Are you tweeting at me?! – Is Twitter a good platform for Scientific Debate?

Are you tweeting at me?! – Is Twitter a good platform for Scientific Debate?

This post was originally written for the Refractive Index blog:

Image: Flickr/Shovelling Son

As well as allowing you to see what celebrities have for breakfast, Twitter has provided a new platform for discussion, debate and disagreement. But does this open up scientific and political processes to the public, or is it nothing more than your typical internet argy-bargy?

It seems that in the extended family of science every day brings a Christmas Day-like feud: squabbling over food or a useless sewing kit from a cracker. The chaotic tangle of utterances that form Twitter can make these arguments hard to follow. Broadly speaking, however, they can be sorted into three distinct categories…

From one authority to another

A frequent occurrence on Twitter is one notable opinion former or expert engaging with another about their views on scientific findings. A recent example of this is the heated online debate between influential writers David Allen Green (lawyer, blogger and journalist) and James Delingpole (Telegraph Columnist). It all began when Allen Green posted:

That sounds like a relatively straightforward question, which one would expect Delingpole to be asked fairly frequently. So you would expect a sincere answer, right? Well, you would be wrong:

You have to question why Delingpole would respond in this manner (especially considering that after their brief spat Delingpole had to ask another user who Allen Green was). This discussion did not overtly open up any debate over scientific evidence, but it did give an insight into the mentality of the two individuals. Allen Green came across as level-headed and considered, while Delingpole seemed brash and confrontational. The exchange unlikely changed anyone’s opinion of the existence of anthropogenic global warming or the effectiveness of homeopathy. But this kind of interaction reveals much to us about the individuals who we trust for information. I would hope this discourse in particular would have led a few of Delingpole’s followers to question his Twitter bio of “I am lovely and right about everything”!

Right of response

Another common use of Twitter is in right of reply. It gives those who feel wronged or want to refute comments in traditional media an immediate platform through which to put forward their case. An example of this is Professor Brian Cox‘s response to an article written in The Times bySarah Vine (Education Minister Michael Gove’s wife).  In her article, Vine argued that Cox andWonders of the Universe sought to ‘sex up’ the scientific content, and that science should be presented by individuals who are “nutty” and “dishevelled”. Cox very quickly commented on the article, saying:

He proceeded to have a bit of a “rant”, criticising her for saying that her comments did not help diversity in science or its popularity. Following on from this, they had, as Cox described it, “a civilised disagreement, if adorned with colourful rhetoric”. This concluded with Cox conceding that it was positive they were both talking about “science and its wider place in culture”, while Vine apologised to Cox and anyone else offended.

This kind of debate is very valuable, not just for the individual afforded the immediate right of response, but also for the audience. Witnessing such discussions brings about greater public interaction and promotes discussion of the topic.

Highlighting unknown issues

Twitter is no doubt a great tool for discovering information that you would otherwise never hear about. It also enables initially tiny issues the opportunity to spread around the world.

The best example of this I have come across is the Ben Goldacre vs. Rentokil debacle that occurred in March 2010. Following the publication of articles based on data that appeared questionable, Goldacre attempted to contact Rentokil regarding how they came up with their figures. However, after not receiving a response he took to Twitter, saying:

Both the official Rentokil account and the manager of tweeted back (after some prodding). However, after still failing to supply the original emails sent to journalists containing the data, a cascade followed. More and more users took up the cause, including @JackofKent (an alias of David Allen Green) who said: “Now we ALL want to see those emails”. Eventually, Rentokil relented and revealed the ‘bad science’ behind the data.

This kind of interaction demonstrates how big an impact the ‘Twitterverse’ can have on public understanding of science. Ben Goldacre confronting Rentokil in such a public arena forced them to respond and revealed a truth that could have remained buried.

Of course, Twitter is not the ideal medium for hosting a scientific debate: It can be hard to follow, users can delete their tweets and there is a lot of surrounding chatter. But in the internet age, where speed is everything, it is a valuable tool for those wanting to debate and/or observe. And if you disagree, come find me on Twitter and we’ll have a good argument about it!