Crowd-Sourced Science: Charting academic inquiry, and new-media mania, in the Age of Big Data. By Alan Bavley. Illustrations by Zohar Lazar.
Man making research notes while looking nervously over his shoulder at a bank of television monitors, each with a talking person.
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the earth keeps warming, but it looks like we may already be over it.

So Mike O’Brien discovered when he tapped into Big Data to find out how often Americans have been discussing the environment.

O’Brien is an anthropologist, archaeologist, dean of the MU College of Arts and Science and something of a Renaissance Man. While he began his career examining ancient Native American artifacts — he’s put arrowheads through a wind tunnel to test their aerodynamics — O’Brien’s curiosity has sent him exploring widely through the social sciences. He helped develop a model for how social influences affect decision-making, explored how humankind has shaped its own evolution, and, more recently, plunged headlong into a form of informatics to measure the waxing and waning of public interest in environmental issues.

Informatics, the scientific face of the aforementioned Big Data, involves making sense of the billions of bits that our digital society collects every minute of every day — from where we shop with our credit cards and what we search for online, to which drugs our doctors prescribe and where we get those prescriptions filled.

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Michael O’Brien, professor of anthropology and dean of the College of Arts & Science at the University of Missouri, charts social media’s impact on contemporary decision making.

Researchers are using informatics to develop new and creative ways to find meaningful patterns from what might, on its surface, seem random — the progress of global pathogens, for example, or the outbreak of civil conflicts. For his model, O’Brien drew from a Google database called N-gram to find out how often certain words related to environmental issues, such as “global,” “climate,” and “biodiversity,” have appeared in books over the years.

N-gram allows anyone to do word counts from about five million of the books that Google has scanned and put online. That’s about 500 billion words covering four centuries. You can show that “groovy” was peaking in the early 1970s, right about the time that “cool” was growing cold.

O’Brien and his collaborators, including MU economist William Brock and two British anthropologists, Alex Bentley and Philip Garnett, found that most of the words on their list are, alarmingly, becoming passé among the general public. Meanwhile, their use among scientists has remained steady. “People move on to other stuff. Other things may have taken greater precedence. The words don’t stick because they don’t mean much to the public,” O’Brien says. “As scientists, we have to learn to do a better job at communicating.”

They published their study earlier this year in the online journal PLoS ONE. And then O’Brien and Bentley authored an op-ed about it in the Sunday New York Times.

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In the Times, they suggested that as “the lines between academic science and public discourse blur,” scientists may feel pressure to focus on trendy research to earn the buzz of social media. That’s a temptation scientists should, and can, resist, O’Brien says. “Scientists have to remain scientists; we say ‘stay the course.’ We can’t just give people what they want, what they think they want.”

It’s a different situation altogether for marketers with products to sell. And O’Brien, along with Brock and Bentley, has come up with a method for categorizing the ways we make decisions now that we’re in thrall to Twitter and Facebook and other social media.

“How do people make decisions in the era of Big Data? How do we get through it?” O’Brien asked. “We did the simplest little thing possible; make a map. Psychologists and economists just love it.”

“Scientists have to remain scientists; we say stay the course. We can’t just give people what they want, what they think they want.”In their 2011 book, I’ll Have What She’s Having, O’Brien, Bentley and British marketing expert Mark Earls looked at the biological, cultural, but mostly social ways that we make our choices. They drew a map of decision making with four quadrants representing greater or lesser degrees of information and social influence.

At the northern extreme of the map are decisions we make with full information about the costs and benefits of our choices; at the southern extreme are decisions made blindly. On the western fringe are decisions made without any social input, and on the eastern edge are decisions based entirely on what others are doing.

The northwest corner of the map, O’Brien says, is the realm of classical economics where self-contained individuals make well-informed choices to buy and sell. The other extreme is at the southeast, where people make decisions without any knowledge other than that other people are doing something, for instance, going to a restaurant, putting the menu aside, looking around at the other tables and telling the waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

A lot of our decisions are made in the northeast quadrant, where we combine good information with social influences. Traditions and social hierarchies with presumably knowledgeable opinion leaders play important roles here.

But in the Age of Social Media, with a consumer culture that offers countless choices of products in every category, there appears to be a growing tendency for us to act in the more anarchic southeast, where trends can turn over quickly or hang around for a long time. O’Brien points to Hanes, the manufacturer of highly popular lines of underwear. For years, the company has been paying basketball star Michael Jordan millions of dollars to appear in its television commercials.

But does Jordan’s endorsement actually persuade people to buy a particular brand of underwear?

“We don’t think ‘influentials’ make much difference. Hanes didn’t sell underwear because of Michael Jordan.”

Rather, O’Brien says, we see what other people are buying and move as a herd. “If I’m looking for a cell phone, am I going to go to a store and see who buys what, or wait for a star basketball player to buy one? Why does Hanes sell? People talk about them. ‘All my friends are wearing them. I’ve got to wear them.’”

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The loosening hold of tradition can be seen in the rapid turnover in popular baby names and breeds of dogs. With social media, pop culture fads go viral. Even the most unlikely things, such as the song “Gangnam Style” by the South Korean performer Psy, can become an international sensation.

“Go into a church choir and there are better singers than those with hit songs,” O’Brien says. “Why does something work? It’s little things that get stuck in your mind.”

