Friday, May 4, 2018

NASA's Online "Voting" Decision For Its Research Challenge Contest Was Ill Considered

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The three African-American teens (top) who designed and presented a science project for a NASA contest have been compared to the scientists who used their math ability to get John Glenn into orbit and portrayed in the film 'Hidden Figures'

India Skinner, Mikayla Sharrieff, and Bria Snell, all 17-years-old (shown in the top image from L-R) may eventually achieve the scientific renown of the NASA scientists Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan - who helped the agency put John Glenn into orbit in 1962. Indeed, one of the talented teens tried to celebrate their achievements, texting, "Hidden figures in the making," referencing the hit 2016 movie.

The three Washington D.C.-area high school students entered a competition: The  NASA -Goddard Optimus Prime Spinoff Promotion and Research Challenge., with a project that presented a way to purify lead-contaminated water in drinking fountains.  The trio became the only all-black, female team to be named as finalists in the contest for which there is a grand prize trip to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. and a $4,000 stipend, according to the contest's website..

However, instead of being celebrated for being the only all-black team to make the finals, the trio were bombarded with racist comments by anonymous online trolls on the website 4chan, according to The Washington Post.   For those who may not be aware, 4chan is an enclave in the dark recesses (e.g. bottom feeders)  of the web,  notorious for raids on other websites and for being a haven for white supremacists. These wretches have nothing better to do than to spawn chaos and hate, but why be surprised?

I have referenced the activities of the 4chan knuckle draggers and wannabe Nazis before, especially in terms of their helping to spread the idiotic conspiracy theory that the Parkland FL shooting survivors were "trained actors" - as they took their anti -assault rifle message to the public and organized mass protests.  I noted that clearly because these nitwit trolls were unable to be as articulate at the students' age - they refused to believe David Hogg, Emma Gonzalez, Cameron Kasky et al were doing it on their own.

In the current episode, users on the site organized a campaign to vote against the three Banneker High School teenagers, the Post reports, including urging users to download software to interfere with voting. NASA officials then canceled the voting, stating that an attempt had been made to change the final vote totals.

The bottom line, however, is the savage racist attacks on the three girls should never have happened. The mistake made was allowing the assorted projects to be "voted on" in a public social media forum online, as opposed to NASA scientists themselves doing the damned judging on scientific merit.  It would about be like putting up a scientific paper online to be rated in quality by a general public, most of whom have never taken a college physics or chemistry course.

The error appeared to have been expeditiously recognized given the official statement from NASA:
On Sunday, April 29, hackers attempted to change the vote totals in the NASA OPSPARC Challenge, so managers of the challenge decided to end public voting to protect the integrity of the results. The challenge team has an accurate record of the voting results prior to the attempted disruption.”
Later adding:

"Some members of the general public had used social media not to encourage students but to attack a particular student team based on their race and encouraged others to disrupt the contest and manipulate the vote, and the attempt to manipulate the vote occurred shortly after those posts,"

This in fact referenced ("some members of the general public")  the  proto Nazi mutts at 4chan trying to hack and manipulate the vote because they believed the girls didn't merit being finalists. See e.g. 

Fortunately, NASA culled the voting results before the attempted manipulations by the 4chan white nationalists occurred. However, once again, online voting should never have been invoked for the assessment of project quality.. (In like manner, the status of Pluto should never have been voted on in an IAU meeting).

Science project quality needs to be judged on its scientific merits not on a public vote when most of the public  (even the segment having the best intentions)  may only have impressions and subjective feelings to go by, and lack any actual scientific insights or knowledge.

Hopefully, other agencies or sponsors of student science projects will not repeat this daft mistake.

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