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Collective Intelligence and climate change

Posted on 26 May 2010 by John Cook

I'm a big fan of data. You could call me a data junkie. Skeptical Science began as a personal database stored on my local computer for me to keep track of the various skeptic arguments (yes, I'm that much of a geek). It's since expanded to a user-driven comprehensive list of arguments currently being translated into 14 languages. Not content just to show the data, it's also fun to play around with it such as working out which skeptic arguments contradict each other. Or order them based on popularity. Consequently, I was quite interested to learn MIT were working on an online database of skeptic arguments that users can rate. Here's some more info on how the system works:

The internet has given us the opportunity to use new technologies to interact, to communicate, to create knowledge and to exploit “Collective Intelligence”. Wikipedia is the most famous example of the result that the combination of thousands of people can achieve. In the meanwhile Climate Change is one of the biggest and most controversial problem in our times. Starting from these assumptions, the importance of investigating how technologies can help people face and discuss this problem in a new collaborative environment is straightforward.

Wikis, forums and blogs powerfully allow interaction among people, but they have some limitation when used to reason and to debate on complex problems. This is the reason why, inside the Center For Collective Intelligence at MIT, novel collective intelligence technologies that enable more effective deliberation with large groups have been developed.

One of the projects is Deliberatorium, a “large scale deliberation system” that uses argument maps to organize knowledge about a problem. Argument maps enable critical thinking, and use a graphical representation to display the structure of reasoning and argumentation.

In this first project, a map about Climate Change has been developed. Inside the map are the main arguments about this debate, and we are looking for people interested in using our technology to browse and rate the map. In this project, users can't insert new contents, but only rate, express their vote, about the climate change debate. We are running this study to understand the potentiality of the tool in a simplified version.

The result of the study will be an evaluation of people's opinion about this topic. We are interested in understand how people are divided on Climate Change Debate, which are the most controversial ideas and so on.

If the participation is high and people appreciate the application in this simplified version, in the future we will set up a new project to enable an online deliberation about this topic, where people will be allowed to build a new map and not only to rate the existing posts. In this case, the application will be really an instrument to debate and organize knowledge about Climate Change.

Participation in the study is entirely voluntary, and all data will be anonymized, so your confidentiality is assured.

To get started, simply follow this link:

Go check it out! Thanks to Carlo Savoretti at MIT for sending this info.

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Comments 1 to 23:

