be hung from his testicles over a vat of hot vulture entrails while being forced to listen Tara Reid’s Greatest Hits for at least a decade.

    I really don’t know whom I should believe. Should I believe the people who have never, ever produced anything that could even remotely confused with science, people whose “expertise” lies in gathering weather statistics (aka reading a thermometer) and making a huge mess out of them in ways that would be unacceptable for a ten-year-old retarded Indonesian crack whore? Or should I believe the people who have been directly or indirectly responsible for at least half of all meaningful technological advancements in the last forty years or so?

    It’s such a hard choice to make.

  17. #17 Su H
    December 29, 2009

    Anyone who values the wisdom of crowds above scientific reasoning and evidence needs to take a good look at what happened in the US during the 1950s.

    How many careers were destroyed because someone was suspected of being a Communist? Keep to yourself? Read the “wrong” kind of books? Become a little too successful? You might be a Communist. And everyone knows Communism should not be supported in any way. Can’t have Communists teaching our kids or writing our books or acting in movies. God knows where that might lead.

    And most of those claims started with a rumor. The crowd got ahold of the idea and took it for a spin. And the spin became “fact.”

    Democracy is a terrific system of government – IF the populace is educated to think critically and demand hard evidence for claims. In order for that to happen, we need to value education and support it financially. On a federal level at least, that support has been sorely lacking. Not good.

  18. #18 Diver
    December 30, 2009

    Thought experiment:
    You poll 1000 people about a complex topic with a question in which they can answer two ways. Most people will not have any insight into the topic questioned (not be experts) so their answers will be left to chance (50/50). A small percentage will be familiar with the topic and will give answers better than average (say 75/25). An even smaller percentage will be experts and will answer correctly (100/0). If a statistically significant number of people are familiar with the topic, even a random sampling would produced results skewed in the favor the correct outcome. That this is so rarely the case (previous statement not based on any actual evidence) shows just how few of us know what the hell we’re talking about, myself included.

  19. #19 Alan Havlick
    December 30, 2009

    How funny.The eggheads hid data at least and likely manipulated data,now they say”Trust us,nothing to see here,keep moving please or Oh,you wouldnt understand….
    No science is not a democracy but on the other hand one does not need to be a rocket scientist to know that when the rocket explodes on liftoff somthing is not as it should be.”PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAN” the wizard of oz and science say to us,,well look buddy,we see ya and were not going to say we didnt so you can feel smart.
    Alan Havlick

  20. #20 Keith
    December 30, 2009

    Those communist “hunters” of the 50′s were experts in their field … at the time. We now know the extent of the flaws in their scientific method. This is no different than the scientists of the 50′s who claimed daily doses of radiation was good for you, or the scientists of the 70′s who belied an impending ice age.

    Look at the group paying the bills and determine what their ideology might be, then you will have a better understanding of whether their science is science at all.

    A scientist on the payroll of a global warming idealoge will no doubt find favorably for global warming, just as a scientist paid by an anti-global warming idealoge will find favorably for the other side. If they don’t then the powers that be will see that their funding is stopped. Seriously, can you envision an anti-global warming alarmist to fund research to prove global warming, or can you imagine Al Gore pouring millions into research to prove global warming isn’t real?

    Follow the money and you will find the truth … or at very least, you will see that scientists are just as biased as the average unknowing citizen. At least the citizens don’t know for sure, the scientists should know better!

  21. #21 Jessica Palmer
    December 30, 2009

    See what I mean, David? :) Tip of the iceberg. . .

  22. #22 Isis the Scientist
    December 30, 2009

    Science is not the consensus of expert’s opinion, rather it is the consensus of evidence/experiment.

    Don’t be naive. There may be evidence, but that evidence is published with an interpretation. That interpretation is either accepted or rejected by the scientific community and it is the interpretation that ends up in the text books — not the actual data.

    Why do you think so many folks are having a hard time battling hormone replacement?

  23. #23 kerry
    December 30, 2009

    You won me over with the first sentence. “…couldn’t care less…” Ahh, logical grammar.

  24. #24 Brian
    December 30, 2009

    Uh, Keith, I think you’ll find that there’s a great deal more money on the side of those invested in spreading doubt about global warming.

    So if we’re following the money…

  25. #25 Roky Road
    December 30, 2009

    This is a lame attempt to marginalize the scientific evidence presented against some of these concepts. For example, there is a mountain evidence by REAL scientists against global warming. Do you think just by calling out that there is growing public popularity in the anti-warming crowd that we can dispense with the contrary evidence?

    You’re using the ‘reverse psychology’ version tactics you decry. (ie if everyone seems to think it’s true, it must not be).

