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Bringing order to online discussions about climate change

MIT researchers are developing a new online forum that they say will help make discussions about climate change more productive.

Mason Inman

Public discussion about climate change has always been heated, but online, those debates are notorious for being biased, poorly articulated, or simply ignorant. Researchers at MIT are creating an online forum that they say will help foster more organized debate and critical thinking.

Their vision is of a website open to the public, where people can post about the latest scientific results on climate change and debate how to cut carbon emissions, and where politicians can get a sense of public opinion. The website, which the researchers call the Climate Collaboratorium, would be something like the Wikipedia version of the authoritative reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Unlike Wikipedia though, the collaboratorium, now at the prototype stage, will have features to keep the debate more structured and organized.

The forum could not only help people get better information, but also help them work together to come up with and agree upon ways of tackling climate change, says Mark Klein of the Center for Collective Intelligence at the MIT.

“If there ever was a challenge that calls for the application of collective intelligence, climate change is it,” Klein and colleagues argue in a recent paper outlining the proposed forum.

Map that argument

Klein points to Wikipedia as an example of the reach—and also the pitfalls—of online collaboration. Although Wikipedia has gained a reputation for being comprehensive and fairly accurate on some topics, entries on controversial topics often suffer from tug-of-war battles, known as "edit wars,” over the content.

To try to avoid such problems, Klein and colleagues are giving the Climate Collaboratorium a structural backbone known as an argument tree. The structure requires people to present their comments in one of four categories: issues to be addressed, options for resolving those issues, the pros in favor of various options, and the cons against them.

In this way, the debate could become self-organized, making it easier for people to see what’s been said, and whether points have been supported or rebutted. When testing the prototype, users have not been able to edit others’ entries, but in the final version, the MIT team aims to make it more open, so that anyone can edit any entry. If the researchers get the structure right, they hope that the site could operate without much top-down moderation.

There’s evidence that such an argument tree structure helps groups make more-systematic and complete evaluations of issues, although they’ve only been used with small groups of around 10 people, Klein says.

“The idea behind the project was to take this argument-mapping idea and scale it up,” Klein says. He and his colleagues think mapping may actually be more beneficial to big groups than small ones by preventing repetition of ideas and by bringing structure to large amounts of information.

The MIT team also plans to incorporate other tools so that users can rate entries, vote on the accuracy of statements, or show support for certain options. These votes could be tied back to the people who posted the information or arguments, generating a sort of reputation score for each user.

Putting it to the test

In December, Klein worked with a team at the University of Naples in Italy to test a prototype of the collaboratorium, with 200 students debating whether biofuels should be used more and, if so, which kinds would be best. They’ve got another test planned with 300 students at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, where they’ll compare a more conventional online forum and a wiki with the collaboratorium to see which generates a more coherent, reasoned debate.

“Our hypothesis is that wiki models are going to have trouble when dealing with controversial and complex topics, where there’s substantial debate and a lot of options,” Klein says.

If the collaboratorium approach demonstrates advantages over wikis, Klein and colleagues aim to launch a public version of it.

How to moderate

Researchers engaged in the public discussion about climate change say the collaboratorium idea is promising, but they’re skeptical about whether it will work.

“Having some kind of system that is interactive and updatable instead of the static IPCC reports is a good idea,” says climate modeler Gavin Schmidt at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, and a contributor to the blog, RealClimate.

“But it is extremely hard to generate respect for such endeavors, and that is by far the most challenging aspect of this proposal,” Schmidt adds.

Schmidt anticipates some kind of moderation will be necessary for the collaboratorium to work, but even with moderation, it will be hard to strike the right balance. “To be totally inclusive allows the contrarians to dominate the agenda, [while] being restrictive gives fodder for conspiracy theories,” he says.

Simon Buckingham Shum of the Open University in the UK agrees that moderation will be a major issue facing the collaboratorium. Shum, who works on tools for online collaboration, says one option could be to have “a cadre of experts who maintain a peer-reviewed layer that is the current ‘state of the debate’ view."

If they can get the details right, Shum says, “then the tool could make a big impact.”


  1. Report this comment

    Luke Lea said:

    Schmidt predicts contrarians will dominate the new forum, even as alarmists dominate the headlines in the popular press.

    Only in the body of the IPCC report itself it seems (though not in the summaries) is there balance. The historical review of climate science at the beginning of the last IPCC report was especially outstanding in this regard. So why not post that review at the head of the new forum and solicit comments pro and con? Just a thought.

  2. Report this comment

    John Bailo said:

    I will try this site out — but my jaded impression is that the Establishment sees all the dissent on the Internet and is trying to curtail it by “organizing” the discussion…

  3. Report this comment

    paul horan said:

    “How to moderate”?

    This strikes me as a tremendous question and prompts me to suggest trust in our public domain/free speech as a resource; a resource such trust enables is a resource for helping with this moderation job/task/challenge that’s needed = and let’s face it, necessity may very well be the mother of invention.

    Also, in response to Mr. Schmidt’s comments:

    ‘Having some kind of system that is interactive and updatable … is a good idea,’

    ’ … extremely hard to generate respect …’

    ’ … most challenging … ’,




    That sounds to me like an invitation to keep evolving, so here’s my RSVP = YESSS!!!!!!! I’m aiming to contribute to such endeavors. Good, green intelligence is something I imagine future generations would appreciate = BIG TIME!

  4. Report this comment

    John Mayer said:

    I see the problem: it doesn’t take long for the contrarians to come out of the woodwork, does it? If left wide open and unmoderated, those climate change deniers will soon fill the site with half-truths and reports of global warming on Pluto. Wikipedia, in general, seems to work well, but I think that may be because articles on say, stoichiometry don’t generate this rabid zeal and are generally massaged into accuracy by reasonable people willing to share knowledge.

    Why global warming generates such, umm, heated discussions I’m not sure. But I’ll speculate that most of the deniers are Libertarians desperately afraid of the possibility of immutable facts that might call for a measure of self-denial. Science-denial is far easier and much more comfortable. That’s just a hypothesis, mind you.

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