Silly season’s here again

Earlier in the week, Channel 4’s Samira Ahmed sent these messages to Twitter:

SamiraAhmedC4: MATHS HELP! Do I need to say “comma” if I read out this formula tonight: p(h,r)=u(h,r)-pr=g(h, Zr)+f1[h, m(o,r)]+f2[h, m(o,r)]+E-pr.
Aug 16, 2010 03:56 PM GMT

SamiraAhmedC4: It’s the formula to explain how Blackpool (like Bath before it) is becoming classier.
Aug 16, 2010 03:57 PM GMT

If you’ve spent any time at all watching the debunking of bad science coverage, you’ll be wincing, because that formula has all the signs of being total tosh. August is silly season, the time of year where PR companies know they can trot out any old rubbish and it’ll make headline news because nothing else is going on. It’s a tried and tested method.

Ben Goldacre spends quite a bit of time debunking not just silly season stories but also flaws in the media coverage of health and medicine stories that could have serious public health repercussions. It was entirely unsurprising that he should see Samira’s tweets and dismiss them out of hand, given the PR industry’s history of producing bunkum formulae to promote their own brands.

Ben said:

BenGoldacre: .@SamiraAhmedC4 no, you just have to say “by reading this out, i have lost all respect for myself as a journalist”

Ben is followed by a lot of people who hold similar viewpoints to his and a pile-on ensued, with quite a few people being unpleasant to Samira.

Update 13:06: Gordon Rae has found the original press release from Nottingham University Business School.

The story seems to have originated from the the PA, who’d done a very shoddy job in covering it:

Resort’s winning formula hailed
Academics have claimed new Premiership heroes Blackpool as living proof of a formula predicting the resurgence of the fading Lancashire resort.

The equation is based on how different social classes interact to make or break a holiday resort.

Nottingham University Business School used the rise, fall and renaissance of Bath since its 18th-century heyday as the original basis for the theory. But now they claim Blackpool’s return to top-flight football shows the formula applies.

“Academics have claimed” is a classic fudge which often really means “We got sent a press release and can’t be bothered to actually find out any more about the story so we’re just going to make it fuzzy round the edges and hope no one notices”. It’s no wonder that people thought it was nonsense. It had all the signs.

It turns out that the story is actually based on a published paper:

The rise, fall and renaissance of the resort: a simple economic model
Author: Swann, G.M. Peter
Source: Tourism Economics, Volume 16, Number 1, March 2010, pp. 45-62(18)
Publisher: IP Publishing Ltd

When he found out, Ben apologised both on Twitter and on his own Posterous.

BenGoldacre: .@samiraahmedc4 humblest apologies, all the outward signs of bullshit were there, and was impossible to tell from PA report. sorry!

Many of his followers who had been rude to Samira also apologised to her.

Now, normally, this little spat wouldn’t be worth blogging about. A disagreement between people on Twitter that resolves amicably is barely worth a second thought. It happens all the time.

But the idea that, after the friendly apology, it was all water under the bridge is a little undermined by Samira’s article in today’s Independent about it, which in my opinion not only sports a lot of unnecessary ad hom attacks, but also fails to draw the most important conclusions from this storm in a teacup.

The title, Samira Ahmed: Targeted by the ruthless Twittermob, sets a poor tone from the off. I’ve had a look through the Tweets and “ruthless Twittermob” it was not. Snarky, rude, inconsiderate and thoughtless group, yes. But ruthless mob?

Samira begins by explaining that she is new to Twitter and had got some advice from “old Twitter hands”:

1. Twitter works best as a two way networking tool – asking as much as telling. And 2. Scientists, and the writer Ben Goldacre in particular, can get a bit aggressive on it.

The first piece of advice is good. The second is both a sweeping generalisation in regards to scientists and an ad hom towards Ben.

I flagged this second sentence up on Twitter, and Samira told me that it had been added by the sub and that she was unhappy about it, so we’ll have to take the entire piece as an amalgam of Samira’s own writing and the Indy’s sub’s writing, as we have no way of telling them apart.

Update: Whist writing this, this sentence has been updated to: “2. The science writer Ben Goldacre can get a bit aggressive on it.”

But getting the first, now even sharper, ad hom against Ben in before the end of the first paragraph makes me wonder what the point of this piece is. If all is forgiven and everyone has apologised, why go to a national newspaper to drag everything over the coals again? Was this piece written to examine the phenomenon of herd-like behaviour online and the psychology that might explain it? Or to have a stab at Ben and by association, his newspaper, The Guardian?