O’Brien, Bentley and Brock have put together a more scholarly discussion of their map of decision making in a recent issue of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, the highest-impact journal in its field. The article suggests ways other researchers can use the model to test their own hypotheses.

O’Brien’s academic career started far from the worlds of marketing and Big Data with something far more prosaic: arrowheads. The lanky Texan used to collect them as a youth, finding them in fields in the central part of the state. He majored in anthropology at Rice University, graduating in 1972. Five years later, he received his PhD from the University of Texas.

O’Brien’s father, a chemical engineer with Dow Chemical, was his biggest supporter. He helped him with college calculus and continued advising him through his career, until his death in 2002. “He was the best editor anyone ever had. Every night he worked on my manuscripts,” O’Brien says. “He read every book I wrote, every paper and went through them with a fine-tooth comb.”

O’Brien’s first job as an anthropologist took him to eastern Missouri, not far from Hannibal, to excavate Native American artifacts before a dam being built on the Salt River inundated the area to create Mark Twain Lake.

Scientist making marks and lines on a globe.After that project was completed in 1980, he landed a position on the MU faculty.

O’Brien continued to study Native American artifacts, the stone projectile points used first on weapons resembling darts, and by about 600 C.E., on arrows. But classifying these objects by their function, as archeologists always had, was becoming less satisfying to him.

“Quite frankly, it was boring. It wasn’t intellectually challenging.”

O’Brien wanted to know whether projectile points changed randomly over the centuries, or if they became better suited to the work they were intended to perform. In terms of evolutionary theory, were the changes a matter of drift or natural selection?

“We know they changed, but did a point drift along and go out of favor, or was there selection — was one technology more successful than another? We had to determine performance characteristics of tools, how they worked in the environment, how the projectile points were related.”

Working with experts in biology, psychology and other fields, O’Brien was able to find evidence that tools did indeed evolve. It was even possible to create branching trees — identical to those showing evolutionary relationships among animals — of projectile points.

“It’s a common thing now (in anthropology), but 20 years ago nobody did it. My lab was really the first,” O’Brien says.

O’Brien’s interests began to take on their present eclecticism following what turned out to be a revelatory meeting at University College London nearly a dozen years ago. There, he met an international group of archeologists and anthropologists.

O’Brien had never felt restricted by his discipline, but hearing about what these researchers were doing – reconstructing ancient languages, for example – opened his eyes to new possibilities. “Holy cow. There’s this whole world out there.”

O’Brien has maintained his international connections. He draws many of his research collaborators now from Great Britain. He also helps organize meetings at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research near Vienna.

“The best thing in life is to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. I have very smart collaborators,” he says.

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One recent collaboration has been with Kevin Laland of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. They have been examining how people, by their actions and the ways they change their environment, spur their own physical evolution.

People create environmental “niches,” just as beavers do when they build dams. But our niches are products of our cultures, not of instinct. That can be seen dramatically in the way our development of agriculture just 12,000 years ago has already changed our genetic inheritance.

For example, most people begin to lose the ability to digest lactose, the sugar found in milk, in childhood, around the time they would be weaned from breast milk. But in regions such as northern Europe, which has a history of dairy farming that goes back thousands of years, 95 percent or more of the population retains the ability to digest milk into adulthood.

In an article they published in the journal Current Anthropology, O’Brien and Laland argue that it wasn’t that certain groups of people developed dairy farming because they happened to be good at tolerating lactose. On the contrary, it was dairy farming that came first; lactose tolerance followed. The evidence shows that the gene conferring the ability to digest milk became more common where the descendents of milk drinkers were expected to drink milk. Those who could benefit from milk’s nutrition were more likely to thrive and pass on that trait. It was the prevailing culture that led to evolutionary change.

Agriculture also led more indirectly to evolution in western Africa, where certain groups cleared forests over several thousand years in order to grow yams and other crops. With the trees gone, the region’s heavy rains left pools of water where mosquitoes flourished. The mosquitoes are hosts to the parasite that causes malaria, a disease that destroys red blood cells.

Sickle-shaped blood cells confer some protection against malaria. And over generations, natural selection made the trait common. But sickle cells also can block small blood vessels. When Africans were sold into slavery in North America, where malaria wasn’t as great a threat, sickle cells lost their advantage and became a disease. “We create feedback loops,” O’Brien says.

O’Brien doesn’t think the final chapter of the malaria story has been written yet. “If I were a mosquito, I would be scared to death,” he says. Through their foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates are dedicating $1.75 billion dollars toward the eradication of malaria. “They are the big players in the malaria transmission niche. Two people can make a difference in evolution.”

Until he was appointed dean in 2006, O’Brien was regularly teaching two courses per year. Now, he teaches less, but he publishes prolifically. He does it, he says, out of intellectual curiosity but also to set an example for the 500 faculty and 28 departments he oversees: “If I can do it, so can you.”

“I think it builds credibility with the faculty. You’re not just an administrator hired to count beans. They can see he does the same things we do.” And there’s a nagging feeling, as well. “In academia, it’s ‘What have you done for me lately?’ and that haunts me.”

What’s next for the anthropologist with the restless mind and insatiable curiosity? “I don’t know,” O’Brien says. “I’ll just wait until tomorrow’s mail comes with an offer to collaborate on something interesting”

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