I’ve long been ambivalent about the merits of Twitter. Some may recall my “Why Twitter is Evil” post of a while back. That was written with one cheek mostly occupied by my tongue. It now seems clear that, whatever the original designs, the 140-character telegraph has become an invaluable network-building and maintenance tool, particularly for authors, activists trying to organize constituencies. This is all well and good. But the medium’s dark side recently became all too clear following this past weekend’s wonderful Science Online 2011 conference.

The story begins Saturday afternoon at an hour-long conference session I organized titled “Lesson from Climategate.” Leading the discussion were myself, author Chris Mooney, evolution-defender Joshua Rosenau, and the National Climatic Data Center’s chief scientist (and president of the World Meteorological Association’s Commission for Climatology) Tom Peterson.

The audience was typical for the conference — bloggers, journalists, scientists, communications consultants, and those who straddled two or more of those realms, including geologist Chris Rowan of Highly Allochtonous. Chris was paying enough attention to tweet at least one interesting observation from Tom:

‘It’s a knife fight’, says Tom Peterson. I’d argue that we’re considering picking up a knife while other side researching nukes. #scio11

Chris is a respectable chap with an keen scientific mind a worthy blog. But his tweet exemplified just how dangerous Twitter can be, if used as reporting tool. I am sure he didn’t intend to set in motion what followed, but what’s done is done.

What Tom was doing when he made the reference to a “knife fight” was recalling what had been said to him after a climate science hearing in Washington. His notes for his presentation include:

An aside from a Congressman after a hearing:
-You’re in a knife fight and need to fight back.

But Chris’s Tweet didn’t have room for the context. So when the blogosphere’s most popular climate-change pseudoskeptic, Anthony Watts, came across the little snippet, his interpretation did not square with the facts. Instead, he attributed the knife comment to Tom, rather than the congressional aide. And then proceeded to imply that Tom, as a public servant and a prominent member of the climatology community, was abusing taxpayer funds. “Their words cause me to question their ability to be unbiased scientists” was among the disparaging remarks made.

In an email to the offending scientist (which Tom shared with me), the outraged blogger wrote:

Some uncomfortable attention you’ve brought upon yourself in the current atmosphere of rhetoric and shooting in AZ, don’t your think?

If you want to apologize to the American public, I’ll make my forum available to you..

This Tom did, and his notes were posted on the site. But by then the damage had been done. The first comment made to the original post tells it all:

So the climate scientists are calling this a knife fight and Glenn Beck is calling for an accord of non-violence. That is an amusing juxtaposition.

Clearly, the major offender here was not Chris Rowan, but Anthony Watts, who didn’t bother to ask the source if the tweet accurately represented what the source had said. Treating a tweet as a reliable source is something no reputable reporter would do. Of course, there were no journalists, professional or amateur involved here. (I sometimes still still work in that sphere, but was not operating as such in this case). The point is, why would anyone ever assume that a tweet was accurate, representative or useful for anything more than a starting point for further research. I mean, there’s only 140 characters to go on, it’s impossible to monitor all relevant Twitter feeds that might help shed light on the subject, and if you only know the tweeter by the Twitter handle, you can’t evaluate his or her reliability to record events accurately.

And again, I am not disparaging Twitter. But, let’s be careful how we use it. In this case, a selfless scientist — who went to considerable expense and effort to take part in a mere one-hour discussion on the challenges of science communication, a part for which he received no compensation — had his reputation impugned by those who have no respect for the facts, a slander that was facilitated in no small part by how easy it is to abuse Twitter.

Furthermore, to provide a little more of that precious context: Anthony Watts has long been unhappy with Tom Peterson’s accomplishments, and those of his employer, the National Climatic Data Center, which has the troublesome habit of producing solid science that undermines the pseudoskeptic’s disbelief in anthropogenic global warming.That animosity wasn’t quelled by a recent paper by three of Peterson’s colleagues, who, at the urging of Watts and like-minded individuals, conducted a thorough review of the temperature records for the United States in case there happened to be a bias in the records to due an alleged “urban heat island effect.”

