On tweeting conferences

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.

Sounds great.

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.



  1. Interesting difference, your tweet on this post already got some retweets by the twitterazzi, while mine only got a few polite favourites. 🙂 Also interesting, my post is well read, but up to now no one has commented. It is allowed to disagree with me.

    For the record, I agree that open data and code should be the future. At least after publication.

    One reason for the disagreement may the estimated importance of twitter for science. Even at the conferences where tweeting was allowed, in the end I never did so because I was listening to the talk and forgot about twitter. When other people tweet at conferences, I sometimes unfollow them because they produce such an enormous stream of irrelevant details in my time line. Whether twitter is the future, not so sure, I really liked it that EMS2014 did not have WiFi and people were paying attention to the talks. I hope that will be the future. Without WiFi (and with back mobile connection) conference tweeting may be dead anyway.

    Blogging may be more important for science. If I recall correctly Stefan Rahmstorf has the rule that he only blogs about his published work. I can be more relaxed about that, if only because most of my (methodological) work in not that interesting for non-scientists.

    I hope that the webcasting of conferences will be the future. For the talks you are interested in it provides sufficient detail, which twitter cannot, and for the talks you are not interested in it does not swamp your time line. That would also give the scientist again control over what his audience is. At a recent workshop with webcasting we were asked whether we wanted to and have to fill in a form that this invasion of privacy was okay. For my joined talk on the state of the art in homogenization, I was happy to be webcasted, for the second talk on the difficulties of homogenizing daily data I was not.

    The professor is also not at fault. He is a very friendly and open chap. But he still decides on the future of those students and they want to give a good impression. I can ask stupid questions, it would just be one of many. Even if I would produce a complete bad study that would make my colleagues think less of me, but they would know my other work and the dent in my reputation would be limited. If you are in the beginning of your career a stupid question or bad study has a much larger impact. I can imagine that some students are nervous.

    Unfortunately we cannot change the way the press and other people think and work. It would be nice if we could put the decision which audience to talk at which stage of it completion to into the hands of the scientists doing the work. Maybe we could agree on a logo. A prohibition sign with a blue bird?

  2. I just happened upon a tweet today of this blog article while coincidentally making a Twitter list of science topics I follow. I’m clearly not a scientist, I’m a children’s book writer and artist who appreciates the intersection of art and science and I’ve just returned from a conference on writing non-fiction for children. Although there is absolutely no reason you should value my opinion, but I found your blog timely.

    There is a huge information gap in the availability of scientific information for an average Jill like me. Believe or not, Twitter helps fill it. I mainly use Twitter to direct me to a blog entry or a place for further reading. If I’m lucky, I find can find a discussion that I can understand that fulfills my curiosity. I absolutely agree with the statement about the “transition into a scientific culture (…) where immediate public access to results, to raw data, and to the more general implications of your precious new scientific findings, is utterly normal.”

    Popular science writers and children’s non-fiction writers often take literally years to process this information, publish and present it. Magazines and print culture are really diminishing for kids, but online publications and social media are flourishing. But if culture and social media is all about celebrity and catastrophe and not science, there will not be any appreciation for it.

    Please encourage scientist to tweet, they are finding an audience.

  3. Me: I have only seen one tweet, that should not have been written (“now back to science”).

    DM: “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!”

    No it is allowed and covered by freedom of speech. But in the scientific community we have a culture or trying to stay as polite as possible and argue about the facts. I think this tweet did not fit into that culture. There is no one policing this or everyone is, by telling someone who is not polite to tone down.

    In the climate “debate”, I have no problem with such a tweet. That is not science. Maybe some feel that Peter Wadhams talk was not part of science, but he is a professor and it was a scientific meeting. I prefer to err on the side of caution.

    Maybe some more words on openness outside of twitter. I have the feeling that colleagues from countries without Freedom of Research, where FOIA harassment by mitigation sceptics is usual, write much shorter emails. A lot of communication moves to teleconferences and meetings, where they talk just as freely as the others. I would see this as another example where “openness” decreases openness and hinders professional communication.

    I can imagine this reaction. Would you write someone a mail claiming that a method of colleague X may not be that good (in this an this circumstances), if this mail may be on the street one day? That could hurt your relations with colleague X. Especially if the claim turns out to be wrong, but even if the claim is right.

    At this months EMS, the chair asked me to answer a question, which forced me to say that a method of a colleague in the room has a similar quality as typically used ones, but is clearly less good at the most modern methods. This colleague knows I hold this opinion and you can find it well hidden in a table of one of my publications, the subtle way scientists normally criticise each others work. After having had to say that in public, I was happy this colleague was still talking to me afterwards. I have to collaborate with this colleague in several groups and would like to be well informed about future work, which is normally interesting.

    Had someone tweeted my answer and the national press had picked it up and wrote a headline: “our climatologists are only average”, I am not sure if this colleague would still talk to me. Scientists are also humans and our culture of expressing critique are subtle as possible is important to keep lines of communication open and to help us focus on the facts in disputes. A public critique is much less subtle as an internal one and naturally evokes stronger emotions.

