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Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Andrew Revkin on Making Veracity Cool

 (Photo credit: patries71 via Flickr)

Andrew Revkin posted an interesting article a few weeks back:

Lately, I’ve come to frame the challenge as a question: Can we foster an online (and real-life) culture in which veracity is cool? You’ll see more on this here in the coming months.

As social primates, we are instinctively motivated to seek higher status in our given troop hierarchies. The word cool is sometimes used as a synonym for impressive. Impressive denotes a measure of status. Coolness is any marketer's primary weapon. I like Andy's idea of making veracity cool, but I'm skeptical it could ever take hold. How would car marketers ever convince us to buy their cars? Although, certainly, he's on the right track in that, if you want to change behavior, like getting people to drive electric cars (or Hummers), convincing them it's cool to drive one will work wonders. 

What I think we need is to teach critical thinking skills in our schools as part of every math and science course, from grade school through college, and test for competency like we do for math and science.

His post led me to Climate Feedback, a website designed to fact check climate change articles. I was struck by how similar the format was to the Disqus comment software where you can use a little hypertext markup language to highlight quotes from an article and then discuss it in detail with links to sources, photos, graphs etc. They also made use of a veracity score which I have half-seriously used a few times myself, here and here.

The first question that came to mind was why the scientists didn't simply post in the comment field under the article? I suggested as much in a comment under Andy's article and interestingly enough, at least to me, my comment never made it past the Dot Earth moderator. So, maybe that was the answer to my question.

A weak link with Climate Feedback is that 99.9% of the public has no idea it exists and isn't likely to ever visit it. My guess is that they're hoping that commenters under climate change articles will link back to Climate Feedback, assuming a given comment field will allow links and that the moderator won't censor it.

Which got me to wondering if anyone had linked back to Climate Feedback from the latest article they critiqued. Nada. Could I really have been the first to check on that or had attempts to link back to Climate Feedback been censored by the author? I wish them luck but the last poll I saw suggested that most Americans still don't buy the theory of evolution. You can lead a horse to water ...

But there was yet another thought that struck me, which was that Climate Feedback had essentially created their own comment field for that article, albeit, with access limited to climate researchers, essentially filtering the wheat from the chaff for readers. 
I recall watching a heated exchange between two of my favorite authors, Malcolm Gladwell and Steven Pinker, at their respective blogs (neither bothered with the comment field) and I learned a lot from it. I also once witnessed a similar exchange between George Monbiot and Matt Ridley, which was also very informative.

And finally, why should expert critique be limited to climate science? Shouldn't we be applying some of it to the proposed low carbon energy solutions as well?

One should always take at least a cursory look at a comment field under an article about energy and/or climate change to check for pertinent corrections or critique. Learn to skim read past the obvious chaff. Few authors will update an article based on comment feedback. But let me give you an example of an exception. Years ago Andy wrote a piece about fossil fuel subsides:

There’s no surprise in this, but a new survey by Bloomberg New Energy Finance comparing subsidies for fossil fuels with those for renewable energy sources finds a glaring gulf — with the fuels of convenience getting around 10 times the advantages around the world as non-polluting energy sources. [5:38 p.m. Updated The perils of blogging on three hours of red-eye sleep became readily apparent when many comment contributors noted that the most important comparison is subsidies per unit of energy produced. Thanks, all.]

In other words, thanks to commenters, Andrew realized that fossil fuels actually receive considerably less subsidy per unit energy than renewables. This false fossil fuel subsidy argument continues to this day and is also wrongly applied to nuclear energy. You will never find the right solutions to climate change using false input, regardless of what you want to believe, garbage in = garbage out.

I'd like to extend a hat tip to Grist for recently allowing a rigorous debate to occur in a comment field under one of their author's articles about nuclear energy. Articles on complex topics like energy and climate change that don't have comment fields should be avoided. Comment fields help to keep authors honest, and certainly educate them even if they may never admit to it. I learn something every day from comment fields. But more importantly, comment fields inform readers. People who can't be bothered to read the comments under energy and climate change articles are more vulnerable to being misinformed, or quite possibly, want to remain that way.

For more of my thoughts about internet comment fields, consider reading an earlier article I wrote on this subject: Internet Baboons.

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