15,000 and counting: Online platform answers questions big and small

Summary

Launched eight years ago, Ik heb een vraag puts scientific experts in charge of solving the most puzzling of questions

Nothing out of the question

Wikipedia, the largest and most popular online encyclopaedia, is the embodiment of the “wisdom of the crowds” principle, or the value of collective opinion over that of a single expert. When you’re aware of its strengths and weaknesses, the platform, and its 40-something million entries, can prove to be a true gold mine of information.

But if you’re looking for answers to less obvious questions, like “Does it make sense to still believe in the existence of the Germanic gods?” or “What would happen if Pinocchio said ‘My nose will grow now’?”, the chances are Wikipedia won’t be of much use. What you’d need is a resource based not on artificial intelligence and algorithms but on good old-fashioned academic expertise.

In 2008, the Brussels-based Royal Belgian Institute for Natural Sciences launched Ik heb een vraag (I Have a Question), an online platform run by more than 1,000 volunteers from Flemish universities, colleges and research institutes. Anyone can submit a question to the website, and someone will respond.

“After we receive a question, the first step is filtering it,” says Bart Coenen, who supervises the platform and acts as a gatekeeper. “I select the questions and assign them to a corresponding scientific discipline. Our system then automatically sends the questions to the volunteers who are experts in the area. Whoever clicks first gets to write the answer.”

Volcanic eruptions

The project, which aims to make scientific expertise easily accessible, has proven to be a success. Last month, Ik heb een vraag solved its 15,000th question. The milestone came from a 14-year-old called Brit who was wondering about the process of turning lava into rock. The answer came from Sam Poppe, a volcanologist from the Free University of Brussels (VUB), who described the entire cycle of how magma turns into lava during a volcanic eruption.

“Before giving the answer, we determine the age and education level of each questioner,” says Poppe. “We also try to provide an answer that’s both extensive and complete, so that it can be understood without the question.”

Who are the typical questioners? “We see people of all ages and backgrounds,” says Coenen. “There are children who are very curious about the world around them, and there are adults who wonder about how something is put together. In fact, two of my friends were debating a question once, and Ik heb een vraag had to determine who was right.”

While Coenen lets even some of the strangest questions through, not all make the cut. “It’s hard to judge which questions are weird and which are not. If a question doesn’t get through, it’s likely because there is nothing scientific about it.”

But science, Coenen admits, is always a work in progress. “When it’s difficult to deal with a specific question, because science isn’t ready to answer it just yet, we say so clearly. Our experts will then sketch possible hypotheses and ways of reasoning, and the current state of research.”

Photo: Ingimage