  26. #26 Amanda
    December 30, 2009

    @Alan Havlick: I don’t think us “eggheads” need to hide things behind a curtain to try to feel smarter than you. The fact that we can spell properly and use punctuation correctly, and you can’t, makes us feel smarter than you. I would argue that it also makes us smarter than you, but that’s just my opinion.

    Closer to the subject of the article, this is really timely because I just had a frustrating episode of the idiocy of the crowd. A relative who I consider to be very intelligent forwarded me a “the sky is falling!” email about how cap-and-trade is going to make it impossible to sell your house without thousands of dollars of upgrades and federal inspections. He prefaced it with a comment about he’s been seeing this info all over the internet (implication: “if it’s all over the internet, it MUST be true”). Thirty seconds of Googling brought up multiple websites with reference links to the legistation itself that discuss how the “facts” in his email were almost 100% incorrect. How many hours are thousands of people going to spend needlessly fretting and fuming over these incorrect “facts”, without ever investigating the actual legislation to see what it actually says? I think that’s what frustrates me the most about crowd consensus: it makes me feel like the average person would rather lazily run with a rumor, especially if that rumor feeds their prejudices, than spend an hour trying to learn actual facts. And that’s a sad, depressing thought.

  27. #27 ShunkW
    December 30, 2009

    Reminds me of a GREAT Bob & Ray sketch about interviewing “the man on the street”…The commentator (Wally Ballou maybe) opined that “the man on the street” interviews were very popular, and said “why I will never know”, but since they were popular they would do them anyway…..I have always agreed….If people wanted the opinion of “the man on the street” they could easily ask themselves and cut out the middle man of the medium.

  28. #28 David
    December 30, 2009

    What I like is how supposedly smart people still refer to the US government as a Democracy.

    It is a Constitutional Republic people not a Democracy.

    I just could not stand to see people butcher the forms of government because their education was lacking.

  29. #29 Jessica Palmer
    December 30, 2009

    Whoa. You do understand that there are many types of democratic systems, right? And that a representative democracy and a constitutional republic are not mutually exclusive concepts? And that randomly Capitalizing Words does not make your point any more forceful?

    Thanks for proving my point about the wisdom of crowds! Very helpful.

  30. #30 Esmeralda M Rupp-Spangle
    December 30, 2009

    WOO! It’s party time, the AGW nuts are out in full force today.
    I’ll get the party hats if you’ll bring the cake!

  31. #31 Erin
    December 30, 2009

    After arguing with unnamed family members about this very subject (popular opinion vs. what unnamed family member likes to call “elitist” and what I liked to call “informed” opinion”), reading this post was like getting a soothing massage. Thanks, Jessica.

  32. #32 Emil Nilsson
    December 30, 2009

    @Amanda “I think that’s what frustrates me the most about crowd consensus: it makes me feel like the average person would rather lazily run with a rumour, especially if that rumor feeds their prejudices, than spend an hour trying to learn actual facts. And that’s a sad, depressing thought.”

    Yes, and by the same line of thought, it is sad and depressing to see how may posts the climate sceptics have managed to post on this comment’s thread, without spending an hour to try to learn the actual, as in published in high ranked journals, facts.

  33. #33 Grant
    December 30, 2009

    Isis,

    I take your point, but perhaps part of the issue is that they’re being asked for their opinion as opposed to “what is well understood”? (Opinions tend to go beyond what is well understood and include more speculation, etc., etc.)

  34. #34 David Nicoloff
    December 30, 2009

    This is nonsense. Jessica, you have refused to address the issue at hand. You have lumped together three things that do not belong together. Anti-vaccine, anti-evolutionists have arguements not based on scientific fact. People who do not support the ‘consensus’ on Global Warming do so based on empirical data gathered by Scientists around the World. How many times has the Earth gone through fantastic and amazing climate changes. Ice ages, periods of extreme heat, elevated oxygen,hyrdrogen levels. The Earth will change no matter what we do. I defer to expert opinion, but just because those experts are not the same as the people you listen to, does not make me any less informed. I have heard their arguements, my mind is not made up, I always am willing to discuss this topic with family, friends and strangers. Rarely has it ever been a two way dialogue. It ends up name calling (Ooh, look: anti-global warming troops),or picking apart something completely unrelated to the topic (randomly Capitalizing Words does not make your point any more forceful?) and my favorite, pretending you’ve won when there was never a fight (Thanks for proving my point about the wisdom of crowds!).