The second para takes another swipe at Ben, about how he got “his science facts wrong and launch[ed] a personal attack on my journalistic integrity.” Ben commented before checking the facts, and then apologised when he realised the formula was real. He shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions like that, but I do feel Samira’s overstating her case a bit. Here are his tweets in order, so you can make up your own mind:

.@SamiraAhmedC4 no, you just have to say “by reading this out, i have lost all respect for myself as a journalist”     6:07 PM Aug 16th

any nerd bloggers who want to pre-mock C4 News, looks like theyre covering this bullshit http://bit.ly/cmBfBx http://bit.ly/98aJKC    6:12 PM Aug 16th

.@SamiraAhmedC4 i’ve written a lot on this kind of lame non-journalism, some of it in this category here: http://bit.ly/dBGWLX     Mon 16 Aug 17:17:53 2010

.@SamiraAhmedC4 youre the one in a position to judge, all i can see is an “equation” with no terms defined. put press release online for us?     Mon 16 Aug 17:40:22 2010

.@alexbellos @samiraahmedC4 haha no, wait, for the first time in media history, this is actually a real formula! http://bit.ly/9xolOM     Mon 16 Aug 17:46:54 2010

Reading on in the Indy article we find a yet another ad hom:

We all enjoy self-styled sheriffs like Goldacre roaming the web setting their posses on quack doctors. But journalists like me, who work for major news broadcasters, operate under a code of conduct broadly similar to our television content.

I’m not sure where to start on that one, other than if Ben’s comment was an attack on Samira’s journalistic integrity, that doesn’t make it ok for her to attack his.

The lessons Samira draws are that reputation is important, Twitter isn’t about broadcasting, and that it’s a good tool for finding new voices. That’s all fair. But she misses some other key lessons from her particular experience:

1. Understand the culture of the community you are entering
This is the first thing that I tell all my clients who want to use social media. It’s 20% tools, 80% people and if you don’t understand how people relate to each other in the context of the community you are trying to be a part of, you will make a mistake. Samira’s mistake was in not understanding that posting a formula and asking how to pronounce without providing either context or source could be misinterpreted.

The lesson from this should have been that if you ask for help with something scientific, provide a link to your source material first. That source material should be the academic paper if you have one or the press release if you don’t. If you’re writing a story based on a press release, be really, really careful what you say.

2. Twitter escalates the bad and the good, irrespective
Twitter does great things, spreading the word about important issues or worthy causes. But Twitter is made up of humans, and humans sometimes get things wrong. In those cases, bad words will spread just as far, just as fast. This is unfortunate, but it is pretty predictable.

The lesson here would be that when something goes bad, try to understand what happened and why, and then nip it in the bud as fast as possible. Samira failed to provide context and without context the formula looked like nonsense. Rather than asking Ben to DM or email, it might have been more effective for Samira to hunt down the original paper (which she should have had to hand anyway) and post the link to that on Twitter. Although Samira mentioned “Nott U biz school” on Twitter, it seems she didn’t link to the paper itself.

3. Everyone makes mistakes
On Twitter especially. Everyone, from @StephenFry on down, at some point Tweets something that they later regret. From public messages that should have been DMs to snarky comments that one later regrets, pretty much everyone says something daft on Twitter eventually.

This lesson’s easy. With great power comes great responsibility. Ben should understand that with 57,004 followers, he has great power. I understand his temptation to snark first and ask questions later, but some pre-snark research may well have changed his mind about what to Tweet and saved everyone some hassle.

Neither Ben nor Samira have covered themselves in glory here. And normally, I wouldn’t even bother covering this spat, if that had been all it was. But I get a little cross about these sorts of ‘Twittermob’ stories, because they remind me of the old school “The internet is full of axe-wielding murderers” stories that used to get published so often a decade ago (and still do by the red tops). That’s just wrong. They show a distinct lack of understanding of Twitter and social media in general and extrapolate too far from personal experience, emphasising the bad and generally ignoring that it’s well outweighed by the good. That has the potential to dissuade people from taking part in what can actually be a vibrant, supporting, intelligent, friendly place. And we’re all the poorer for that.