    My preference would be to do the creative part with unavoidable errors before publication and to do the openness part after publication. If someone wants feedback from the public in the creative phase fine, but do not force people yet. At EMS I heard a really interesting talk and I asked and got permission to blog about it.

    When it comes to the press, I would prefer that they would wait until there are several papers on a certain topic, only then does science become somewhat solid. But I understand that that is too much to ask and that it is hard enough to ask them to wait for the publication. They have different incentives and aims.

  4. Interesting discussion, and I agree with most of this.
    But on your first point, and Victor’s comment above, you say you ‘reckon it was fine’, and you say it was ‘spoken in public’. But was it? My question is, would that tweet have been said at the meeting at the end of a talk – thanks, that was an entertaining break, now let’s get back to science? Probably not. Would this be a sensible guideline – only tweet something that you’d be happy to say in a comment or question at the end of someone’s talk?
    You link to a some guidelines where number 4 is ‘avoid snarkiness’. A very small fraction of the conference tweets were snarky, so didn’t follow this guideline.

    I think Victor makes a good point in his comment above. Expanding on this, I think he is making a distinction between the everyday trivial climate twitter banter, in which rude sneery remarks are made all the time, and reporting on a scientific conference, where standards should be higher.

  5. I would prefer not to focus too much on one tweet. Also in real live people sometimes say sub-optimal things. Twitter is a fast medium, that invites errors. That is hard to avoid. It should just not become normal, should not become part of the scientific culture.

    Above I proposed an opt-out system (you can indicate you do NOT want to be tweeted with a symbol), later I wondered if an opt-in system might not be more appropriate (a symbol that indicates consent), at least as long as most scientists are not on twitter and do not blog and thus may not think of the problems it may cause.

  6. Two things come out this discussion for me:
    1. Only tweet things you would say to the face of the person you are tweeting about (this is a good general rule for the internet as well!)
    2. If you are using the official hashtag for the event, then stick to talking about the science and leave personal comments (as in your opinion about the person) to your own twitter stream

    I also like Arlene’s comment above about non-scientists using twitter to find blogs about science. I am still a little bit nervous about that, because blogs are also used by people with an axe to grind who can’t get their work published in peer review. Check your sources people!

  7. The thing with saying “only tweet what you’d say face to face” is that means some people will say anything and others nothing.

  8. Face to face I am quite frank. Then critique may hurt someone’s self worth a little, but it also makes their science better, if only better explained.

    At the Q&A after a talk I am more careful. The speaker is anyway nervous and does not listen too well and then you hurt their reputation. If my question may destroy the foundation of the work of a young scientist, I would prefer to tell them face to face. Interestingly, from a recent previous discussion, I had the impression that I may be a bit too harsh: conference blog: the put-down. (This is an interesting blog, by the way.) Here I now get the opposite impression.

    And twitter is public, that is another degree of escalation.

  9. […] there is more discussion at the blogs of Doug McNeall, Victor Venema and Bishop […]

  10. Personally, I don’t see the whole “live-tweeting” urge at all. It’s not like a nuclear warhead’s been launched and everybody needs the one sentence announcing same, right away. Just take notes of the talks and post them up somewhere at the end of the day, or week or whatever. Twitter’s a recipe for communications disasters and misunderstandings,(like this one!) isn’t that pretty obvious?

  11. David Young · · Reply

    Personally, I don’t like twitter very much because the format seems to make it virtually impossible to express nuanced thoughts or make clear scientific points. Thus, what is left to say? I see a lot of sarcasm and attempts to put other people down or attempts to be cute. I agree that one should not say in public anything you would not say to the person involved face to face.

  12. Victor raises a very important riposte to Doug’s fatalism. Yes, there is going to be tweeting during talks. No, you don’t have to be the one tweeting and you would be well advised not to.

    People do a number of rude things during talks.

    1. Eli likes to sit in the corner, and spin wondrous yarns about Days of Yore (some might say it sounds a bit like grumbling, but who is Doug to comment on that).

      In Doug’s own time at university, bunnies had to make their own mental entertainments when the talks got boring. We’ve all seen people on their laptops in talks, checking email (Doug is spared this horror, by virtue of working for the government), or the internets.

      Tweeting is different.

      What are you saying when you tweet a conference talk? I think you are saying “this talk is interesting and important enough, that I am going to let my entire social network know about it immediately. I am going to take some ownership of the message, and this will reflect well on both me and the speaker. I am prepared to use some of my social and professional capital to spread the message of the speaker”.

      And some bunnies think that is *rude*?

  13. And now back to science.

    What, Eli asks, is the advantage of spreading the word in real time in 140 character chunks? Your social network going to run into the room?

Leave a Reply to Victor Venema (@VariabilityBlog) Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: