Poll the experts!

By Razib Khan | February 17, 2007 12:32 pm

Do you remember the age before polling in politics? I don’t. Today we bemoan the emphasis on polls and idealize the past, before candidates knew in scientific and statistically significant detail the temperature of the democratic water. But no one is going to ban polls in the near future, for every person who complains about survey data there are hundreds who are clicking refresh over & over to find the most recent tracking results on their website of choice.
I think something similar is necessary for the sciences (or scholarship in general). Is George Lakoff a laughing stock (as Chris would have us believe), or a thinker of gigantic Aristotelian proportions? I suppose if you were a cognitive scientist you’d know, your sample of individuals in the field with whom you’d engaged in personal communication would be vast and you could get a sense of the direction that the wind was blowing. But for someone outside the field you basically have to trust someone on the inside and hope they aren’t misleading you (or, themselves). Is multi-level selection the next big thing in evolutionary biology, as Bora claims, or is it a relatively marginal and muddled field, my own general perception? Bora has made the Kuhnian claim that multi-level selection’s day will come when the older scientists die off, but how do we know that his perception is correct? One’s own sample is obviously going to be biased toward those with whom one is on common ground with, perhaps there are enormous social science departments steeped in conceptual metaphor theory that Chris as no knowledge of because he is boxed within his old fashioned world of symbolicists?
I think my point is pretty clear here: in the sciences quite often lay persons are in the position where they know with great confidence that a theory is absolutey accepted at its level of precision (e.g., Newtonian Mechanics) or totally rejected (e.g., the Aether theories). It is as if our knowledge of allele frequencies was certain with any degree of confidence only if they were operationally fixed (i.e., greater than 99%) or very rare or non-existent (i.e., less than 1%). Not only would my proposal help the public, I think it could give scientists some perspective about their position within their discipline.

  • D

    This is one of those things (like hotornot) that is just waiting for a sensible implementation to happen. Certainly the demand is large – everyone wants and has always wanted a way get an accurate sense of the consensus/majority view within a discipline on a topic, and how it is evolving.
    One potential hitch:
    i. such a system would have to be anonymous to let people say possibly nasty things about big people. No grad student or untenured faculty member is going to risk saying something bad about the latest idea of a superstar prof. Consider only how much trouble resulted from the candid comments people made about Yau for the New Yorker.
    ii. On the other hand, you want the opinion of ‘sane’ people, not crackpots.
    The two seem to tug in opposite directions. One possible compromise might be to restrict to people with .edu email addresses, but I don’t really want to know what (say) a student in cosmology thinks about nanotech. You need lists of people allowed to comment on specific fields, which clearly bumps into the anonymity requirement.
    Perhaps the operation of various academic job market rumor mills provides organizational tips?

  • sonya

    Lakoff is a very smart man who is busy publishing a great deal of politically motivated garbage. Much of his recent work on conservatives is JUNK SCIENCE. His work on metaphor is very nice but not the best work on the topic. Garnter, Holland and others have made a greater contribution to the field than Lakoff.

  • http://www.roosvanzessen.jouwpagina.nl rosanne

    Niet leuk


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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