Safety in Numbers: Iconoclastic Monikers and the Wisdom of Crowds

Boaty McBoatface


The NERC’s new research vessel and its flotilla of supporters strike a blow to the Natural Environment Research Council – and Aristotle…

The wisdom of crowds has always been an intriguing phenomenon. Aristotle’s 4th Century BC theory that the collective insight from a group of individuals can be as accurate as that of a single expert is a staple in market research, allowing researchers to rely on the ability of a small sample to accurately represent the opinions and beliefs of a wider population.

However – as has been well documented recently – the “wisdom” component of this theory has been put to the test in recent weeks following the successful campaign to name the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)’s newest £200 million polar research vessel RRS Boaty McBoatface.

Of the top 300 entries published on NameOurShip, Boaty McBoatface received 124,109 votes, accounting for a third of all votes and receiving more than three and a half times more votes than second place RRS Poppy-Mai (39,886 votes). One could argue that such a strong sample could credibly be viewed as the unequivocal voice of a nation; indeed, the title of this blog – Safety in Numbers – is as much an allusion to the dependability of large-scale research as it is the reliability of statistics.

However, the Twittersphere has proved countless times – it is not a platform for reverence, and inevitably RRS Boaty McBoatface wasn’t alone as a comedy entry. It was joined in the top 10 by RRS It’s Bloody Cold Here (10,679 votes), RRS Usain Boat (8,710 votes), RRS Boatimus Prime (8,365 votes) and RRS I Like Big Boats & I Cannot Lie (6,452 votes).

Even at the bottom end of the list the suggestions were focused more on puns than pomp: RRS Princess Elsa (of ‘Frozen’ fame) got more votes with 63 than Princess Charlotte (of ‘fourth in line to the throne’ fame) with 60 – on the basis that the former “knows how to deal with ice”.

So, with numerous sources implying that the NERC will overrule the vote, are they right to withdraw their invitation to the public to name their newest vessel? One could assume that this result was not necessarily a nationally representative sample, given the fact that the poll was conducted online and propagated on various social media channels to amass a cult following in the weeks leading up to the close of voting, but this was not something they would have been unaware of when they launched the campaign in March – complete with the hashtag #nameourship.

Most importantly when surveying any sample, it is important to know just whom you’re speaking to – and how to incentivise them. In this case, the sample (young adults with a social media presence) saw the incentive as a chance to “win at Twitter” as opposed to the prestige of naming a £200m research vessel.

With the impact of social media, this outcome was hardly surprising. Even the wisdom of crowds has been disproven in some circumstances – namely when “even mild social influence can undermine the wisdom of crowd effect in simple estimation tasks”. Essentially – it would appear that as much as the Great British public may love polar explorer Henry Worsley (15,774 votes) or national treasure David Attenborough (11,023 votes), they love an iconoclastic pun more.

So, what did the NERC learn from this experience? Its primary goal of creating a buzz around an otherwise inaccessible subject was certainly achieved beyond even their own expectations. But perhaps they misgauged their sample’s attitude to taking such a survey. No matter what Boaty McBoatface is ultimately baptised as, the publicity it has gained over the past few months won’t be forgotten – and shouldn’t hurt the NERC’s cause in future.

Either way, it could have been worse; according to boat name indexing website 10,000 Boat Names, the top three names for sailboats – from a database of more than 26,000 (predominantly US-based) records – are Second Wind, Serenity and Wind Dancer. With this in mind, perhaps the Great British public’s taste (and sense of humour) – isn’t so bad.

And what does this tale of iconoclasm and social media comedians teach us from a research point of view? Whilst having a high number of respondents may make a study sound authoritative, it’s always worth looking under the surface to see how the panel is composed, their credentials and what their motivation is.

Chris is the Head of Research at Citigate Dewe Rogerson. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Image courtesy of Facebook

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