Update 22:40: Samira has emailed me to ask if I would post a full set of her own Tweets, which I am happy to do. I had to take the timestamps out from what Samira sent me as unfortunately they had gotten all mangled, but they are in reverse chronological order, and there are more after the jump.

@katebevan to quote my favourite fictional science officer the whole experience has been….. fascinating.

@BlakeCreedon Thankyou so much.

@Schroedinger99 Thankyou for the apology.

And all this before the story’s even aired. Latecomers start here: http://bit.ly/9EZtyU

@bengoldacre Gracious apology graciously accepted.

next time, eh?

Wish you’d all been here to back me complain over dropping story of Pope’s visit to Holocaust memorial in favour of Peter Andre’s divorce.

How about a story about scientists who don’t research properly before launching attacks on factchecking journalists?

davethelimey: So, how many of @bengoldacre’s (probably) well-intentioned followers will be apologising to @samiraahmedc4? Retweeted by you and 6 others

Duffed up on the Twitter street. Then picked up and dusted down. Could the rest of you say sorry too? And thanks for those who helped.

bengoldacre: .@samiraahmedc4 humblest apologies, all the outward signs of bullshit were there, and was impossible to tell from PA report. sorry! Retweeted by you and 7 others

@rogerhighfield I think he’s stopped now.

@alexbellos For what it’s worth, I didn’t put it in the running order. I just spotted it and thought to ask.

Remember that bit in Wargames when Matthew Broderick’s friend tells the computer guy when he’s being too aggressive?You’re doing it now.

@kashfarooq savage is the word.

@rogerhighfield Rog, Rog. Where are you Roger???

@pauljakma Yup. That is true.

keepstherainoff: @samiraahmedc4 It’s fair to ask us to check if it’s science before having a go. Did they tell you what the letters stood for? Not in the PR  Retweeted by you

One question @bengoldacre If they hadn’t couched it as a maths formula, is there anything wrong in Nott U biz school analysing the issue?

It’s like being savaged by Mr Burns’ hounds. Thx to those of you who bothered to explain courteously why you say it’s not news.

@bengoldacre DM and i’ll give you email address.

@bengoldacre Why don’t you email me about why Nott Univ’s Blackpool formula is not real science before releasing the hounds?

Damn Was just about to say to @max_sang please, please no.. don’t set @bengoldacre on me.

It’s the formula to explain how Blackpool (like Bath before it) is becoming classier.

MATHS HELP! Do I need to say “comma” if I read out this formula tonight: p(h,r)=u(h,r)-pr=g(h, Zr)+f1[h, m(o,r)]+f2[h, m(o,r)]+E-pr.

18 thoughts on “Silly season’s here again

  1. Ben Goldacre didn’t “get his science facts wrong.” He criticised a television station for running a news item based on a press release, which they hadn’t checked against other sources. As Samira said herself: “Spotting a story my colleague had written, based on Press Association copy about the urban renewal of Blackpool, I saw a suspiciously complex looking formula. I tweeted it and asked my followers about the pronunciation of the mathematical symbols in it.”

    Note that she didn’t ask whether the science was any good, she just wanted advice on how to pronounce it. In context, Ben’s suggestion that “by reading this out, I have lost all respect for myself as a journalist” was fair comment, and witty enough to remind me of Doon MacKichan on the satirical news programme The Day Today.

    I take two points from this: first, that scientists like Ben and Dr. Petra Boynton are absolutely right to criticise news media if they don’t query whether press releases are faithful to the primary sources. Secondly, The Independent didn’t just put a poorly chosen headline on a good story. Every paragraph was slanted to make Ben look like the bad guy, and the phrase “Reputation is the key”, while absolutely true, is IMHO utterly disingenuous.

    I’d also point out that as well as Ben being scrupulously generous in his apologies, the whole incident lasted a mere 40 minutes.

  2. To be honest, Gordon, there was more I could have taken issue with, but the post was long enough as it was. You’re right to say that Samira asked about pronunciation rather than whether the story was a good/dud one – had she asked if it was any good, she would have got a different response, I think. The request for pronunciation help rather implied she’d already decided it would be a good story to run with.

  3. I’ve rummaged around in Google and found the original press release from Nottingham University Business School As Ben said, it’s an equation with no terms defined.

