First of all, kudos to Iain Couzin and his team at Princeton for an elegant bit of research using shiner fish to validate computer models exploring the effect of the uninformed population on consensus when opposing minority interests threaten to doom decision making.
But more importantly: if you have been asking yourself how it is possible that humankind still does nothing to curb global warming in the face of massing, irrefutable evidence on the urgency of action, this research might point to the answer.
Couzin first reported results from computer models in the journal Nature in 2005, and has continued the development of these models since then. But the models produced counterintuitive results. "The classic view is that uninformed or uncommitted individuals may allow extreme views to proliferate. We found that might not be the case," Couzin notes.
Now Couzin has data from the real world that support the virtual world projected by the models. The data comes from tests of shiner fish allowed to enter a pool with a yellow and a blue target. Shiners naturally associate yellow with food. But Couzin's team trained groups of shiner fish to associate the blue target with food.
The tests confirmed the computer predictions: when a minority of yellow-oriented shiners and a majority of blue-trained shiners entered the pool, the group swam to the yellow target -- following the more strongly opinionated minority. But as scientists introduced groups of indifferent shiners, the group behavior changed: they swam mostly towards the blue target.
As the uninformed group grew to completely dominate over the numbers of blue or yellow target aficionados, another interesting thing happened: consensus broke down altogether. In what the scientists describe as a type of "noise" overriding either the blue or the yellow signal, the fish failed to school towards either target.
This research has amazing implications for everything from the functioning of democracy to how marketers swing public opinion. But it seems like a bit of an aha! moment for anyone mystified at our inability to make progress on important issues such as climate change.
It could be that we are at the point where the uninformed promote a trend toward the majority "do-nothin', at least for now" opinion in spite of the voices of the informed minority. Or worse: we could have so many uninformed amongst us that consensus on action has become unobtainable, leaving vocal minorities for and against action separated from their goals by a directionless mass.
Either way, there is only one solution. We need more informed people, people who understand what the science means, and are ready to do something about it.