Friday, December 18, 2009

Can Not Do the Research

Like many of the skeptical and sciency community, I'm also irritated at Randi. He Did Not Do the Research and posted an opinion. When experts - not even strangers, but friends and acquaintances - called him on it, instead of Doing the Research he did a song and dance. Poor.

That got me thinking. A lot of denialists for any given scientific theory are driven by religious or financial bias, but some, especially young ones, are actually just clueless. How difficult is it to Do the Research, from scratch, without a long history of reading and researching sciency stuff?

Well, me, my first stop is Wikipedia. But while Wikipedia is an excellent resource for me, it occurs to me that it's a painful thing for folks who aren't science geeks. Scientific Wikipedia articles are generally pretty close to accurate, but they are dry as dust, and have so many blue links that lead to other places that are dry as dust. Easy to choke on a Wikipedia entry.

Fortunately, there's an alternative! Youtube! Instead of us reading the research, we can have the research read to us. Some really excellent teachers using really excellent visual techniques can teach even a schoolchild the basics of both the science and controversy surrounding any theory!

Unfortunately, none of these folks are on the first page of a search. Or the second. Or the fifth.

Let's pretend we're James Randi in an alternate universe, and we want to know about global warming. Searching for global warming gives us a stack of ancient videos, conversations by politicians, and Glenn Beckites. We don't want the controversy yet, we don't even know what a greenhouse gas is.

Maybe we'll watch a few of these, with the understanding that these are the same people who would side with spoon-benders under different situations. We've spent 114 years of our life fighting this kind of nonsense: ever since we retired from magic shows. At the age of 72. Okay, I'm making old jokes. I'm upset with Randi.

Anyway, we want something with science to it. We could just pop off to Potholer's channel, but the point is to get to something like that from scratch.

Let's change the search terms. Science of global warming.

Okay, now it's 90% denialists.

Suddenly I, the author, amn't as upset as I was. It does appear that science is fractured, that there is a debate.

This is, unfortunately, not true. The problem is that Goog-era search engines function on some measure of popularity rather than usefulness. Great if you want cats riding bicycles, terrible if you're looking up something with an objective truth.

Don't be fooled, our fake Randi in an alternate dimension! There must be science here somewhere! These videos we're looking at now are cherry-picked from a wide, wide field. Just because they've been promoted to the front doesn't mean they deserve to be there. It certainly doesn't mean they are representative of the science!

"Global warming explained" is no better, youtube doesn't know what "explained" means, and returns basically the same videos despite their lack of the word "explained". "Global warming skeptic" is even worse, of course.

No, no... none of these searches lead anywhere!

I, the imaginary James Randi, give up! Why I don't ask any of the tens of thousands of experts that would happily spend the day explaining it to me, I don't know. But limiting ourselves to anonymous explainers - IE Youtube - is a failure. Because Youtube's search is SO BAD.

What you want is there, but Youtube search doesn't know that.

This is not optimal.


Ellipsis said...

The idea of people being unable to get through Wikipedia articles is kind of scary.

Also, monsieur potholer does have some pretty well put-together videos, I see.

Craig Perko said...

Well, his voiiice is kind of pendaaaaaantic, but if you can get past that, his videos perfectly address the situation.

But the scientific Wikipedia articles really are very, very dry. I think most adults would have problems with them, let alone children.