The resulting paper did find a bias. But it was a slight negative bias, meaning that if anything, the warming trend has been underestimated rather than exaggerated.

Comments

  1. #1 Elaine Schattner, M.D.
    January 19, 2011

    James,
    I was glad to see this post on science communication and Twitter. In the on-line medical world, the tweeting seems strange and potentially dangerous: nuanced information gets taken out of context, and the difference between marketing (tweets by hospitals, doctors who do procedures, and pharma-based recommendations) get mixed in with other information, often without clear attribution.

    So I use Twitter for fun and sharing links, and for making connections with people. But I’m wary of its use for substantive communications.

  2. #2 Greg Fish
    January 19, 2011

    Treating a tweet as a reliable source is something no reputable reporter would do.

    But you’re talking about Watts. Things like looking up sources, getting a story straight, or going into something more than skin-deep if he can’t twist it to make scientists look bad or insult climate researchers aren’t exactly his fortes. Having dealt with him, I can say he’s the kind of person who’ll ask you “so, have you stopped beating your wife yet?” the minute you disagree with something he says.

  3. #3 KBHC
    January 19, 2011

    I was at this conference but not this panel. However, one of the other panels I attended on Making the History of Science Work for You would work here (twitter hashtag #histsci). Michael Barton (@darwinsbulldog) did a great presentation on how creationists use quote-mining to support their arguments.

    To me, twitter isn’t the problem, quote-mining is. Twitter is just another tool, and it has fascinating uses and limits.

    But Twitter is essentially a tool custom designed to quote mine. –jh

  4. #4 Rob Monkey
    January 19, 2011

    The thing I don’t get about Twitter is the scope of people/companies who are on it. You make a good point about no respectable journalist treating a tweet as reliable (good thing Watts is as far from “respectable” or “journalist” as that O’Keefe bastard), but the thing I don’t get is, who is following Twitter for any information at all? As far as I can tell, Tweets can be organized into a few basic categories:

    1. Celebrity comments: this ranges from whatever Ashton Kutcher is brain farting about, to comedians sending jokes to their fans. Incidentally, following a comedian who sends you short funny jokes is the only actual interesting thing I’ve ever heard anyone using Twitter for.

    2. Informative: The only informational things I’ve ever seen on Twitter are links to longer, fleshed out ideas that are actually structured in sentences. This was my first confusion with Twitter, as it seemed like most Twitter accounts were just tweets of links/blog entries the person had on their regular blog, which seemed the same thing as an RSS feed to me.

    3. Friend updates: Yep, it’s the same goddamn thing as facebook’s status update, but with text messages! Whee.

    4. Political ignorance: Politicians who use Twitter strike me as the kind of person who is so ignorant they think any complex or interesting idea can be squeezed into 140 characters. Yes, Ms. Palin, I know 140 characters is plenty for you, but that’s because you don’t know shit from Shinola.

  5. #5 Greg Laden
    January 19, 2011

    “Twitter does not yank things out of context. People yank things out of context.”

    OK, but seriously, we also have the problem, nicely illustrated here and aside from twitter’s enforced brevity or even AGW denialism, that at the moment the US is like a big complicated machine that was dropped off the back of a truck and is in serious need of a great deal of calibration. “Targeting” and “Knife fight” and so on are parts of metaphors that are widely used. The right wing is now busy finding places were Democrats have “targeted” republicans (and there are lots of them because of the widespread use of that word to mean “to focus effort on”) and using this to distract everyone away from the need to calibrate the machine.

    Strangely, many Americans (even on the right) are calling for a more gentile discourse than is typical for, say Britain. Like a goat-eating troll throwing a tantrum and demanding everyone become a vegan.

    Getting back to Twitter: I don’t use twitter to communicate back and forth, and in fact I don’t think it works for that. To me, a twitter tweet without a link in it is no more useful than hearing a few words of a conversation out the window of a passing bus during a windstorm. Twitter is great for what it is good at, but like many Internet tools, few are using it for that.

