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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:

Question: "What is global warming and how does styrofoam contribute to global warming?"

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.

 

Question: "The great global warming swindles opinion on global warming?"

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.

Systematic Abuse

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.

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. There's not enough data or evidence to point in one direction or another.

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Comments

Comments 1 to 29:

  1. Curiously, Wikipedia does not suffer from the same problems to anywhere near the same extent. Perhaps the private sector has a vested interest ?
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  2. Answers.com is just not a very good site and never has been. Don't bother to try to reform it, just put about the information that it should be avoided.
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  3. Chemware: The main difference is that Wikipedia actually has at least some level of editorial control, which is something that most "citizen scientists" avoid like plague.

    dana1981: The obvious question: what do? The problems you describe are symptomatic for the entire "debate". We can't possibly be there every time somebody propagates misinformation.
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  4. I noticed before on other topics, now poor the quality control is on Answers. com. But I never noticed that it was THAT bad!

    But I am glad that dana1981 has put so much effort into exposing them for their incompetence and really, dishonesty. For yes, claiming that the way to handle 'controversial' topics by giving equal time to "multiple viewpoints and opinions" really is dishonest. Especially for a site whose very name makes the presumptuous claim to have "The answer".
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  5. Chemware #1 - as rocco (#3) says, Wikipedia has a good editorial system. Answers.com does not. Anyone can go in and edit any answer in any manner they want on Answers.com, unless a Supervisor has locked the answer. It's just a bad system.

    rocco #3 - I don't think there's much that we can do, other than expose the flaws of the site and encourage others not to use it unless they're fixed. Several of us have appealed to the higher levels at Answers.com to no avail. It's a matter of choosing our battles, and we felt that the most effective way to respond to the misinformation at Answers.com was simply to expose it in a blog post.

    MattJ #4 - thanks. I had help from other Skeptical Science authors in compiling the examples of horrible Answers.com answers, although they're sadly not hard to come by. I agree, if you're going to call your site Answers.com, you'd better be able to provide accurate answers.
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  6. By the way, I think the Yahoo Answers system is much better (though full disclosure, I'm the top answerer in the global warming section on that site). On Yahoo Answers, anyone can answer any question, but all answers are posted, whereas on Answers.com, you simply edit or replace an existing answer (if there is one).

    With Yahoo Answers, you get a lot of really bad answers, but you also get a lot of really good ones. With Answers.com it's really a crap shoot whether the answer provided to any given question is accurate. You only have one to choose from. The layout of Yahoo Answers is much better too. Questions are listed chronologically, so virtually every question gets multiple answers.
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  7. "Now that we know that the Arctic ice is recovering ..."

    Now that you have stopped beating your wife ...

    Answers.yahoo.com gives you slightly better answers about climate than you might get from consulting chicken entrails.

    http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20100604092516AACQcj6
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    Moderator Response: (DB) Fixed link
  8. Most of the "skeptics" I usually talk to first "learned" about the scientific process reading denialist articles. They're usually guys from the social sciences, for whom peer review means just that "someone else has read it".

    With this background, there is really not much difference between religion and physics. There is no measurable, verifiable answer because they don't really grasp what's being measured or why.

    Apparently, that's the case of the answers.com staff.
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  9. Thanks for highlighting this, Dana. I wasn't aware how bad things were on answers.com - almost as if they were making the answers up without bothering with fact checking. Climate change denialism like a never-ending stream of rubbish, or a Lernaean Hydra-type monster. It's a bit disheartening at times.
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  10. Moral: Don't believe anything you read on the innerwebz.
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  11. Dana, I applaud your efforts. Denialists can't be allowed to carry on unchallenged with their misinformation campaign. The few people undecided on the issue must be disgusted by the whole "Debate", but at least you give the scientific facts a fighting chance.

    As I discuss Climate Change with more and more people it's becoming apparent, at least to me, that most people are polarized on the issue. There's no point trying to convert a denialist or vis-a-vis for them as it just ends in a shouting match. I think that it's more important that laypeople and scientists alike try to make our voices heard to our political representatives.

    The work that you and others do on sites like SkS will be important in carrying our message to our political representatives. Continue the good fight and maybe we will be able to give the up-and-coming generations a fighting chance.
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  12. logicman #7 - actually the link you provide is a good example of what I'm talking about. Yes, there were several terrible answers to that misleading question, including the "best answer" chosen by the asker. But there were also several very good answers which can still be read. On Answers.com, only one answer would have survived the process.

    Anne-Marie - indeed, due to the sheer volume of questions on Answers.com, and the site's flawed system in answering them, many are never fact-checked. That's exactly the problem. Plus the systematic abuse by the Supervisors, and the fact that they treat climate science the same as religion and politics, so frankly they seem to think facts don't really matter.

    WSteven - thanks. All we can do is highlight and debunk some of the misinformation that's out there and hope people will listen.
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  13. I was at a talk given by Dr. Jack Kaye of NASA not long ago and one of the questions afterward was something like, "Some people tell us one thing, and others tell us something else; how do we know which is right?"

    I've been thinking about that question off and on ever since. If you don't have a pretty good understanding of the physical sciences, how do you know? It all comes down to an appeal to authority, doesn't it? And the majority doesn't seem to have a good grasp of what makes a good authority and what doesn't. They've no idea of the difference between a research article published in Nature and someone's blog. Sometimes I dismay at people's inability to see through someone's argument when they make some assertion, someone else counters it with evidence, and they change the assertion and carry on. How do you convince someone of something they don't want to believe if they don't have any understanding of the subject, don't recognise what makes a good authority, and don't even have reasonably good skills at judging debates? I don't know that it is possible.
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  14. Chris G - that's certainly a challenge, and why the climate disinformation campaign has been so successful. It can be very difficult to figure out who to believe when being told two opposite things. At the Congressional hearing, it would be difficult to know if Christy was right or if Sommerville was right, without first having some basic understanding of climate science.

