GOOD

Fighting Scientific Bias Through Crowdsourcing

“Humans desire certainty, and science infrequently provides it.”

You’ve probably seen (and even posted) these sorts of questions on social media—queries like “Does anyone near me know whether they finished the construction work at the post office yet?” or “Help me win an argument: What are the first words that come to mind when you hear the name ‘Ferris Bueller’?”


That’s crowdsourcing, of course, and it can be a great way to seek advice or take an informal poll. But can it also be used to make science better?

Raphael Silberzahn, an assistant professor at IESE Business School in Barcelona, and Eric L. Uhlmann, an associate professor of organizational behavior at the Singapore campus of INSEAD, another international business school, say yes.

Their recent article recommending that scientific research be crowdsourced was one of several approaches published by the journal Nature after an August article in Science laid bare the results of an international project that revealed a rather alarming reality: Out of 100 studies published in three respected psychology journals in 2008, scientists were able to replicate or mostly replicate the results of fewer than half. That effort was part of the Reproducibility Project: Psychology, led by University of Virginia psychologist Brian Nosek.

“The present results suggest that there is room to improve reproducibility in psychology,” the study finds. “A large portion of replications produced weaker evidence for the original findings”—despite using the same materials and methodology as the original authors.

So what’s the next step? Recommendations include the seemingly straightforward move of insisting on rigorous research standards, which is easier said than done. Researchers could more frequently leverage blind analysis, in which the scientists themselves don’t know what data the values represent until the analysis is done and the blind is lifted. But these days, a uniquely modern solution has presented itself: Crowdsourcing.

Silberzahn and Uhlmann aren’t exactly recommending that we start crowdsourcing science on Facebook or Twitter. Instead, they’re advocating that scientists and researchers crowdsource with their peers. Right now, most researchers attempt to serve as their own devil’s advocates—a single team comes up with their own findings and also tries to poke holes in them. But with human beings thrown in the mix, such a task is at best a challenging one. At worst, it veers towards the unethical.

So how would crowdsourcing as a bias-check work in practice, and what would it mean for science?

Well, let’s look at the crowdsourced experiment Silberzahn and Uhlmann conducted last year. They asked 29 teams of researchers to use the same data set to figure out whether soccer referees are more likely to give red cards to dark-skinned players than to light-skinned ones. Each team came up with its own method of analysis and had a chance to revise its analytical technique based on feedback from the other researchers.

The findings of all the research teams taken together were decidedly more tentative than the results of any one study would have been. Though there was general agreement that darker skin did result in more red cards, the extent varied widely, with findings ranging from a strong trend of dark-skinned players being more heavily penalized to a slight tendency—notably, not statistically significant—for referees to give more red cards to light-skinned players.

Basically, crowdsourcing can be expected to lead to results that might be a little less sexy, but are a lot more reliable. And, especially because this method is resource-intensive, it may perhaps best be reserved for occasions when research will likely serve as the basis of real-life policy decisions. “The transparency resulting from a crowdsourced approach should be particularly beneficial when important policy issues are at stake,” Silberzahn and Uhlmann write. “The uncertainty of scientific conclusions about, for example, the effects of the minimum wage on unemployment, and the consequences of economic austerity policies, should be investigated by crowds of researchers rather than left to single teams of analysts.”

The issue extends beyond the choice of analytical model and into actual bias, even if unintended. In the soccer example, let’s say that before embarking on the study, some of the scientists involved were expecting that referees would be harsher with darker-skinned players, while others expected race to have no bearing on what happens on the field. Couldn’t this affect how they interpreted the results, even assuming they had no conscious intention of skewing their findings?

That’s more or less what a September study on gender bias found. The study, led by Montana State University psychologist Ian M. Handley and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, asked members of the general public as well as academics (both STEM and non-STEM) to evaluate the quality of research on gender bias by having them read either an abstract of a PNAS study from 2012 that found bias against women in the sciences—or an altered abstract that purported to find no bias. Handley’s examination of how people react to a study indicating gender bias found what appears to be, well, gender bias: Men view the findings less favorably than women, and, of greatest concern, this difference is especially prominent among male STEM faculty members.

But it’s not just racial and gender biases that can motivate scientists to distort the inferences they draw from the data. The authors note that other prejudicial factors can include the desire, whether conscious or unconscious, to support your own theory or refute someone else’s—or to be the first to report what seems to be a new phenomenon.

Maybe the core problem is that people often have unrealistic expectations of science. “Scientific progress is a cumulative process of uncertainty reduction that can only succeed if science itself remains the greatest skeptic of its explanatory claims,” write the authors of the Science article that kicked off all this important talk about increasing reproducibility and reducing bias. “Humans desire certainty, and science infrequently provides it.”

Articles
Screenshot via Sweden.se/Twitter (left) Wikimedia Commons (right)

Greta Thunberg has been dubbed the "Joan of Arc of climate change" for good reason. The 16-year-old activist embodies the courage and conviction of the unlikely underdog heroine, as well as the seemingly innate ability to lead a movement.

Thunberg has dedicated her young life to waking up the world to the climate crisis we face and cutting the crap that gets in the way of fixing it. Her speeches are a unique blend of calm rationality and no-holds-barred bluntness. She speaks truth to power, dispassionately and unflinchingly, and it is glorious.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
Ottawa Humane Society / Flickr

The Trump Administration won't be remembered for being kind to animals.

In 2018, it launched a new effort to reinstate cruel hunting practices in Alaska that had been outlawed under Obama. Hunters will be able to shoot hibernating bear cubs, murder wolf and coyote cubs while in their dens, and use dogs to hunt black bears.

Efforts to end animal cruelty by the USDA have been curtailed as well. In 2016, under the Obama Administration, the USDA issued 4,944 animal welfare citations, in two years the numbers dropped to just 1,716.

Keep Reading Show less
Science

The disappearance of 40-year-old mortgage broker William Earl Moldt remained a mystery for 22 years because the technology used to find him hadn't been developed yet.

Moldt was reported missing on November 8, 1997. He had left a nightclub around 11 p.m. where he had been drinking. He wasn't known as a heavy drinker and witnesses at the bar said he didn't seem intoxicated when he left.

Keep Reading Show less
Communities
via Real Time with Bill Maher / YouTube and The Late Late Show with James Corden / YouTube

A controversial editorial on America's obesity epidemic and healthcare by comedian Bill Maher on his HBO show "Real Time" inspired a thoughtful, and funny, response by James Cordon. It also made for a great debate about healthcare that Americans are avoiding.

At the end of the September 6th episode of "Real Time, " Maher turned to the camera for his usual editorial and discussed how obesity is a huge part of the healthcare debate that no one is having.

"At Next Thursday's debate, one of the candidates has to say, 'The problem with our healthcare system is Americans eat shit and too much of it.' All the candidates will mention their health plans but no one will bring up the key factor: the citizens don't lift a finger to help," Maher said sternly.

Keep Reading Show less
Politics
via Gage Skidmore

The common stereotypes about liberals and conservatives are that liberals are bleeding hearts and conservatives are cold-hearted.

It makes sense, conservatives want limited government and to cut social programs that help the more vulnerable members of society. Whereas liberals don't mind paying a few more dollars in taxes to help the unfortunate.

A recent study out of Belgium scientifically supports the notion that people who scored lower on emotional ability tests tend to have right-wing and racist views.

Keep Reading Show less
Politics