Zombie stats and hair-trigger outrage: reflections of a Twitter addict

3 January 2013 by Tom Webb, posted in Uncategorized

It seems somehow odd to come over all reflective about Twitter, that most impulsive of online communication channels. But over the year or so that I’ve been using it as a kind of super-effective personalised newsfeed, several cautionary tales have played out in my Twitter feed, which I have here distilled into two key lessons. First: distrust numbers, even – especially – those whose implications sit well with your worldview. And second, reign in your outrage: issues are almost certainly more complicated than 140 characters allow.

Twitter, by its very nature, gives you soundbites. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a link to something more substantial, but it is so very easy to retweet something that appeals to your sense of how the world works without scrutinising the numbers. My favourite example (not least because it got me onto BBC R4’s More or Less!) is the ludicrous ‘100 Cod in the North Sea’ story that I blogged about last year. Now it takes just a moment’s thought, if that, to realise that this number is very very wrong (by a factor of at least several hundreds of thousands, in fact). But it played so nicely into the ‘overfishing is devastating our seas’ narrative that many people declined to give it that moment, and unthinkingly retweeted.

This is just one example, but my Twitter feed is full of them. I’m interested in the natural environment, and the impacts that we are having upon it, so I follow a range of environmental groups who tend, for instance, to jump immediately on numbers making renewable energy look especially attractive. Now climate change terrifies me, and I am fully behind the idea that we need to decarbonise the economy as a matter of some urgency. But I also agree wholeheartedly with David McKay who, discussing the favourable carbon footprint on nuclear power in his (essential, free) Without the Hot Air, states “I’m not trying to be pro-nuclear. I’m just pro-arithmetic”. Fortunately, the vigilance of people such as Robert Wilson (@CarbonCounter_) provides a corrective to some of these numbers (see for example his dissection of an awfully inaccurate Guardian report on costs to consumers of gas vs. renewables). But such arguments rarely translate so well to Twitter soundbites and so the zombie stats – numbers that we know are wrong, but which are appealing – refuse to die.

What’s the harm in all this? In my post on the cod story I mentioned the fragile trust that now exists between the fishing, scientific and conservation communities which has led to promising progress in the recovery of North Sea cod stocks but which can easily be shattered by the promulgation of laughable statistics. More generally, dubious numbers muddy whatever water they fall into. In his excellent critique of mainstream economics The Skeptical Economist, which I reviewed previously, Jonathan Aldred warns that “dubious numbers are infectious: adding a dubious number to a reliable one yields an equally dubious number”. Which leads me to propose Mola mola’s second law1:

An argument advances with the rigour of its most dubious number

So it doesn’t matter how watertight the ethical case for regulating cod fisheries, or for moving away from fossil fuels; if you use farcical numbers to advance this case, the argument will fail to progress.

Another consequence of these kinds of zombie stats is the hair-trigger outrage for which Twitter is (in)famous. This applies just as much to the niche worlds of the practice and administration of science as it does to Westminster or celebrity gossip. In particular, it is rare for a day to pass without some call appearing in my timeline to sign a superficially worthy-looking petition. I am extremely wary of doing so, for a couple of reasons.

For instance, a while back I signed something against some kind of reforms (I didn’t read the details) in a European marine institute which I have visited a few times and where I have friends and colleagues. Surely I should support them in their hour of need? Hmmm. Well. Next time I went, my friend – an extremely conscientious and committed member of the institute – said words to the effect of ‘Please, nobody sign that petition. These reforms are exactly what we need and the people fighting against them do nothing here.’ Duly chastised, I resolved to be more discerning in future.

Then there was the curious incident of Nerc’s planned merger of the British Antarctic Survey with the National Oceanography Centre. Now it is my view that Nerc handled this pretty poorly, but although there were some pretty convincing arguments – both scientific and geopolitical – against this merger, there were good arguments for it too, and chatting to people I know at both NOC and BAS (as well as reading things like this excellent coverage from Mark Brandon) just confirmed to me that this was very far from the black and white issue painted by many environmental journalists and pressure groups who backed a petition against it. And the joy which met the announcement that the merger (which is what was proposed, although it was typically presented as the 'dismantling' or ‘abolition’ of BAS) made no mention of the budgetary constraints at Nerc which had prompted the proposal, which still exist, and which will now require that savings be made in some other area of environmental science.

To reiterate: I don’t know whether the correct decision was made. But that’s precisely the point. I know the issues and institutions involved pretty well, yet didn’t feel sufficiently well-informed to decide one way or another. In such a case, it would be hugely irresponsible of me to sign any petition. Yet many thousands of people did. Call me an old cynic, but I doubt all that many of them had read widely on the rationale for the merger. Sadly, it is now far easier to create a petition – let alone sign one – than it is to inform yourself about an issue. Of course, the UK government has made a rod for its own back here with e-petitions initiative and its commitment to debate in parliament any issue that gains 100,000 signatures. But it is our responsibility as thoughtful citizens to take the issue of signing a petition seriously. Which usually means basing our opinions on more than 140 characters of research.

Bearing these caveats in mind, and keeping critical faculties engaged at (almost) all times, Twitter remains for me an essential source of information, conversation and debate, and an invaluable means to publicise work and opportunities, and I encourage non-tweeters to have a go - good guides for sciencey-minded beginners here, here, here and here.

1First law here

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