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Crowdsourcing and Scientific Truth 62

Posted by samzenpus
from the truth-by-committee dept.
ygslash writes "In an opinion piece in the New York Times Sunday Review, Jack Hitt states that comments posted to on-line articles, and elsewhere on line, have de facto become an important factor in what is accepted as scientific truth. From the article: 'Any article, journalistic or scientific, that sparks a debate typically winds up looking more like a good manuscript 700 years ago than a magazine piece only 10 years ago. The truth is that every decent article now aspires to become the wiki of its own headline.'"
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Crowdsourcing and Scientific Truth

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  • Astroturfing (Score:4, Informative)

    by PPH (736903) on Sunday May 06, 2012 @11:42AM (#39908217)

    Its interesting to observe how much commentary on articles is devoted to shouting down the opposition rather than making observations and/or corrections of the original content. Given the accelerated pace of such discussions on-line, the utility of spurious research in support of questionable legislation has been reduced significantly. In other words, if you spot an ivory-billed woodpecker today, your claim might not survive long enough to secure funding or implement conservation measures. That is; without your supporters declaring that the time for further research and comments is over and now its time to act.

    Today's crowdsourcing serves to reduce the half-life of bad science.

  • by nashv (1479253) on Sunday May 06, 2012 @12:11PM (#39908409) Homepage

    Comments are comments. Comments are not journal articles. Comments can be said to be peer reviewed, to some extent, but then again, comments are not journal articles, comments need not follow any specific format for reporting of questions and results, comments are just comments.

    I did not RTFA. I second your point. But even if we were to take a more generous view of commenting sections, the problem of noise filtering remains. Comment sections are a perfect example of what Asimov said best :

    “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'”

    The amount of effort required to parse through comments to find gems of significant value is enormous. I know that this is that age of the crowd and so on, but there are certain issues on which the opinion of the crowd has on average very little value because of the complexity of the topic and the years of experience required to make informed conclusions. The trade-off between expert opinion and open crowdsourcing varies widely depending on what is the topic under discussion, and the userbase of the particular site. Vaccines and autism on a Californian site, for example.

  • by DingerX (847589) on Sunday May 06, 2012 @03:13PM (#39909741) Journal
    In truth, marginalia practicaly never make it into proper glosses. Glosses are usually assembled from authoritative texts that discuss the passage in question. And very few texts get the Gloss treatment: in the Latin world, it's the Bible, Corpus Iuris Civilis and Decretals above all. Some other texts might get glosses, but they rarely get a glossa ordinaria-class treatment.

    And to the midrashim comment in TFA, I'd point out that Rashi did a bang-up job himself in Hebrew.

    For the scholastic Middle Ages, criticism usually took the form of "one doctor says this ..., for these reasons. I disagree, rather saying this, for these reasons. To his reasons, I reply..."

    Same as it ever was.
  • by ediron2 (246908) on Sunday May 06, 2012 @06:53PM (#39910861) Journal

    Astroturfing is creating a grassroots appearance when no such grassroots movement existed previously. Money doesn't have to change hands as directly as you hint at, and certainly not 'if you're compensated for broadcasting a statement'.

    Here's the difference: Astroturfing is also the term for when a well-funded interested party creates and funds a 'think tank' or 'activist group' that has the unstated mission of forwarding their goal. The astroturfing group can recruit people that share an interest, track membership, fund gatherings, push information to assist their membership, and promote spokespeople without giving any of these people money. Every person that appears on behalf of that position has their activist efforts easier due to all these little helpful moments, but can be completely unaware that they're 'funded'.

    A mob that splits the work and cost among many members to lighten the load, and lacks deep pockets behind the scenes is a 'grassroots' organization.

    An org with deep-pockets supporters lightening the load is astroturfing.

    Having (insert celebrity) call attention to your case isn't astroturfing.

    Having (insert celebrity or wealthy benefactor) provide substantial direct funding is astroturfing.

    There are many shades of grey between these two, but I'd venture that a key detail is whether wealthy benefactor(s) want to use grassroots' perceived lack of economic motive to hide an existing economic motive, and/or to hide their financial backing.

    Sorry this went long; am interested in the topic-- I'm willing to concede this was written ad hoc, so other views / opinions are welcome.

    I just occasionally see 2nd-order astroturfing firms (for lack of a better term) out there that do as I've described: surround themselves with unpaid teammates and pretend like they're so good at all the hassles of a campaign because of supporters or great karma, rather than the cash that funds all the background efforts that otherwise would take considerably more volunteer supporters.

  • by jc42 (318812) on Sunday May 06, 2012 @10:47PM (#39912179) Homepage Journal

    Heh. We all can have fun mocking the "social science" sort.

    But there's the perspective of the old wise crack, attributed to various singers (Louis Armstrong, Bill Broonzy, et al.) when asked if what he was singing was folk music: "I ain't never heard a horse sing a song.".

    Similarly, all known science is done by gangs of humans, so it is inherently a social construct. Various historians of science have elaborated on this, by explaining that the scientific method has been rediscovered many times in many societies, but only one of them has developed a successful "science". The reason is that, in all the others, scientific methods have been developed by very small groups of people, typically in a "guild" or sorts, who hold the information very close and don't share it or their methods with outsiders. Eventually a small group dies out, and their knowledge dies with them.

    The founders of modern, Western "science" developed not because they also discovered scientific methodology. Rather, their success was from their process of open publication. This enabled the "standing on the shoulder of giants" phenomenon, as Isaac Newton put it. But even that quip wasn't original with him; he just found a more elegant and memorable way of expressing it than his predecessors. It was published, so we remember it. With open publication of methods and results, Western science became a social construct that slowly spread to a large population. With that population, plus all the published material from previous generations, it all snowballed into the world-changing system that we see today.

    No single human could have ever done this. It required a social system, with massive sharing of information. Calling it a "social construct" is merely an elegant way of saying all this. It's why modern science has been so more successful than previous local, personal development of knowledge. It's also much of what gave a small, local population on the western fringe of a continent so much control over the rest of the world.

    As the biologists have been telling us, the dominant species tend to be the social ones. And it's their social behavior that makes them win over their less-social relatives. We see this within our own species with the sub-population that developed the social construct that we call "science".

    Of course, I wouldn't deny the fun we had when Alan Sokal managed his publication feat. That was hilarious. Nobody says that social things are always correct. The history of science is full of mistakes and dead ends. Open publication means that society can learn from them, and not repeat them.

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