Wrong Answers dot com
Posted on 11 March 2011 by dana1981
When the general public plugs a climate science question into a search engine, Answers.com is often towards the top of the results page. Unfortunately, the associated answers often do the open-minded public a disservice by misinforming those seeking to learn about climate science.
Answers.com is a question and answer website which originally became highly successful by amalgamating reference sources into one convenient search friendly location. However, according to Answers.com CEO Bob Rosenschein, the majority of the site pageviews now come from WikiAnswers.com, which is the user-generated component of the site, and is responsible for almost all of the growth in Answers.com traffic. According to comScore, as of August 2009, Answers.com was ranked #26 on the list of the top web properties in the USA, with over 28 million unique visitors per month. According to Alexa, Answers.com is currently ranked #127 in global traffic, and #50 in the USA.
In short, a whole lot of people visit and get information from Answers.com on a very wide variety of subjects, including climate science. Unfortunately, the operational model of Answers.com is fundamentally flawed in several different ways.
Sheer Volume of Rubbish
The sheer volume of questions and policy of allowing anybody to answer them also leads to a large number of rubbish answers on the site. Unfortunately there are simply too many climate questions, too few answerers with an understanding of basic climate science, and too many users willing to "answer" climate questions despite having no fundamental understanding of the subject. Here are just a few examples of the many resulting error-riddled answers:
Answers.com: "There is much evidence that the planet has indeed warmed over the past 6000 years. It appears that it has risen 11 degrees C. Since man has been using fossil fuel, it has risen about 0.2 to 0.5 degrees C. with most of that before WW2 and a max temp in 1998....The idea that it is even a small part of man induced global warming should be looked at in context."
Scientific Reality: From 6,000 up until about 150 years ago, the average global temperature had decreased slightly. The planet has been in the Holocene interglacial during the past 6,000 years, and the difference between glacial and interglacial periods is approximately 5-6°C. Claiming that the planet has warmed 11°C over the past 6,000 years is utterly absurd and has no basis in reality. The average surface temperature has risen approximately 0.8°C from pre-industrial levels, with the majority of that coming over the past 40 years, and the planet has continued to warm since 1998.
Answers.com: "I'm going to tell you my opinion as a scientist. We don't know if the global warming is caused by humans, brought on faster by humans or sun cycle or both or neither."
Scientific Reality: Although this individual's opinion is not far from that of 'The Great Global Warming Swindle', in reality we do know that global warming is being caused by humans, and it's not the Sun.
Question: "How does global warming cause global warming" (now that's a thinker)
Answers.com: "This current warming cycle has seen a total warming of 11 degrees over the past 10,000 years....The ice mass in the south pole is increasing and with it the albedo issues."
Scientific Reality: As noted above, the claim that the planet has warmed 11°C over the past 6,000 or 10,000 years is simply ridiculous. And although Antarctic sea ice is growing slightly, this increase is more than offset in terms of albedo by the much more rapid loss of Arctic sea ice. Additionally, the Antarctic ice sheet is rapidly losing ice mass.
These ignorance-based incorrect answers are just the tip of the iceberg. The WikiAnswers operational model has also resulted in a lot of purposeful misinformation in climate answers, for reasons described by Skeptical Science author perseus, who has been active in attempting to answer climate questions on the site:
"In Wikianswers, questions can be asked, and answers can be provided, by online volunteers overseen by Supervisors. These volunteer Supervisors are given additional tools, known as "Super Powers", enabling them to make higher-level edits. Other roles contributing to quality management include Premier Answerers, Special Project Assistants, Mentors, Bug Catchers and those participating in special site-wide programs such as Vandal Patrol, Community Outreach. Training Programmes are also available within these roles for new participants.
Despite this extensive organisational structure, some subject areas on Wikianswers appear to have escaped even the most basic quality standards. The answers related to climate change are particularly poor."
Misinformation in Climate Answers
Like perseus, I have attempted to correct the vast amounts of misinformation in some of the Answers.com climate answers, usually to no avail. There is one particularly egregious example in a question asking 'What are the most important greenhouse gases?'. As the question been locked by a Supervisor who filled it with misinformation, I could only list the many errors in the answer on the associated discussion page. I did so a month ago and have also sent a request to Answers.com to unlock the question and allow the misinformation to be corrected, but no action has been taken, and the misinformation remains.
Lacis and Schmidt et al. (2010)
As I noted in the discussion, the question can be best answered by two recent papers from NASA GISS, Lacis et al. (2010) and Schmidt et al. (2010). Schmidt et al. examine the contributions of various greenhouse gases to the Earth's greenhouse effect, which is addressed in the answer. The current answer is based on a blog post by Gavin Schmidt, which he recently noted was based on calculations that "were not very sophisticated". Schmidt et al. examined the contributions to the greenhouse effect in more detail and concluded as follows:
"we find that water vapor is the dominant contributor (∼50% of the effect), followed by clouds (∼25%) and then CO2 with ∼20%."
Lacis et al. answer the question even more directly. In fact, the first sentence in the abstract of their paper reads:
"Ample physical evidence shows that carbon dioxide (CO2) is the single most important climate-relevant greenhouse gas in Earth’s atmosphere."
The authors note that unlike water vapor, CO2 does not condense and precipitate from the atmosphere at current climate temperatures. Unlike many other greenhouse gases such as CO2 which can be added to the atmosphere, the level of water vapor in the atmosphere is a function of temperature. If extra water is added to the atmosphere, it condenses and falls as rain or snow within a week or two. In short, water vapor is a feedback, not a forcing. NASA GISS summarizes the results of Lacis et al. (2010) as follows:
"Because carbon dioxide accounts for 80% of the non-condensing GHG forcing in the current climate atmosphere, atmospheric carbon dioxide therefore qualifies as the principal control knob that governs the temperature of Earth."
Science vs. Opinion
Unfortunately, as with many other responses to climate questions, this answer appears destined to remain riddled with incorrect, irrelevant, and misleading information. When perseus attempted to take his complaints to a higher level after the Supervisor in question refused to allow the misinformation in a number of climate questions to be corrected, an Answers.com Community Supervisor gave him the following reply:
"On the site, we consider Global Warming to be as debatable a topic as Politics or Religion. This is why we allow for multiple viewpoints and opinions…"
It seems that the Answers.com staff views all opinions as equally valid regarding climate science, and gives no particular weight to the peer-reviewed scientific literature.
We consider it very unfortunate that a site with such a high volume of traffic has such a counter-productive policy when it comes to climate science. Answers.com allows its supervisors to lock in the answers to climate science questions with unsubstantiated and incorrect opinions. The site treats all opinions as equally valid on a scientific issue, rather than requiring that they be substantiated with peer-reviewed sources. As a result, Answers.com users are often misinformed when viewing the site's climate-related questions and answers.
A Travesty of Bad Answers
Unfortunately as you can see, there are simply too few individuals with a basic understanding of climate science answering climate questions on Answers.com. Answers.com seems to have all the ingredients necessary for a recipe for a whole lot of climate misinformation propagation:
- A massive volume of questions
- A lack of answerers with knowledge of basic climate science
- Activity by individuals with no knowledge of basic climate science
- Systematic abuse by misinformed Supervisors
- Treatment of all opinions as equal, with no weight placed on peer-reviewed science
Unfortunately, in its present state, the Answers.com model appears to be grossly fundamentally flawed. At least when it comes to climate science, the site may be more accurately named WrongAnswers.com.