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!

The Science Network: Bloopers

The Science Network: Bloopers

Yesterday I posted up mine, Katya and Polly’s science parody of the social network. Today, I give you the treat of our bloopers reel.

Here are the blogs of some of fellow science communication students who featured in the film:

David Roberston – Christy – Aka the crazy boyfriend

George Wigmore – Divian Narendra – Aka freind of twins

Charlie Harvey – Winklevi Number 1

Camila Ruz – Winklevi Number 2

Thea Cunningham – Member of administrative board

Chloe McIvor – Member of administrative board

Anna Perman – Film board clapper operator

James Pope – Man at computer

And also

Lizzie Crouch – Who wasnt in the film but has helped promote it!

Confessions of a bad blogger

Confessions of a bad blogger

Over the past 2 weeks I haven’t been particularly great at getting any proper writing done for this blog. This is due to being involved in a very time consuming project as part of my MSc. But, it is now nearing completion and will very shortly be broadcast to the world. But, in the meantime, here is a little sneaky (not so subtle) clue  as to what it is:


Coming soon....

I will soon get back to my regular writings!

Mirror, Mirror on my Facebook Wall: Facebook Shown to Boost Self-Esteem

Mirror, Mirror on my Facebook Wall: Facebook Shown to Boost Self-Esteem

Is my profile picture the fairest of them all? As a phenomena Facebook is still fairly new and its impact sociologically and psychologically remains to be completely understood. However, a new study has shone a little bit of light into this still cloudy area, claiming that looking at your Facebook profile page boosts your self-esteem.

The study was carried out by Amy Gonzales and Jeffrey Hancock of Cornell University. Previous research indicated internet use promotes depression, loneliness and to decreased social skills. However, the effect of Facebook exposure on general self-esteem had not been explored.

The participants were told that the study was designed to examine “people’s attitudes about themselves after exploring different Internet sites” and were separated into three groups. An online group, an offline group and an offline control group.

The online control group were asked to go onto their Facebook page and were given no instruction on whether or not they were allowed to change their page. After three minutes the researchers returned with a questionnaire. In the offline group a mirror was placed infront of the computer screen to act as an offline “self awareness stimulator” and were told they could not move it, due to it being “part of another experiment”. After three minutes they were given a questionnaire. The offline control group were placed in the same cubicle without the mirror and without the screen turned on.

Self-esteem was measure using the Rosenburg Self-Esteem scale and used to test several hypotheses. The hypotheses were as follows:

  1. Exposure to one’s Facebook site will have a more negative effect on self-esteem than traditional objective self-awareness stimuli
  2. Exposure to one’s Facebook site will have a more positive effect on self-esteem than a control condition or a traditional self-awareness stimuli
  3.  Participants who exclusively examine only their own profile will report higher self-esteem than participants who view other profiles in addition to their own profiles
  4.  Participants who make changes to their profile during the experiment will have higher self-esteem than participants who do not

Contrast analyses were undertaken that showed that there was a significant link between the Facebook views and an increase in self-esteem. When looking at the effect of individuals changing their Facebook pages the researchers declared that “participants who changed their profile during the study reported higher self-esteem than those who did not change their profile”.

But what does this tell us, about us? The results follow the Walther’s Hyperpersonal model, suggesting that the process of selective self-presentation of ourselves on Facebook influences our impressions of ourselves, in this instance boosting self-esteem. In contrast to this when presented with a non-edited view (i.e. mirror) self-esteem is decreased.

There are limitations in this study that need to be taken into account. The study did not normalise for the number and quality of friendships on Facebook. This is a factor that obviously could play a role in how someone interacts with the site. 

So, next time I am on Facebook when I probably should be working I will tell myself, don’t worry, it’s good for me…and will avoid looking in the mirror!

Gonzales AL, & Hancock JT (2011). Mirror, Mirror on my Facebook Wall: Effects of Exposure to Facebook on Self-Esteem. Cyberpsychology, behavior and social networking, 14 (1-2), 79-83 PMID: 21329447