    OK, now I’m going to go over to my twitter account and summarize my comment in one tweet.

  6. #6 EMJ
    January 19, 2011

    James, with all due respect, why are you even entertaining this as a legitimate issue to post about? The guy took a Twitter message out of context and ran with it. He would run with anything, because he doesn’t have any facts to base his argument on. It’s all smoke and mirrors and now you’re entering into the fun house with him to debate on his turf. At best this deserved a tweet to clarify and maybe a comment on his post. Reacting to Anthony Watts is exactly what he’s after. We should stop playing a reactive game.

    From everything I’ve heard it was a great Science Online panel. I wish the panel I was on hadn’t conflicted as you always have a terrific perspective on these issues.

  7. #7 mcshanahan
    January 20, 2011

    It’s too bad that this was the major outcome of the session. I thought it was it was a very interesting session and that Tom Peterson brought an important perpective to the discussion. Thanks to you and to him (and Chris and Josh) for putting it on.

  8. #8 @motsatt
    January 20, 2011

    After 10:10 makes videos of blowing up schoolchildren, greenpeace ends their articles with “we know who you are, we know where you live”, and James Hansen wants skeptics to be tried for ‘crimes against humanity’, what are one supposed to think?

    And it was a tasteless comment after the Arizona shooting I think.

  9. #9 TheGoodLocust
    January 20, 2011

    Well, forgive me if I sound incoherent, but I’ve had less than 4 hours of sleep and can barely keep my eyes open.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Petersen the guy who co-opted Watts’ surface station data despite being told that the data set was incomplete? He wrote a paper to discredit Watts based on incomplete data knowing full well that the stations that were documented were more likely to be closer to urban areas and thus more influenced by UHI.

    Again, IIRC, I believe the full data set contradicts Petersen’s conclusions – but his point was to get a paper out there to preempt the surface station findings. He is clearly more activist than scientist.

    Also, did you mention that Watts allowed Petersen to respond fully on Watts’ own site? Perhaps my tired eyes missed that.

  10. #10 björn
    January 20, 2011

    So you are saying that one should disregard twitters because the person putting them out probably dont know what he is doing?
    You are probably right!

  11. #11 J
    January 20, 2011

    Again, IIRC, I believe the full data set contradicts Petersen’s conclusions

    Evidence, please. Watts refuses to let anyone see “the full data set” and hasn’t published any kind of objective analysis of it. So what is your belief based on?

    So far, the only quantitative analyses of Watts’s data (by NCDC and JohnV) have found no effect.

    I realize that this is probably very painful for Watts, but the facts are what they are.

    Also, did you mention that Watts allowed Petersen to respond fully on Watts’ own site? Perhaps my tired eyes missed that.

    Yes, your eyes must have missed that, because yes, he did mention that in the post. In fact, he even links to the response on WUWT.

  12. #12 Jack Maloney
    January 20, 2011

    Exactly what, Mr. Hrynyshyn, is a “pseudoskeptic”? Are you implying that Watts is not really a skeptic? That he is a ‘counterfeit’ skeptic or a ‘false’ skeptic? It seems to me that whatever else he may be, Anthony Watts is a genuine AGW skeptic.

    Perhaps you just like pasting Watts with the label because you think it carries a negative connotation. And therein lies a problem for those of us who are trying to untangle the AGW debate – the frequent resort to schoolyard name-calling tactics that cast an ugly shadow on both sides of the argument.

    So long as catcalls such as “denier,” “alarmist,” “flat-earther” and, yes, “pseudoskeptic” echo through the debate, it’s hard to take the shouters seriously.

  13. #13 Jack Maloney
    January 20, 2011

    The whole argument over who tweeted what to whom, and who said what first, is also reminiscent of schoolyard argument. Whether Peterson attributed the “knife fight” statement to a congressman, or not, really doesn’t matter – I doubt the congressman originated that metaphor. The fact that it was used at all in a supposedly scientific conference reflects poorly on the quality of the debate.

