Jul 1, 2008

The perils of Science by Twitter

In a recent blog post, Neil Perkin notes the adoption of Twitter to announce major scientific discoveries.

It indeed is interesting to see the changing dynamic between the high priests of science and the common man. What once seeped in through many time-consuming layers of seeming scientific red tape, now arrives as tweets from an alien world heralding major discoveries to all who would care to listen. Instantaneous, authentic, unfiltered and unstifled - almost like Archimedes' naked eureka outburst.

I am all for the greater and quicker spread of scientific knowledge and discoveries - especially in this case, where the discoveries are being funded by tax-payer money (the US citizens', not mine :)

However, the use of social media to do that presents some pitfalls.

Scientific American recently carried a feature titled Science 2.0 which delved into the the use of blogs, wikis and the like by scientists to share what is best described as 'work in progress.' It seems what concerns scientists most about social media is the risk of being scooped and losing credit and lucrative patents.

But when dealing with the public dissemination of science, there's an even greater risk. The spread of premature science - or sometimes, even false science.

And water on Mars is indeed a good example of that - it is a claim that has been made for almost a century. Most notably by Percival Lowell (hailed as a hero whose work led to the first American discovery of a planet; undone now by Pluto's demotion) - who 'saw' canals, oases and advanced civilisation on Mars. His claims created great excitement amidst the public - only to be proved wrong.

The moral of the story: science is not only about making claims. It is about observation, reasoning, proofs, counter-claims, peer review and the like, a process of rigour that is essentially institutionalised as the scientific method.

The failure to adhere to these processes before making scientific discoveries public is only bound to cause confusion - and probably even disillusionment with the claims and with science itself. This comment by one reader left in the WIRED article announcing Twitter's announcement of the Mars water discovery, says much:
"I fail to see what's so big about these recent discoveries of ice. I mean, haven't we known that there's water ice on Mars for some time now?
Evidence of water ice at Mars' southern pole, in 2004: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/3426539.stm
From 2007: http://jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.cfm?release=2007-030"
Posted by: Gadren | Jun 19, 2008 6:37:17 PM
To be honest, I have heard of the discovery, re-discovery and conclusive proofs of the discovery of water on Mars for some time now. I have no idea what's the real significance of the current discovery (though I am convinced there is some significance). And Twitter, with 140 emotion-bursting-from-the-seams words has only served NASA's cause - that of creating public excitement - and not that of science.

[A more relevant example of how Twitter can make science more accessible comes from the work of Tom Taylor. He has taken the unwieldy NASA Near Earth Object Database to create " @lowflyingrocks, a Twitter bot that speaks whenever a rock passes within 0.2 AU of Earth." You can read more about it in his talk 'Delighting with Data.']

Finally, here's one of the many laws attributed simply as Murphy's Laws :

"Tell a man there are 300 billion stars in the universe and he’ll believe you. Tell him a bench has wet paint on it and he’ll have to touch to be sure."

As Percival Lowell would attest, the same holds true for 'water on Mars' stories. With or without the mediation of Twitter.
About the author:
Iqbal Mohammed is Head of Innovation & Strategy at a digital innovation agency serving the DACH and wider European markets. He is the winner of the WPP Atticus Award for Best Original Published Writing in Marketing & Communication.
You can reach him via email or Twitter.



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