Wikipedia and the Wisdom of Polarized Crowds

A lesson in how to break out of filter bubbles.

By Brian Gallagher | NAUTILUS

In 2013, James Evans, a University of Chicago sociologist and computational scientist, launched a study to see if science forged a bridge across the political divide. Did conservatives and liberals at least agree on biology and physics and economics? Short answer: No. “We found more polarization than we expected,” Evans told me recently. People were even more polarized over science than sports teams. At the outset, Evans said, “I was hoping to find that science was like a Switzerland. When we have problems, we can appeal to science as a neutral arbiter to produce a solution, or pathway to a solution. That wasn’t the case at all.”

Evans started his study on Amazon. You know the heading that says, “Customers who bought this item also bought”? Evans and his colleagues analyzed the top 100 items in this list for two “seed” books: Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father and Mitt Romney’s No Apology. They repeated this process for each book in the top-100 list until they ran out of new titles. “The resulting ‘snowball sample,’ ” Evans and company wrote in their 2017 Nature Human Behaviour paper, “contained virtually all books in the largest strongly connected component in Amazon’s directed co-purchase network,” or 1,303,504 unique titles.

After performing a co-purchase network analysis—the sort used to study co-citation and co-author networks—on this dataset, the scholars concluded that political ideology guided people to science books. With some curious results. Liberal readers preferred basic science (physics, astronomy, zoology), while conservatives went for applied and commercial science (criminology, medicine, geophysics).

“It seems like conservatives are happy to draw on science associated with economic growth—that’s what they want from science,” Evans said. “Science is more like Star Trek for liberals: traveling through worlds, searching for new meanings, searching for yourself.” Science turned out to be “a huge example of confirmation bias,” Evans said. “You expect something to be true, you want it to be true, you read books that affirm and confirm those truths.”

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