  14. #14 Laurie Bowen
    January 20, 2011

    A Global Climate “Change N Debate”
    The Truth the Best We Know How!

    Climate change, Volcanoes, Earthquakes, Floods, Droughts, Tsunamis, Tornado’s, Hurricanes, Blizzards, and even Asteroids . . . have been a matter of living or dying since time began . . . . . the search for the cause other than . . . “We (you) all made God Angry”. . . gave rise to the discipline we call Meteorology today . . . just as Astronomy had it’s roots in “Astrology” and Chemistry had it’s roots in “Alchemy”. None of the science’s were considered a discipline until Copernicus, Galileo, Newton . . . . Einstein etc . . . were finally accepted.

    Basically, and very over simplified, I surmise: most of Climate change is caused by the fact that Earth hurls around the sun as a part of our solar system. We, in error, think ‘we’ are very big and very powerful . . . . . . .when in fact, compared to the big “scheme” of physics, we are really quite small . . . . especially when you consider just the size of the milky way . . . . . and smaller and smaller when looking at the ‘scheme’ of the entire universe. When you look at it that way . . . (from another dimensional perspective). . . .we may just be part of “itty, bitty, teensey, weensy” little speck that is part of a “yellow polka dot bikini”. . . . hardly and barely noticeable to anyone except maybe . . .’god’. . . .

    To flip the perspective again . . . ever notice what a family of beavers can do to a river in just the right place . . . . . then notice what happens in spring . . . . if there is an extra heavy blizzard . . . even they know they have to rebuild all over again.

    Humans can and have had even more profound effect because we seem to leave to much ‘garbage’ behind.

    Everything we have came from ‘earth’ . . . and CAN be turned back to ‘earth’.

    For example, the red sludge in Hungary today is a byproduct of refining bauxite with research and chemical engineering can and should be reconstituted into a stable composite itself. Manure is turned into fertilizer . . . you get the picture.

    When the Meteorology and Astronomy “marry” ‘we’ will not accurately be able to project future “Climate Changes”. As well the other disciplines like chemistry & bio-chemistry etc. . must “co-operate” or ‘we’ will not accurately be able to adapt to future “Climate Changes” well because we spent more resources trying to change something that is beyond our control

    Essentially, the climate debate for; “It being all our fault”, . . will continue for a long time simply because of superstition, religious fundamentalism, the ignorance of the many, and lack of parochial earth & science education. . . . . (You must remember the earth didn’t “become a “round” planet” until after Magellan and Columbus. Heck! . . . they didn’t even know the America’s existed. . . . . Socrates story of “Atlantis” was a “myth” of epic proportions . . . . even though someone was trading with “Peru” some 1,000 of years before the earth became round and not the center of the universe. . . . . Blah Blah Blah. . . .I could go on and on and on.)

    Finally, I assert the Global Warming debate due to man made causes was a cover for a massive regressive taxation scheme via Cap-N-Trade proposals. These kinds of CON’s have gone on since the beginning of societies and will last for as long as there are people willing to jump on that “bandwagon” or are forced to join that “party”. For now this CON has played itself out . . . and all that money . . . is gone. Ah . . but gone where?

    ‘Anyway’. . . Maybe we would consider expanding our horizons . . . . Just remember . . . the famous last words of Socrates were. . . . . . . “I drank what?”

    I’m not a skeptic, just of student of cyclical theory.

  15. #15 TheGoodLocust
    January 20, 2011

    Response to “J”:

    “Evidence, please. Watts refuses to let anyone see “the full data set” and hasn’t published any kind of objective analysis of it. So what is your belief based on?”

    Oh perhaps I was wrong on that point, or likely more accurate, not proven right yet. :)

    The point which you ignore still stands though – he took incomplete data that wasn’t quality controlled in order to try and prove his pre-determined point. If this was real scientific work then he would’ve waited for the complete data set – or at least one that was quality controlled.

    Anyway, I already told you what my belief was based on, Anthony refers to it as the “low hanging fruit” problem, which is that volunteers are more likely to collect data at stations that are close to where they live – which of course would be closer to larger population centers (i.e cities).

