20 September 2023

Would it be possible to launch worldwide surveys to determine scientific consensus on a particular issue? If so, could this be a cure for disinformation and conspiracy theories? Linköping University has joined a project to test this.

Professor Harald Wiltsche outside Studenthuset at Campus Valla in Linköping.
Magnus Johansson

Do you think that the COVID-19 pandemic was caused by a virus?

This question was sent via email to just over 20,000 scientists worldwide in May this year. But this was only an initial technology test in preparation for the project named The Institute for Ascertaining Scientific Consensus (IASC).

The initiative was taken by science philosopher Peter Vickers at Durham University in England, who aims to create a way to quickly measure the scientific community’s view on important current issues by building a network of researchers worldwide.

A tool for all

Linköping University was the first Swedish university to join the network, and the coordinator at LiU is Professor Harald Wiltsche in the Department of Culture and Society. He came into contact with this project via a former student. The role of research in society is a subject close to his heart.

“The network will be a useful tool for policymakers, especially given the proven ability of consensus announcements to influence opinions and actions. It will also serve to inform laypersons, fighting against ‘fake news’ and misinformation. In other cases, it will serve to illuminate where experts in different countries, or different parts of the world, see things differently,” says Harald Wiltsche.

Uppsala and Stockholm have now also joined the project, which has coordinators at more than 70 institutions in six continents. The project is financed by Durham University and, if successful, is intended to become a permanent operation. The idea is that anyone can then submit proposals for questions to be put to the research network.

In the email surveys, the scientists will be asked to say how much they agree or disagree with a particular statement. It is the coordinators’ task to forward the questions to the relevant experts.

“The time to read the email and respond will be less than two minutes. In this way the response rate will be very high, compared with the usual scientific opinion surveys. The responses will be instantly and anonymously recorded in a database, and the strength of consensus calculated,” says Harald Wiltsche.

Varying degrees of consensus

But what does it actually take to be able to say that there is consensus among the scientific community? The initiator, Peter Vickers, replies by email:

“I think it is wrong to ask whether or not there is a consensus. Consensus is a matter of degree. The word 'consensus' can't possibly mean 100% unanimous, because this will never happen. In the pilot project, we only achieved 95% agreement for the statement Science has put it beyond reasonable doubt that COVID-19 is caused by a virus."

Although the scientific community has welcomed this project, there are of course people who have objections. Some fear that the project risks countering its purpose and instead increase people’s suspicion of science.

“Fair point, there is danger of "steamrolling” laypeople with - typically very unintuitive - science. However, IASC is just one side of the coin, better science education and better science-to-public work is the other. We scientists need to get better to not only talk about facts but also how we generate them,” says LiU’s coordinator Harald Wiltsche.

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