So Mark Brandon, Sheldon Bacon and Gavin Schmidt have been threatened with a threat of potential legal action, possibly, for live tweeting a scientific meeting. Some details here and here, and under the rather brilliant hashtag #BrandonBergGate (geddit?).
I’m with James Annan on this one*, but the whole thing has clearly eaten time, effort, and tried the patience of those involved. They’ve had to write to their parent organisations to explain that it’s probably just someone who doesn’t understand twitter, or the Streisand effect, chancing their arm.
But the episode did lead to Victor putting up some nice thoughts on the freedom to tweet (and not to be tweeted), which are worth thinking about, and responding to. I don’t agree with everything that Victor said, so I’ll outline some differences below.
People don’t always read to the end, so I’ll put my conclusion up front:
The use of social media in science is not going away. Live tweeting (or equivalent) of conferences will be ubiquitous. We need to have a discussion about how social media get used, what people find offensive, what people find useful, and what is a waste of time. We’ve got to manage a transition into a scientific culture (which is all that this is about, anyway, not some set of absolute rules) where immediate public access to results, to raw data, and to the more general implications of your precious new scientific findings, is utterly normal.
I think the benefit of this transition will be a richer, faster and more efficient scientific process. Am I right? Dunno, I’m only really working from my own experience of finding twitter extremely useful for doing science. I’d be glad to hear from anyone who knows about information sharing and the efficiency of the scientific process.
I agree with Victor that science needs space to get things wrong, to make mistakes, and to try things out without fear of being branded a failure. But I don’t think that the answer to this is necessarily policing something as mindblowingly useful (and correspondingly irreverent) as twitter.
* I’d suggest that the complainants “jog on”, or alternatively refer them to Arkell vs. Pressdram.
Responses to Victor
The speaker’s reaction was much too strongly, in my opinion, most tweets were professional and respectful critique should be allowed. I have only seen one tweet, that should not have been written (“now back to science”).
Who makes the decision on what should be allowed in a tweet at a scientific conference? You think that this tweet shouldn’t have been allowed Victor, but I reckon that it was fine! A bit rude maybe, but spoken in public, and not anonymously. In the end, surely each individual gets to decide what is OK (and judge the commentator!)
I do understand that the speaker feels like people are talking behind his back. He is not on twitter and even if he were: you cannot speak and tweet simultaneously
Ah, but you can! In fact, Ed Hawkins tweeted as he was talking only yesterday, using scheduled tweets on tweetdeck (OK, I get that it is difficult to respond to rudeness at the same time ;)).
Social media will never be and should never be a substitute for the scientific literature.
No, but the potential for social media to “add value” (sorry) to the scientific literature is massive, and worth pushing in my opinion.
Imagine that I had some preliminary evidence that the temperature increase since 1900 is nearly zero or that we may already have passed the two degree limit. I would love to discuss such evidence with my colleagues, to see if they notice any problems with the argumentation, to see if I had overlooked something, to see if there are better methods or data that would make the evidence stronger. I certainly would not like to see such preliminary ideas as a headline in the New York Times until I had gathered and evaluated all the evidence.
This does sound horrible, but in this case I would say “screw the imaginary New York Times”. You can’t be held responsible every time people publish half formed ideas, and unverified stuff. In this case, it would reflect badly on the New York Times for not checking things properly. Any *anyway*, we’ll never have “all the evidence” on any particular matter, so we’d have to wait forever before talking about our science.
The problem with social media is that the boundaries between public and private are blurring. After talking about such a work at a conference, someone may tweet about it and before you know it the New York Times is on the telephone.
Furthermore, you always communicate with a certain person or audience and tailor your message to the receiver.
I agree that you should have an audience in mind, and communicate as clearly as you can, but in truth you cannot totally control the message received. To not communicate informally because you cannot guarantee that people would take it in the right way would be a great shame!
This is not an imaginary concern. The OPERA team at CERN that found that neutrinos could travel faster than light got into trouble this way. The team was forced to inform the press prematurely because blogs started writing about their finding. The team made it very clear that this was still very likely a measurement error: “If this measurement is confirmed, it might change our view of physics, but we need to be sure that there are no other, more mundane, explanations. That will require independent measurements.” But a few months after the error was found, a stupid loose cable, the spokesperson and physics coordinator of OPERA had to resign. I would think that that would not have happened without all the premature publicity.
OK, I don’t know about this particular incident, but why would you resign if some people took your work out of context, blew it out of proportion, and made a fuss of it? *Especially* if you had been trying to put it into context the whole time. This kind of thing happens to climate scientists all of the time! Again, it just reflects poorly on the people making an unjustified fuss, not the scientists themselves.
All the trivial and insightful mistakes that were made are not of anyone’s business. And we need a culture in which people are allowed to make mistakes to get ahead in science. As a saying goes: if you are not wrong half of the time you are not pushing yourself enough to the edge of our understanding. By putting preliminary ideas in the limelight too soon you stifle experimentation and exploration.
I agree that we should promote a culture where we are allowed to make mistakes as a part of doing good science. But if we truly had that culture, it wouldn’t matter if we put preliminary ideas in the limelight! People would know they were preliminary, and be tolerant of that. There would be no stifling of creativity, experimentation or exploration. Perhaps we need to start adjusting the incentives in science careers, to reward more risk taking, rather than keeping things back until they are polished?
Opening up scientific meetings with social media and webcasts may intimidate (young) researchers and in this way limit discussion. Even at an internal seminar, students are often too shy to ask questions. On the days the professor is not able to attend, there are often much more questions. External workshops are even more intimidating, large conferences are even worse, and having to talk to a global audience because of social media is the worst of all.
More openness is not automatically more or better debate. It can stifle debate and also move it to smaller closed circles, which would be counter productive.
This, I think I disagree most strongly with. I think it is the responsibility of more established scientists to create a non-threatening culture, where, for example, questions from more junior scientists are actively encouraged. (I’m sure you feel this too Victor!). In your example, it is the Professor that is at fault, not the students.
In spring I asked the organisers of a meeting how we should handle social media:
A question we may want to discuss during the introduction on Monday morning: Do people mind about the use of social media during the meeting? Twitter and blogs, for example. What we discuss is also interesting for people unable to attend the meeting, but we should also not make informal discussions harder by opening up to the public too much.
I was thinking about people saying in advance if they do not want their talk to be public and maybe we should also keep the discussions after the talks private, so that people do not have the think twice about the correctness of every single sentence.The organisation kindly asked me to refrain from tweeting. Maybe that was the reply because they were busy and had never considered the topic. But that reply was fine by me. How appropriate social media are depends on the context and this was a small meeting, where opening it up to the world would be a large change in atmosphere.
OK, I see that your views are nuanced. I think I agree that we should be free not to be tweeted if we so wish, but I argue that moving to a culture where is is normal is both desirable and inevitable. What we have to do is find a set of ground rules, from which we can move on if we have to. Here is a good example of a start on those ground rules: let’s hope we’ve kicked off a good discussion on where to go next.