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..
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.