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 Rentokil.com 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!

How Social Networking Has Changed Our Lives

How Social Networking Has Changed Our Lives

This was originally published in the Imperial Felix Paper

December 23, 2006 at 20:41, “Ben has joined Facebook”. It was a simple page, no friends, no photos and a fake birth date to get around the age restrictions. If you had of told me then that this, and other social networking sites, would be the cornerstone of social interaction for our generation I happily admit I probably wouldn’t have believed you. But, whilst this development may be surprising I believe that it has been positive.

There have been many examples of where social networking has brought happiness to lives and in some cases saved them! Phillip Pain is a student at Southampton University who, whilst on a year out in Mexico, fell from the 7th floor of a hotel. Phillip needed several life saving operations however, the hospital did not have enough O negative blood for the operations to do ahead. His friends back in the UK made Facebook groups calling for people to help out. After 24 hours thousands of people had joined to spread the word. Then amazingly, people started turning up at the hospital to offer their blood and eventually there was enough for the operations.

Whilst social networking may not have such a drastic effect on the lives of most of us, its impact is undeniable. Each service has adapted to fill a niche, aiding and assisting normal forms of social interaction. LinkedIn is great for business, MySpace/last.fm for music, twitter for journalism with Facebook a ‘jack-of-all-trades’ patriarchal figure. Each of these enhances how we interact each other in different ways, there are bands I wouldn’t have heard of if not for last.fm, news stories I wouldn’t have heard if not for twitter and events I wouldn’t have attended if not for Facebook.

‘The Facebook generation’ we have been called, compulsive tweeters, a mass of faceless online youths never leaving their computers. Whilst like anything there are those who take social networking too far, it is a fantastic tool if used correctly. It can connect you to anyone anywhere in the world, reunite lost friends and help to maintain long distance friendships that might otherwise disintegrate.

The true global potential of the medium is perfectly demonstrated by the recent story of Ashley Kerekes (aka @theashes), a 20 something American nanny and twitter user. She woke up one day to find that a large number of people had sent her messages on twitter regarding the ashes tour. Having no idea about cricket she responded to the people who were talking to here, initially with annoyance but this then developed into full conversations. Soon she had thousands of followers and through before the power of social networking was flown out to Australia to watch the ashes for real.

The social media revolution has without a doubt changed the way we interact with each other and the wider world. It has provided a new easy way to communicate and for those who want it, a channel through which your voice has the potential to be heard by millions.