Monday, 18 April 2011

Answers on a postcard - Yahoo! Answers and Communicating geosciences.

Yahoo! Answers is a community driven question and answer service; the idea being that everyone answers each other’s questions and provides a wholesome and driven series of answers to everyday questions. Yahoo! Is the 4th most visited site in North America and it’s answers service, set up in 2005, is clearly displayed on the sites homepage. It’s difficult to judge it’s popularity, but Google records that it has 1/36th of the amount of searches for Yahoo! Answers compared to Wikipedia – the large numbers of questions point towards a fairly busy site; which runs questions from all facets of life – including geoscience.

So what benefit does this site (and many others) have in terms of communicating geoscience?
'The Core' has an awful lot to answer for

Well, it would be great to have exposure of the geological sciences and a Q&A site that could provide honest, well researched sensible scientific information would be valuable as a method of getting the public direct and efficient answers. I’ve already touched upon how the Geol Soc of London has done a similar (although infinitely better researched) Q & A service. How does Yahoo! Answers fair as a method of geology and public involvement?

I really hope this was a joke.... or poorly placed
The site has a huge amount of information available to users with a variety of different knowledge levels, anyone can sign up – and answer any question. Questions continue to be available on the web after the ‘closing date’ – and regularly appear on more inane online searches. Questions can be asked on anything, so have a wide variety; from ‘what is the weight of the earth?’ to ‘Will the world exist in 2012’. Answers can be given by anyone (although newer users have limited questions per/day) – which is the main problem. Some people, it turns out can be idiots...

Although Wikipedia has been lampooned for its public involvement and problems with correct data, it is nothing at all, in comparison with Yahoo! Answers. The results to people’s questions are not checked (except for rude words etc) and therefore any answer can stand; which results for a lot of questions creationism wriggling in, which given the context of some of these questions the ‘asker’ may well end up feeling is a decent answer. Yahoo has utilised various Celebrities an public figures to stimulate questions; alongside featured questions which are highlighted as good examples – but these are in the minority.

Hopefully not - although it will wipe off my student loan
Good answers are awarded ‘points’ which don’t mean prizes, simply numbers; so there is no fiscal reason to give good answers – therefore any involvement is purely out of peoples good heartedness. Good heartedness, however does not make up for a lack of a of knowledge; which does result in answers being, often, complete rubbish – or (in my opinion) worse, with plenty within Earth Sciences that utilise Creationism, allowing pseudoscience to can get an foot in the door alongside more intelligent answers (there are a couple). This does allow for the old ‘let the public decide’ ideas about our Earth’s history but requires decent science to be in attendance. Plus, it appears that many people (probably children) are simply putting homework onto the site, which disregards the studying they could be doing, finding out more about their world rather than simply watching (often stupid) answers appear on their screen.

However, I have found some positive gems about the service – since anyone can present a question, the variety of questions out there is brilliant and some answers are good – although they are virtually all lifted from Wikipedia, which is probably more accurate than Yahoo! Answers – but still not centred in geological organisations.

What use is Yahoo! Answers then? Beneficial or not?

The lack of expert opinion severely hurts the site, it is, very often the blind (or at least hideously mislead) leading the blind – in this sense the service could be doing more harm than good – but what if a mainstream, useful and esteemed geological organisation got involved? Would that be worth it?

Well, they could be involved in giving decent, correct and useful information to these answers; a ‘live’ version of the GSL’s ‘Ask a Geologist’ page or a similar service to Yahoo Answers on a proper site; where answers are vetoed, to ensure that useless and incorrect answers are not displayed, could be beneficial. Although, this sort of thing already half exists; the USGS offers plenty of email contacts, which give prompt responses (having emailed them myself, not about something ridiculous though) – and are from people who actually know what they are talking about. Alternatively, many answers could be answered via a simple Google search via pre-existing answers – it would have taken the asker considerably less time to have performed a Google Search rather than placed the question on Yahoo! Answers. So, in conclusion, Yahoo Answers is not a viable manner of communicating geosciences (or in fact any science) and the time that could be utilised by geological organisations using the site would simply be a waste of time.