    Rory Cellan-Jones has pointed out that I ought not to say that Channel 4 didn’t check the story, and I accept that maybe they did. I inferred from Samira’s Independent article and Ben’s Twitter stream that C4’s journalists were working from a press release, and the original peer referenced journal came to light during the Twitter ‘Spat’.

    In the interests of even more scrupulous over sharing, I’d like to out myself as a social scientist.(I’m doing a PhD in science and technology policy.) One of the reasons I regularly feel irritated by equations is that social scientists study things, like the economic and cultural development of holiday resorts, which it makes no sense whatsoever to reduce to formulae, but then they feel under pressure to present their ideas in the form of equations because science is still quite snobbish that way. So I share the natural scientists’ annoyance with the standard of science reporting, but I also wish the natural scientists would cut us social types some slack, so we can tell our stories properly and not feel we have to dress them up with pretentious algebra.

  4. Going back to the original tweet, the moral of the story is: Don’t read out a complex mathematical formula unless absolutely necessary. It’s a written equation and trying to pronounce it would maximize the potential for errors (making the journalist sound foolish) and would, most likely, alienate the audience from the story. Occam’s razor, surely?

  5. Really good summary of what happened, and I think you make some important points. Particularly, you’re right to draw attention to Ben’s great debunking work, and the previous equation pseudo-science stories, and the fact that it’s silly season. However, whatever the rights and wrongs of this particular episode, I feel that we as scientists are failing in our duty to improve the public’s lamentable understanding of science if we allow ourselves, in our desire to be “skeptical”, to take an antagonistic approach when a journalist asks what we may consider to be a daft scientific question.

    I’ve also blogged myself about this today (http://bit.ly/a5zJP4), making the point that it’s surely in the interests of everyone who wants better science reporting to engage constructively with journalists to improve on their ignorance (as we may see it), rather than be sarcastic or abusive. Otherwise, the consequence will only be that they will in future write their stories without bothering to speak to a scientist, and our opportunity to help influence and guide them to write more considered, skeptical, evidence-based stories will be lost.

  6. Suw – I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to imply that Samira should have asked if the story was a good/dud one – don’t forget, as it turns out, the story WAS good, and she was merely asking for a quick confirmation of pronunciation.

  7. A minor point:

    “The title, Samira Ahmed: Targeted by the ruthless Twittermob, sets a poor tone from the off.”

    This will have been written by a sub at the Indy, rather than by Samira Ahmed herself.

  8. Seems to me BG original tweet was right on the money – why would a journalist be attempting to read out a mathematical sounding equation anyway?

    When does anyone read out mathematical formulae? I don’t think they even read them out at academic conferences – unless it is followed by extremely close examination of what the terms mean.

    SA was clearly tweeting out of ignorance and attempting to give the piece some suggestion of rigour that didn’t wasn’t justified by a simple press release. ‘Scientist comes up with equation to explain why x city is better than y city’ wouldn’t be a story at any other time of year, it being totally ridiculous without any context.

    Of course, that doesn’t justify any further mobbish behaviour by BG or anyone else.

  9. A few of clarifications:
    1. I don’t like the “ruthless” headline either.Made me wince. Not my idea. Why I like being in broadcast not print. And compared to having to deal with illegal hate mail, like both @bengoldacre and I have to deal with day to day, no it wasn’t. I never said anything about those who flamed me, except to ask them to say sorry after @bengoldacre had the good grace to apologise publically.
    2. C4 bosses had the right to demand changes of my copy(my point about being held accountable for the prog’s reputation). What actually got submitted after substantial tweaks had a sweeping generalisation added that I’d never written or noticed before — about all scientists being potentially aggressive on twitter. The Indie took it out online when I asked them too.
    3. It’s a fact that a very good science journo who knows both me and Ben well told me, wryly when I first went on Twitter that @bengoldacre “could be a bit aggressive” on it. It turned out to be amusingly relevant. Not meant as an ad hom attack.
    4. Calling Ben a “sheriff” was lighthearted, and actually, a compliment. I like Westerns a lot. There was a reference to Quackdoctors, too. (I wonder who?)
    5. Why don’t you post my tweets too with Ben’s so people can see it was a short and dignified exchange that ended very quickly?(40 min) We also DMed a fair bit, and are doing fine, thanks.
    6. The piece got edited down from 1,000 words to nearer 700 so all the colour and humour — including fun and witty apologies from flamers — got lost. It’s a shame as I enjoyed the exchanges. I think they did too.
    7. It was good to be reminded not to be lazy about PR masquerading as science. Thx for that. But the article was an opportunity to make people aware ( and I don’t think many were) of the scale of the 2-way interaction and its opportunities for non-journos to help shape the news agenda and the risk of jeopardising that quite new relationship with mob abuse.
    8. There was a line in my original article about how good it is when reporters get involved in comment threads. This is what I meant.

