Hypothes.is could become a crucial tool for skeptics

I’ve been thinking a long time about the idea of tools that could help people be more skeptical about information they encounter. It is one of the core goals of this blog.

I’ve always thought that the endpoint of this quest would be some sort of tool you could point at any piece of information and have it tell you whether it was true or false. It would be a computerized “skeptic-in-a-box” so to speak. I’ve done a bit of research on what it would take to build it. I’ve always thought that crowdsourcing and a reputation system to weight contributions by value would both figure prominently in any successful design.

Today I’m simultaneously very excited and just a little bit angry. Excited because I just got word that a project has been launched to build something very similar to my skeptic-in-a-box. (I’m angry only because it’s not my personal project.) But if this thing comes anywhere close to achieving its ambitious goals, I can definitely get over the angry part. It aims to go way beyond what I had in mind.

When Hypothes.is launches next year, it could be the most important piece of software ever created for applied skepticism. More details after the jump.

The Problem

I hardly need explain the problem space for skeptics. There is a huge amount of misinformation out there. People believe in pseudoscience, the paranormal and more. They make bad decisions based on these beliefs that have very bad consequences. The job of scientific skepticism is to point out the errors in the information underlying these belief systems, and help people learn to find their way away from them.

But the platforms (web sites, blogs) on which these ideas are espoused are often biased. If you go to a site devoted to homeopathy and try to explain how science says it is impossible, you often get shouted down, banned or worse. Just in the last week Peter Bowditch was banned once again from posting reasonable info about the science of vaccines to a mailing list set up by a notorious anti-vaccine lobbyist.

And so we skeptics spend much of our time posting on our own blogs and sites, where many of the people we need to reach never visit. One of the basic tenets of the presentation on which this blog is based is that posting on “neutral” sites, where both believers and skeptics congregate, is a better long-term strategy for skeptical outreach. In other words, don’t start a skeptic blog or post on that ghost-hunter site – go to YouTube or Facebook or Twitter and post there. You’re more likely to reach someone who needs you.

Hypothes.is might change that equation a bit.

Hypothes.is intends to peer-review the Internet

The Hypothes.is team is approaching it from a broader perspective, beyond that of scientific skepticism. They want to peer review any fact that appears anywhere on the web, on any site.

Here’s the slick introductory video, which does a good job of explaining it:

There are several key elements that should make this very attractive to skeptics. First is that it will operate without the cooperation or approval of the target sites. That should avoid the banning problem.

Second is that through browser plug-ins and other technology, the comments will appear in-context, right where the erroneous information is found. That will help outreach, insofar as the viewers built by hypothes.is are widely adopted.

Third, and most critical in my thinking, there will be an extensive reputation system to qualify and rank comments based on the expertise of the commenter. The lack of this was part of what doomed an earlier project called Dispute Finder. I thought for a while that it would evolve into the tool skeptics needed, but very quickly the data in that tool was awash in conspiracy theories and other nonsense, with no way provided to sort by quality.

Of course, the hypothes.is software hasn’t been built yet, so it remains to be seen if the hypothes.is team can avoid the same pitfalls. From the video above and the presentation below, they do seem to be well aware of the problems in maintaining content quality in a product like this.

Here’s a slide deck that presents it in more detail. It parallels some of what is in the video, but fleshes it out more:

Hypothes.is is launching as a non-profit. That may help insulate them from accusations of ulterior motives. (“Did my scathing critique get moderated down because the owner of that site is an investor in the company?”) But of course it poses its own problems of funding. They are running a Kickstarter project to get the initial funding to build it.

Aside from the money, they are going to need the support of a large number of domain experts who are willing to take the time to contribute to the system. That means you, skeptics. We need to get ready to spend time entering stuff into this. I hope that sometime next year after it is launched, I can do an updated version of my infamous “don’t start a blog” presentation that lists hypothes.is as the #1 thing skeptics should spend their time on while online.

Action Items

The software doesn’t exist yet. But there are things you can do to support it which I encourage:

  • Register at hypothes.is to reserve your username & show your support.
  • Follow @hypothes_is on Twitter and talk it up.
  • If you can, consider donating to the Kickstarter project to fund it. They need to raise $100K by November 14th, they are over 1/3 of the way there as I write this.

Let’s all support this project and help it succeed. We need it, and the Internet needs it.

Thanks to Leo Lincourt for pointing out an article about this.

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About Tim Farley
Focused on online misinformation, Tim Farley is a software engineer, computer security expert and scientific skeptic who created the site What's The Harm. He is a Past Fellow of the James Randi Educational Foundation.

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