  35. #35 David Nicoloff
    December 30, 2009

    Emil Nilsson, so if it’s published in a particular journal then it must in fact be truth? I am sorry but that is a very dangerous way to think. I’m sorry comments in a blog are depressing you, but I’m pretty sure that science needs to be tested and the data reproduced in order to call things facts. Here we have that nothing of a story about the CRU which is the leading authority as far as our government is concerned, did not realease all of it’s data. Thereby killing the scientific method. Global Warming is a great concept but how can we know for sure if we are not given all the facts and science is allowed to test and scrutinize itself? For me this is less about the facts pertaining to Global Warming but the poisoning of the Scientific method. I want real evidence, real discussion. A computer model simply isn’t good enough, why not just show us a power point presentation and call it a day.

  36. #36 Keith
    December 30, 2009

    Brian, unless/until you have emperical data to substantiate that claim, I will respectfully dismiss it as having come from the bureau of anal statistics. If you will show irrefutable data I will gladly admit that your assertion is correct.

    Jessica, you receive an F in government. A constitutional republic is indeed exclusive and markedly distinct from a representative democracy. The US is and has always been a constitutional republic. In a representative democracy the rule of law does not exist in any meaningful fashion. In fact, democracy in its purest form is little more than mob rule. But then I would suspect you are one of those who cannot fathom how any president can be elected when the majority of ballots are cast for losing candidate.

  37. #37 Jessica Palmer
    December 30, 2009

    David, did you happen to notice that my post was not actually *about* global warming? In the last two paragraphs, I mention that some anti-global warming rhetoric, like some anti-vaccine rhetoric and yes, some anti-evolution rhetoric, uses the “science should be more democratic” argument I described. That’s “the issue at hand” – the rhetoric and public perceptions of the scientific process.

    If I wanted to write a post about the substance of the global warming controversy, I would actually do so, thus indicating I was actually up for discussing it. But I can no longer take people seriously when they predictably show up on my blog to attack arguments I haven’t actually made in the post, or try to start off-topic debates in which I have zero interest in participating. It’s just silliness.

    I am glad to see you also enjoy capitalizing random words. Perhaps it is a nouveau-Victorian blogospheric trend with which I am unfamiliar.

  38. #38 David Nicoloff
    December 30, 2009

    Well judging from the comments, i’d say the the subject of your article was not as clear as you would have liked. You were just trying to inform all of us that the public has a poor perception of the scientific process and the way global warming has played out in the public’s perception. I understand, but perhaps you receive such predictable backlash because there is a incredible feeling of frustration from people who feel like their perspective or views are not properly addressed in our public forums.
    Thank you for pointing out my grammatical error of inproper capitalization. Though I am not a paid writer such as yourself, so I find it a questionable choice. I’m a programmer who used to do webdesign so is it ok for me to arbitrarily point out the flaws in your website during the discussion?
    You say you receive these comments about things not related to you article and then you go and retort with something that has no relevance to the topic that the commentor was trying to make.

  39. #39 Candid Engineer
    December 30, 2009

    Love the thought-provoking post, thanks. :)

  40. #40 darlene
    December 30, 2009

    In case my first posted comment fell through the cracks.
    Thanks for sharing this. Citizen science efforts are creating an incredible opportunity for science and the public. See Galaxy Zoo and the forth-coming site ScienceforCitizens.net (yes, one of my sites). Crowd-sourcing is different than “citizen science” because of the deliberate approach good citizen science (and participatory research) activities take.
    More and more, we’re bearing witness to examples of how citizen scientists are being harnessed to shape science policies. Many foreign examples exist (see Danish Board of Technology) to demonstrate how the general public–when armed enough scientific facts–provide more substance in shaping policy than scientists do. Expect to see more here in the U.S….

  41. #41 Jessica Palmer
    December 30, 2009

    Darlene – thanks for commenting. You’re a leader in the citizen science movement, so I’m sure you’ve thought about these issues yourself before.

    David – a few quick clarifications:

    “You were just trying to inform all of us that the public has a poor perception of the scientific process and the way global warming has played out in the public’s perception”

    The first half of the sentence is true. The second half is not. I didn’t analyze the public perception of global warming at all in the post. I’ve read lots of interesting articles about it by researchers who have done such analyses, but they know it far better than I do, and I didn’t even try. One post can only do so much, you know?

    “perhaps you receive such predictable backlash because there is a incredible feeling of frustration from people who feel like their perspective or views are not properly addressed in our public forums.”

    So is my blog a “public forum”? That’s an interesting perspective, and one entirely consistent with my concerns about the internet community as a forum for discussing science.

    “Though I am not a paid writer such as yourself,”

    I’m not a “paid writer.” I blog completely on my personal time. What proceeds there are from ads on the blog and such, I donate to charity.

  42. #42 David Nicoloff
    December 30, 2009

    Ok, you are not paid, you still brought up a subject that had no relevance to the topics at hand.

    I never said your blog was a public forum. I was referring to actual public forums. That maybe, people who feel that their opinions and viewpoints are not being properly represented to the public so they may express them in other places, such as your blog.