    This is of course entirely obvious, which means a person would ignore such issues (among others), after they were pointed out to them, for ideological reasons.

    Here is one of Anthony’s posts on the subject:

    http://wattsupwiththat.com/2010/01/27/rumours-of-my-death-have-been-greatly-exaggerated/

  16. #16 J
    January 20, 2011

    This is of course entirely obvious, which means a person would ignore such issues (among others), after they were pointed out to them, for ideological reasons.

    The beauty of the scientific method is that it offers a way to answer questions more objectively than just looking at them and saying “well, the answer seems obvious to me.” In of fact, things that seem obvious at first glance may turn out to be quite wrong.

    Over the past couple of decades, I’ve seen all kinds of claims that this-or-that “obvious” fact contradicts the mainstream scientific understanding of global warming. Many of them (e.g., the “march of the thermometers”) have been heavily promoted by Watts et al. What they all have in common is:

    (1) When you actually test the claims quantitatively, they turn out to be wrong.

    (2) Watts manages to expend a great many electrons promoting the claims, without ever managing to get around to actually testing them.

    Science is a wonderful thing — one of the great treasures of human civilization. IMHO in the long run it’s much more fulfilling than the ideologically driven entertainment that Watts et al. serve up. You’re doing your brain a disservice if you spend too much time over at WUWT.

  17. #17 TheGoodLocust
    January 21, 2011

    Response to “J”:

    “The beauty of the scientific method is that it offers a way to answer questions more objectively than just looking at them and saying “well, the answer seems obvious to me.””

    What does any of that post have to do with knowingly using an incomplete and non-quality controlled data set that one didn’t even create in order to discredit the person in the process of creating it?

    Saying “science” isn’t a trump card to win an argument and my brain worked well enough for me to be a valedictorian taking numerous honors science classes that I wasn’t required to take.

    If you would like to discuss science and the scientific method then I’d love an explanation of how it was used to produce global warming orthodoxy. I’ve yet to see a solid explanation of it which doesn’t make unfounded assumptions or grossly misapply the scientific method.

  18. #18 TheGoodLocust
    January 21, 2011

    Oh and I was wondering about your surname – from what nation/culture does it originate?

  19. #19 J
    January 21, 2011

    If you would like to discuss science and the scientific method then I’d love an explanation of how it was used to produce global warming orthodoxy. I’ve yet to see a solid explanation of it which doesn’t make unfounded assumptions or grossly misapply the scientific method.

    I have a lengthy response to this (plus the Watts/Menne 2010 thing) but because it includes multiple hyperlinks, it’s hung up waiting for moderation.

    Oh and I was wondering about your surname – from what nation/culture does it originate?

    Not sure whether you were addressing that to me, but just to head off any confusion, despite the “J” I’m not James Hrynyshyn. (If I were, I assume my post wouldn’t be hung up waiting for moderation….)

  20. #20 J
    January 21, 2011

    Jack Maloney writes: Exactly what, Mr. Hrynyshyn, is a “pseudoskeptic”? Are you implying that Watts is not really a skeptic? That he is a ‘counterfeit’ skeptic or a ‘false’ skeptic?

    Speaking just for myself — I sometimes use “pseudo-skeptic” to refer to someone (like Watts) who is not actually skeptical in any meaningful sense of the word. It’s an alternative to “denialist”, since some people have made it clear they don’t like that term.

    Watts is typical of people who call themselves “skeptics” but only apply that “skepticism” towards one side. If you look at the sad history of WUWT, you’ll see that Watts is remarkably naive or downright credulous when it comes to arguments against AGW. It’s only arguments in favor of AGW that provoke scrutiny.

    At least in my opinion, “pseudo-skeptic” is a reasonable way to refer to that kind of asymmetrical, ideologically-determined outlook. Do you have a better suggestion?

  21. #21 Acıbadem Halı Yıkama
    January 24, 2011

    The Modus Operandi is established now. The burden of proof is on him, not us joker.