    That's where the consensus comes in. Sure, unless you actually learn about the science first, it's an appeal to authority. But we appeal to authority all the time. There are "skeptics" like Christy telling us that global warming is nothing to worry about, but reality is that they're in the vast minority.

    For people who are unwilling or unable to learn basic climate science, I think it's hard to justify rejecting the consensus expert conclusion on the subject. If 9 out of 10 doctors say you need surgery, you'd probably be smart to get the surgery.
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  15. Dana,
    I agree; though Dunning-Kruger effects come into play. I guess that in those situations, the appeal to authority (consensus) is still about the only option. Of course that leads directly to the

    "There is no consensus."
    "Yes, there is."

    that we see play out so many times. Or,

    "Science by consensus isn't science."
    "The consensus was reached after the science, not before."

    Which leads to conspiracy theories, etc., which often degrade to something like, "So, your position is that Al Gore created the concept of global warming in order to increase taxes and create a world government more than 50 years before he was born? Hmmm."
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  16. Yes, there's the psychological aspect that people will tend to find ways to believe what they want to believe. However, for open-minded people who simply aren't sure which "side" to believe, the appeal to the authority of the scientific consensus is a valid approach.
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  17. Chemware

    Be aware that Answers.com (the non-user edited part of the same site) actually uses direct copies of Wikipedia articles as well as other sources. This was their original business model. Contributors on wiki.answers are advised to research their answer using this tool. However, without rigorous supervision by a scientifically literate supervisory board it quickly degenerates into a political opinion board

    A serious problem with the wiki.answers part of the site is their policy on AGW:

    "… 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…."

    we have attempted to change this without success
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  18. Good point perseus. The original model of Answers.com was useful. Once they started relying heavily on WikiAnswers though, that seems to be when it started going downhill.

    And yes, the site's treatment of all opinions as equally valid on a scientific issue is simply inexcusable. I doubt they would approve of Creationists answering evolution questions with their opinions.
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  19. You are wasting your time trying to correct it. My guess is answers.com was created to provide answers to trite general knowledge questions like "which band sung XYZ" etc. Not scientific questions.


    Q. Co2 produce by human?

    A. Humans make a bunch of Co2,

    no seriously:
    http://wiki.answers.com/Q/Co2_produce_by_human
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  20. wingding - I agree, the site certainly isn't set up to provide accurate answers to scientific questions. However, it's important to make people aware of that fact. As long as they're going to attempt to answer scientific questions, people should be aware that the quality of those answers is poor.
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  21. The real scientific answer to has the global mean temperature changed is the global mean temperature is meaningless unmeasureable quantity with no scientific value. You can't just take a massive list of numbers and take and think its a representative number. Those numbers have a physical meaning which can't be averaged. A boulder of rock at 30C has far more energy than a similar size amount of gas.

    Supposing it did exist by somehow calculating the internal energy of the climate system (a very tough task) and dividing by the mass- there is no way we could reasonably derive before decent array of temperature measuring satellites was available. Before that very large errors getting worse back in time- basically some time in early history could only be able say its hot or cold.
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  22. cloa513. A "meaningless unmeasurable quantity with no scientific value"?

    The same thing could be said about the average weight of 10 year olds or the average family size. No family has 2.3 or 1.8 or 4.5 children. However, scientists (and policy-makers) concerned with =average= =trends= in family size or health of school age children find numbers representing such trends very useful. The fact that they don't represent anything we can see or feel is entirely beside the point.
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  23. Hmmmm I just corrected an answer on Answers.com and it took less than 3 hours to be reverted back to it's original.
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  24. hengistmcstone... That is really fascinating! Did you document it at all?
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  25. cloa513 @ 21... That's a fascinating perspective. Do you have anything at all to back you up on that position other than just saying it?
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  26. Chemware@1

    One of their investors (Redpoint), invests in 'green' research and technology:

    http://www.redpoint.com/portfolio/energy-and-environment/
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  27. adelady- that's demographers- they never claim to be scientists and providing numbers for politician etc to make decisions. Anyway there is whole bunch maths thats impossible in physics. e.g. 1K-2K=-1K Correct in maths meaningless in physics no such number as a negative kelvin whether its possible to get to below 0K is reasonable scientific question but below 0K the kelvin scale has no meaning it represents atomic vibrations. Energy in appropriate units can be added like mass but temperature its an inherent average of quantum states or group of atoms but how many and what about pressure. A mass of solid metal has whole lot more energy at one temperature than the same mass of gas. Skeptical science provides no science to back up its use of the global mean temperature. Statistical description of a set of numbers can be done an infinite number of ways.
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  28. By the way if Skeptical Science said instead of Gobal Mean Temperature. Mean (nonscientific) of measuring points (MMP) then that would be OK- but that would only be aneodotal value nothing to compare to other MMPs such NASA and GIST and certainly you can't do real analysis on it and at most you can say its seems to be increasing. Search for Does a Global Temperature Exist? Chistopher Essex. The theoretical failings of this approach go back the 1970s but are valid as they are now. Skeptic Science provides no response.
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    Moderator Response: For a brief explanation of what's wrong with the Essex claims, see the RealClimate post "Does a Global Temperature Exist?" For more detail see the series of seven posts at Rabbett Run; go to the seventh post and click on the series of links in parentheses at the end of the title.
  29. cloa513 - response here
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