Critics of search engines have for many years suggested that the popularity algorithms that bring results to the forefront of a search could eventually lead to a world where popularity replaces truth and reality. We see evidence that this prediction is coming true in ways we might not have predicted. In my son’s social studies class, they even teach a course on how to identify true stories from false on the internet. And the democratic nature of the internet makes it possible for every voice to have equal volume. This is indeed one of the webs greatest gifts, but in some areas it can create the perception of debate when none exists. One important example is climate science. Climate is intensely “debated” today. I put debate in quotes because the two sides of the debate are very different in their credentials.
Science has a very vigorous process for moving the scientific understanding of an issue forward, and a key component of that process is the peer reviewed paper. A peer reviewed paper is, in simplest terms, a paper that has undergone the scrutiny of other scientists to insure that nothing in there is opinion or conjecture and that all conclusions are supported by the facts. It’s an anonymous and brutal process, and it’s often criticized because it means that science moves at an overly sluggish and methodical pace. But it wasn’t developed for speed. It was developed so that our understanding of the world can build upon a sound foundation of what has come before.
When you search a topic like “the best coffee in America” the results can come back with a zillion equal opinions, and it won’t mean that you now have a distorted world view. But if you search “gravitational effects” it would be helpful to have a way to separate the science from the chaff.
So here at the Cottage, we began to fantasize about a search engine for just these kind of scientific questions. A type of search or perhaps a new engine with a new algorithm that weighted the results. Giving peer reviewed papers the most weight, as does science and then giving a slight bit of weight to non-peer reviewed articles in respected scientific journals and giving absolutely no weight to everything else. Blog posts, (including this one : )) articles, speeches, interviews, op-eds, tv shows, films, etc., would all get scored a zero.
The search would deliver those results too, but with the understanding that those results are not part of the current accepted science. A rough idea of how that might be delivered below:
At the end of one of Al Gore’s recent speeches at a TED breakfast he ended with this idea for a Reality Search Engine with a call to action to help build it. With 97 percent of climate scientists in vigorous agreement on climate change and our role in it, it sure would help the population separate fact from wishful thinking or downright manipulation of the data from deniers. But that breakfast was small and the world of big thinkers is massive so in the hopes of getting the idea in front of the right people we are posting it here. Maybe you’re the right person or maybe you know the right person. If so, please send them this link.
When one science can be challenged by well-funded, fossil fuel interests in an effort to mislead the public then all science is at risk and our use of science to make good decisions as a democracy is also at risk. If we create a tool that allows all people to search the science on any topic the results can bring about a new era of reason and progress. And that seems like a worthy endeavor indeed.
Republished with kind permission.