  1. How did I miss the Master List of Mutual Exclusion?? How about a corollary list of Convenient Untruths, showing all the observations, measurements and models that are coincidentally incorrect, the product of conspiracies, etc.? In other words, any measurement, calculation or plotted trend that may happen to lend confirmation to anthropogenic warming no matter how distantly related to the actual central issue? So far we've learned that thermometers don't work or at least work differently depending what they show, the GPS system is hopelessly flawed in certain cases but not in others, tide gauges are subject to a plethora of flaws making them unable to accurately record sea level increases but leaving them otherwise reliable, noise overwhelms plotted trends no matter the resolution of the y-axis or length of the x-axis. The list is large, and growing. My confidence is so shattered that I've taken to double-checking my tire pressure versus ambient barometric pressure of late because otherwise there's no way of determining if my tires are completely flat or dangerously overinflated. I also swing my compass daily before I try to drive in any of the cardinal directions. Maybe I should shut up and get to work...
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  2. doug_bostrom at 07:18 AM, your confidence may in some way be further restored instead by double checking tyre pressure against ambient temperature. If it doesn't restore confidence in the ability of some to correlating relevant data, it should at least restore it in the steering and braking performance of your push bike. ;-)
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  3. Johnd I hear you but the trouble is, when I take my daily 100 measurements of my tire pressure I see that even though I consistently get readings roughly centered on 200kPa I find each reading is +/- ~6kPa from any other. This means I cannot drive the car because I cannot draw any conclusions due to the noise in my measurements. On the other hand, this paralyzing uncertainty is a good way of reducing my carbon footprint.
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  4. Further to my last remark, I suppose it's just as well I can't drive my car because of the gas gauge problem. I -see- my gas gauge sinking steadily but it varies a little bit from moment to moment as I check it, apparently due to natural variations mostly I hypothesize down to various accelerations as well as tiny changes in instrument supply voltage, the influence of sunlight causing the gasoline to expand, other things I may not even be able to identify at all. It's really a serious problem with the instrumentation since due to these variations I see it's impossible to draw any conclusions from the gas gauge. Annoying, but I can't be certain about my observation of which way the gas gauge is headed; at any moment a temporary excursion upward might lead to a full tank. Who's to know? So to be on the safe side I do nothing; my doubt about the gas situation means inaction is the best course. But again, it's beneficial to my carbon footprint.
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  5. So I went to the Deliberatorium, and ugh. Most of the arguments, in both directions, I gave low marks to, mainly because hey, [citation needed]. For me, an argument is only convincing if there's real data behind it. Also, it was clunky to navigate, ugly as sin, and the content was terribly uneven in quality and style. But I did get an error from the LISP interpreter when I was done, so that was a nice blast from the past. Ah MIT, how you do love the LISP. I like the organization here a lot better. Plus the content and citations are 2-3 orders of magnitude better.
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  6. The deliberatorium needs an expand all. And more sophisticated arguments, with sources. It kind of, sort of, needs to be more like skeptical science!
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  7. 3.doug_bostrom I got no problem with you driving your car based on your dodgy pressure measurements. It when you demand the complete re-organisation of the transport system based on them that I think it's necessary to take a closer look at your notebook.
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  8. 4.doug_bostrom ditto your gas gauge. You thought about selling that pile of junk? ;)
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  9. doug_bostrom at 10:36 AM, you think you have problems with your fuel gauge. My car has a readout that tells me how much further I can travel on the remaining fuel. Trouble is that distance really does decrease faster than the distance on the odometer increases. If ever two pieces of data should correlate, these are those two. The manufacturer solves the problem by the remaining distance readout going blank once it goes below 50 km. I'm wondering if there is some other form of data that I could input, such as tyre pressures as they should increase due to heat buildup the further the vehicle travels, but I don't know whether it can be correctly calibrated given I drive on both gravel and paved roads, or if it's even relevant. :-(
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  10. Putting aside Doug's car for a moment, I like the idea of this "Deliberatorium" experiment, but the implementation is not so great. It's an awkward and confusing user interface, there's a shortage of explanations and instructions, the text of the arguments is full of typos and grammatical errors, and if you want to be thorough about it, wading through the whole thing to rate all the arguments takes ... forever. If that's intended as a real research project, rather than just somebody's toy, they should pull the plug, invest much more time in the user interface, and then re-launch.
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  11. HR, complete re-organization of the transport system is inevitable at some point. It's just a matter of doing it in a controlled way, rather then being forced to.
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  12. First of all thanks for the feedbacks about the Deliberatorium. @ Johnny Vector @ actually thoughtfull We know that arguments are poor in comparison with Skeptical Science or other web sites. It is an experiment and we don't pretend to insert all the knowledge on Climate Change in a single map, but on purpose is to show a new system that can be used to discuss this problem. The idea of collective intelligence is the collaboration among people, so in a future application we hope to build a map in a collaborative way, perhaps about a specific topic and not Climate Change in general. This experiment is to show how a discussion can be organized and if it is useful to understand people's sentiment. The tools can be used also to summarize a web sites as Skeptical Science and to build links among different articles, for example a map in which every post is linked to an external web page. In this case, the map will be useful to understand the relationship among articles. @NED Rate all the arguments takes a lot because even if they are not complete we tried to put the most important ideas about this problem. However, even if a user rate a small number of topic the data will be useful when used in an aggregate form. The user interface is very simple (or poor as you said) but I didn't think it was so confusing. The goal now is to understand if an argumentation map can be a good tool to discuss a problem, so we did not focused a lot in the interface, but probably you are right: even in this early stage the interface should be improved. Thanks, Carlo
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  13. Thank you for doing the science, Carlo.
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  14. Not exactly on topic but close, there is an interesting discussion of opinion surveys in the NY Times:
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  15. "ClimateGate" Fail. The nut of the article Phillipe cited: But a closer look at these polls and a new survey by my Political Psychology Research Group show just the opposite: huge majorities of Americans still believe the earth has been gradually warming as the result of human activity and want the government to institute regulations to stop it. In our survey, which was financed by a grant to Stanford from the National Science Foundation, 1,000 randomly selected American adults were interviewed by phone between June 1 and Monday. When respondents were asked if they thought that the earth’s temperature probably had been heating up over the last 100 years, 74 percent answered affirmatively. And 75 percent of respondents said that human behavior was substantially responsible for any warming that has occurred. For many issues, any such consensus about the existence of a problem quickly falls apart when the conversation turns to carrying out specific solutions that will be costly. But not so here. Fully 86 percent of our respondents said they wanted the federal government to limit the amount of air pollution that businesses emit, and 76 percent favored government limiting business’s emissions of greenhouse gases in particular. Not a majority of 55 or 60 percent — but 76 percent. Large majorities opposed taxes on electricity (78 percent) and gasoline (72 percent) to reduce consumption. But 84 percent favored the federal government offering tax breaks to encourage utilities to make more electricity from water, wind and solar power. And huge majorities favored government requiring, or offering tax breaks to encourage, each of the following: manufacturing cars that use less gasoline (81 percent); manufacturing appliances that use less electricity (80 percent); and building homes and office buildings that require less energy to heat and cool (80 percent). Thus, there is plenty of agreement about what people do and do not want government to do. Our poll also indicated that some of the principal arguments against remedial efforts have been failing to take hold. Only 18 percent of respondents said they thought that policies to reduce global warming would increase unemployment and only 20 percent said they thought such initiatives would hurt the nation’s economy. Furthermore, just 14 percent said the United States should not take action to combat global warming unless other major industrial countries like China and India do so as well. So the takeaway is that we see the usual incoherence about wanting to fix the problem but not personally wanting to pay for so doing, yet encouragingly most people seem to comprehend the fundamentals. Here's another recent survey: A U.S. national survey released Tuesday finds that public concern about global warming is increasing, with public belief that it is occurring rising to 61 per cent, up from 57 per cent since January. And 50 per cent of Americans believe the phenomenon is caused by people — an increase of three points. Fifty-three per cent of respondents now worry about the impact global warming will have (an increase of three points) and 63 per cent believe it will affect them personally (an increase of five points). Researchers believe that with a pickup in the economy and renewed consumer confidence, Americans' thoughts are returning to environmental issues. "The BP oil disaster is also reminding the public of the dark side of dependence on fossil fuels, which may be increasing support for clean energy policies," said Anthony Leisorowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, in a release. The survey was conducted by researchers at Yale and George Mason Universities. The survey also found that 77 per cent of respondents support the regulation of carbon dioxide as a pollutant; 87 per cent want more funding for research into renewable energy sources and 83 per cent support tax rebates for consumers who purchase fuel-efficient vehicles and solar panels. The survey was conducted using an online panel of 1,024 American adults aged 18 and older between May 14 and June 1, 2010. The margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points. Global warming concerns rising in U.S.
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  16. @doug_bostrom at 10:36 AM on 26 May, 2010 There is of course a trivial fallacy in this analogy which, deliberate or not, doug_bostrom carefully ignore to make his point to ridicule any with an opinion that diverts from his own. That's the way demonetizing of any unwanted opinions works.
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  17. Thank you for calling attention to my analogy, batsvensson. Indeed, as with all analogies it is an imperfect mapping of one subject on another. I'm glad you found it thought-provoking.
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  18. @doug_bostrom at 18:41 PM on 10 June, 2010 Doug, I am sure you had a small chuckle when you wrote the comment, and so did I when read it but you miss my points. Fun as the analogy is I do not agree with the label imperfect even. Invalid is rather a word that comes to my mind. Comparing two different classes of physical system is not only a major fault. One is also a extremely well known system both in science and as well in engineering but the other is not. That's why we have transport vehicles in the first place, but we do not see planetary atmosphere transformers with specification charts and all sold off the shelf at special offers at super markets, or do we? While the methods to control transport for the past then thousand years - or even longer - has been a rudimentary but growing understanding of physics the very same principles has not been applied to control weather or climate - here other methods like prayers, rituals and scarifies has been major tools in the control – until just recently. But all this is a red herring and does not address the main point I made: you are demonetizing the opponent. Humor and even iron indeed has its part to clarify the ridiculous in things but I don’t see how a sweeping generalization would promote discussion and open talk. It is not possible to have a educated discussion when the opponent has postulated that anyone that does not agree need to have their ignorance or stupidity "educated".
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  19. Batsvensson, analogies are only useful for helping folks think of a subject in a different way, drawing on a mental model where one may not be in place for the topic being proxied. Analogies are helpful when the person for whom an analogy is constructed is seeking to understand a topic. Analogies are largely useless when employed in an argument. For instance, I've personally explained more directly at least two dozen times in various locales that looking at a two year increase in Arctic ice extent and forming a conclusion that ice is on the increase while failing to notice that such "increases" are regularly repeated while still being part of a steady decline is a mental instrumentation failure. Yet it's possible to explicitly point that out and have the point entirely missed, or rather simply ignored. I can't think of a single time the feature of noise versus signal has been acknowledged because in the cases where I make this point my interlocutor has been intent on not understanding what's going on but rather is fixed on defending the notion that Arctic ice has nothing to say about climate. I've learned that writing for the person making an argument against facts is pointless, but I do think it's helpful to explain things for those not directly engaged in the discussion. Those of us operating automobiles are familiar with some of the foibles of fuel gauges. So referring to that model may be a helpful way for some to picture the problem. Yes, I become sarcastic and that's not helpful. It's easy to forget, limitless patience is required when speaking of the topic of anthropogenic global warming. There are a lot of folks intent on confusing the public and they're quite successful. So you're right, I could have done better by eschewing sarcasm. Thanks for helping me to remember this.
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  20. Doug, there's a lot of very thought-provoking material in that comment. I see analogies as just one of an array of tools that can sometimes help people understand something they were having difficulty understanding more directly. It's impossible to prove anything by analogy, and offering an analogy as proof is generally unhelpful. But when I am genuinely trying to understand some process but am having trouble following other lines of reasoning, sometimes an analogy will help me over the "hump" of misunderstanding. Ultimately, though, understanding something via analogy isn't necessarily worth a whole lot unless that helps you to subsequently work it out using more direct methods.
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  21. Ned, agreed. There's actually been a lot of research done on the topic of mental models which often necessarily take the form of analogies but are at the end of the day not truly descriptive. A successful analogy improves the utility of our intuitions but does not allow us to actually characterize the subject of that intuition.
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  22. I should add, the utility of analogy is controlled in part by the intentions or competence of the person forming and conveying an analogy. It is of course possible to -degrade- understanding by use of analogy, which is why Ned's point about their limitations is always worth remembering. Less ambiguity is better and analogies necessarily leave ambiguity hanging in the air.
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  23. @Doug 00:35 AM on 12 June, 2010 thank you for the elaboration reply.
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