  43. #43 Jessica Palmer
    December 30, 2009

    David N, I find it baffling that you think I brought up an irrelevant topic on my own blog. Since I created the blog and run it, I can pretty much set the agenda. Speaking of which, I can’t *wait* to watch the season finale of Gossip Girl on TiVo. OMG.

  44. #44 becca
    December 30, 2009

    Are people *really* using majority opinion to decide things though?
    In my experience, most people don’t really care about majority consensus OR empirical data once they have formed an opinion on something. Both are brought up to bolster the argument after they have decided which way to argue. Kind of like lawyers. If you can argue the facts, argue the facts (empirical data). If you can’t argue the facts, argue the law (majority opinion). If all else fails, blow smoke (like David and Alan).
    The actual deciding process- the process through which people form their viewpoints- is much less rational than any of us are really comfortable with, and may have more to do with how we first encounter an argument and who we associate with it than any other factor. Even in science.

  45. #45 Skeptoug
    December 30, 2009

    Good article. (And I know you didn’t intend this to be a AGW forum). As for the anti-AGW crowd, I’m always suspicious of groups who spend most (all?) of their time trying to discredit or knock down the prevailing theory instead of following rule #1 of the scientific process…providing sufficient evidence, observational data, and an articulate, testable theory of your own that can be peer reviewed and, if credible, would supersede the prevailing theory. So far, I haven’t seen that widely accepted by the world’s scientific communities. But I am willing to be swayed if it shows up…

  46. #46 Keith
    December 30, 2009

    I actually enjoy the discussion being played out here, regardless of persuasion or tilt toward one side or the other. There can actually be more than two sides, but then who’s counting ;-)

    Jessica is correct in the assertion that netizen polls produce little more than a stab at public opinion. In fact, I would suggest that they don’t even do that effectively. Unscientific polls, such as those on internet sites, produce predictable results based on the demography of the likely participant.

    For example, a poll on DailyKos.com would predictably produce a resultant view shared by progressives, while a poll on FoxNews.com would similarly share the views of conservatives.

    The underlying difficulty is that even though we have many scientists claiming one theory over another, they can still be wrong and frequently are wrong. The fact that citizens are rising up against such scientific consensus enmasse is indicitive of a change in public opinion and the rejection of the status quo.

    Just because citizens don’t have the same data as studied scientists, doesn’t mean their opinion is wrong. Scientists don’t have a monopoly in observation of phenomenon. i.e. just because it looks like a duck, doesn’t mean it is a duck .. it just may be a platypus.

  47. #47 Isis the Scientist
    December 30, 2009

    Hey David, if you’ve got a problem with what BioE is choosing to discuss on her own blog, might I suggest this.

  48. #48 Alan Havlick
    December 31, 2009

    @amanda
    Cheap insults from the spelling police just mean they know your right and that you see thru there little facade.Unclench the cheeks there a little sweetie.

  49. #49 Neil Craig
    December 31, 2009

    On a number of alarmist websites & on last weeks Radio Scotland “big debate” with the Scottish Green leader & 2 other MSPs on the panel I have asked anybody to name 2 prominent scientists, not funded by government or an alarmist lobby who have said that we are seeing a catastrophic degree of warming & none of them have yet been able to name even one. I extend this same invitation to all readers & indeed journalists.

    There is not & never was a genuine scientific consensus on this, though scientists seeking government funds have been understandably reluctant to speak. The whole thing depends on a very small number of people & a massive government publicity machine, both very well funded by the innocent taxpayer.

  50. #50 Zmidponk
    January 1, 2010

    The way I see it, science is not really the ‘consensus’ of anyone – the experts or the public. However, as most scientists use the scientific method, good science often becomes the defacto consensus of the experts. You see, what happens is that a scientist examines the avialable evidence, comes up with a hypothesis based on that evidence, tests it, and, providing his testing fails to disprove it, publishes it for consideration by the wider scientific community. That scientific community then examines it, tests it themselves, and, assuming they are holding to the highest ideals of science, accepts it, unless someone comes up with solid evidence disproving the theory. As such, any challenge to the theory by non-scientists are met with cries of, ‘where’s the evidence’ by the experts – the scientific community.

    This is why such challenges, like the implied allegations Neil Craig made of corruption in comment #49 are often given the same treatment I am giving his – ignoring them, except for noting that the onus is not on anyone to provide evidence that his allegations are wrong, but on him to provide evidence that they are correct.

  51. #51 ray
    January 1, 2010

    Wisdom of crowds – an oxymoron of the first degree.
    Like the definition of Democracy as a belief in the collective wisdom of a lot of individual idiots.

  52. #52 DD
    January 4, 2010

    “wisdom of the crowd” = herd/flock/pod/borg mentality