  10. When I write a blog post all the words in the blog post and the title are entirely my responsibility. It seems unfortunate for Samira that isn’t the case for her writing as a professional journalist since the tone of her piece was changed quite substantially by forces beyond her control.

    Back to the original question: who reads out equations? You scribble them (usually illegibly or incorrectly, or both), or battle with the equation editor of your choice to get them into an electronic document 😉

  11. Thanks for all the comments, and thanks for giving us some additional thoughts, Samira.

    @ everyone who said it: I agree that there are almost no circumstances where reading out a complex formula on the news is a good idea. P = NP is one thing. p(h,r)=u(h,r)-pr=g(h, Zr)+f1[h, m(o,r)]+f2[h, m(o,r)]+E-pr would make no sense whatsoever without extensive explanation that would pretty much kill the story dead.

    @Jon: I understand that it can get frustrating for people who continually debunk shitty science coverage as they get steeped in it a bit too much, but I totally agree that we achieve more when we maintain a friendly demeanour. I think Ben’s reaction was unnecessarily harsh and, although he’s a friend, I’m happy to tell him that. 😀

    @Rowan: Although the story turned out to be “good”, in so far as it was based on a genuine paper, she was basing her interest on an article a colleague had written, not on reading the original paper or its abstract. Her bullshit detectors should have been primed and suspicious, because this story had all the hallmarks of PR nonsense. Asking about the merits of the story would have given her a very different response to asking how to pronounce a formula, something that no news presenter should be doing anyway.

    @Joe Mahon: Yes, the subs wrote the headline, but we have to recognise that the story will be read as a whole, and the headline was a fiction. Of course the Indy have previous on this, cg Zoe Margolis’ recent libel case against them for a defamatory headline they put on one of her articles.

    @Samira: Thank you for taking the time to join in the discussion. Re your point 3, whether you meant to ad hom Ben when recounting the advice that he could get a bit aggressive is by the by. It was playing the man and not the ball. Re point 4, again, although your intentions were good it just didn’t come across the way to me. Re point 5, thank you for sending me your tweets. I’ve added them to the post for you. Re point 6, again, unfortunate that the humour got edited out. I still wonder if you weren’t unwittingly drawn into a inter-newspaper spat, where the Indy saw a good opportunity to have a stab at a Guardian writer and you were just a great way to achieve that whilst the Indy appeared ‘impartial’ (although with that subbing, clearly they weren’t). Point 7/8, we’ve been talking about the risks and opportunities for 2-way communications has been discussed for as long as I’ve been a social media consultant, i.e. long before the phrase ‘social media’ was invented. Kevin wrote a blogging strategy for the BBC in 2005 which discussed 2-way comms, as did Tom Coates in 2003. It isn’t new, and there are better ways of discussing it.

    @SmallCasserole: The problem with writing from personal experience for a newspaper is that it can get subbed to hell and back, and you have no control over it whatsoever. One has to be really very careful about what one writes when there’s potential for it to be subbed into something else.

  12. I don’t know if Samaira is still around, but was she aware of the rather juvenile attacks on BG previously published by the indy, written by Jeremy Laurance in reaction to a relatively broad article BG wrote about science and health reporting?
    http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/features/jeremy-laurance-dr-goldacre-doesnt-make-everything-better-1994017.html

    and BG’s response
    http://www.badscience.net/2010/06/jeremy-laurance-is-an-angry-man/

    It looks like she may have been used as ammunition in what is becoming an interesting rivalry between the two papers science sections.

  13. “Re your point 3, whether you meant to ad hom Ben when recounting the advice that he could get a bit aggressive is by the by. It was playing the man and not the ball. ”

    And what was the phrase: ‘no, you just have to say “by reading this out, i have lost all respect for myself as a journalist”?’

  14. Meh. First stone cast by Mr. Goldacre- think Samaira comes out pretty well. There is an irony about broadcasting criticism of someone for for not checking their facts, without first checking your facts.

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